Co.Design

The Green Products Innovation Institute: Is This What "More Good" Looks Like?

Designers Accord

Last week I received five emails, forwarded from friends, with an announcement about the launch of the Green Products Innovation Institute, a type of green product certification based on Cradle to Cradle. In the email, victoriously headed "CRADLE TO CRADLE FOR ALL!," Yves Béhar, principle at industrial design firm fuseproject and a founding member of GPII, wrote: "Cradle to Cradle reconciles the notion of business growth WITH the health of the world and its people. It is simply THE future opportunity for change on a scale never achieved by the design profession, and the only reason big business, governments and consumers will be moved to a new way of making and consuming."

The emphatic zeal of all-caps always makes me a little nervous, even when they're coming from the cherubic Béhar (or the saintly Brad Pitt, who is also on the board). But the real anxiety came from the idea that the creator of Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough, was behind what feels like a LEED-for-product initiative. (I still can't get that awkward umbrella-wrestling image of McDonough from a 2008 Fast Company profile out of my mind). Like many others, I was utterly transformed by Cradle to Cradle (known in the industry as C2C), but McDonough's notorious trademarking of terms and processes has always felt out of sync with a new way of thinking that C2C advances. Could it be that McDonough and his partner Michael Braungart have really decided to "transfer and gift" their "intellectual property of 20 years" through GPII? If the GPII organization's two revenue streams are training assessors and certifying products, how does does that translate to this IP being in the "public domain"?

Also, the fact that the GPII is building on the model of LEED is worrying. Despite the openness and iterative efforts of USGBC, the governing council (also a nonprofit!) of the green architecture certification, LEED remains a contentious and fraught designation. Known to be highly expensive and frequently gamed for marketing purposes, LEED is based on a point system that provides a loosely constructed eco-snapshot at a building's opening, but does not monitor performance over time. (A new neighborhood-focused LEED, LEED-ND hopes to correct some of these issues.)

The problem with a checklist system like LEED is that product design is just not that simple. This conversation is especially loaded in our current age of awareness. Climate change, the global economic recession, and humanitarian conflicts influence our perspective in a new way. In the age of information, transparency, instant measurement and reporting, it's virtually impossible not to actively fold these considerations into each design decision, from software and packaging to architecture and infrastructure.

In fact, it was this rising sensitivity that inspired the creation of the Designers Accord-Fast Company partnership to publish weekly case studies in sustainability. Rather than traffic in the rhetoric of sustainable design, we decided to feature it in all of its complexity and variability. This series has been the first of its kind in a major publication and we've explored over two dozen stories ranging from fashion and consumer electronics to methodology and urban design, each tackling how and why something might be sustainable. For example, the Hippo Roller case study (seen above) was a great illustration of how focusing exclusively on eco-issues can make us lose sight of social benefits. The reason for the potpourri of disciplines, products, and services is that we recognize that sustainable design is about an ethos and value system, rather than a checklist. It's impossible to make decisions external to their context.

Full of questions, I contacted GPII's executive director Beth Rattner. I was surprised and delighted to find that Rattner, a former attorney, technologist, and erudite C2C scholar, was fully aware of all the issues that had fueled my skepticism. Rattner explained how GPII works as a blend of green chemistry and design thinking. On one hand, the Cal/EPA Green Chemistry Initiative and the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) Checklist provide the ballast for GPII. These are critical programs designed to reduce the numbers of toxic chemicals, and their effects, in everyday consumer goods. Through these programs, products are analyzed—an example from the Web site's FAQs reads: "A child's lunchbox was analyzed and found to contain 912 ppm lead and 172 ppm of cadmium, another toxic metal"—and safer alternatives recommended. California is leading the charge in this work, hence the involvement of Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, who provided a letter of endorsement for GPII.

But according to Rattner, this work is "not just about economy and ecology, it's about sharing and abundance." I learned that GPII is about going beyond green chemistry to incorporate design thinking to generate new ideas and alternatives in product design and development. While the green chemistry arm of GPII is both technical and political—it's tied to the governor's term and some rather specific legalese about what and who can be certified—the design thinking component is open, collaborative, and decidedly undesigned.

At every design firm I've worked at, the question of what good design looks like has been continuously and hotly debated. Culturally, we do share an aesthetic sensibility; it's the inevitable reality of being born into Anglo-European society. Since we know what design is supposed to look and feel like—though certainly lots of pixels and ink are spent on this discussion, the conversation often begins to revolve around why something should be designed. Should finite resources and time be dedicated to creating something for its own sake (vanity), instead of its value (usefulness)? I've seen seasoned designers almost reduced to blows around products like the Mint Cleaner, which incidentally is designed by Béhar. It's an elegant product, yet questionable in its commitment to sustainability. How would GPII address the value of this kind of product?

GPII seems to be moving into a new territory of realistically considering the multiplicity of issues that shape our design constraints, opportunities, and ultimate decisions. GPII is drawing from many models—C2C and The Natural Step, among others—and learnings from programs like LEED to create something substantial, rigorous, and productive. But it's the part about collaboration and open exchange that will be GPII's evidence of success. I, for one, won't just be waiting on the sidelines for the outcome, but will participate in any way I can to make sure that Béhar's email proclamation—"CRADLE TO CRADLE FOR ALL!"—truly comes to fruition.

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Valerie Casey is a globallyrecognized designer and innovator. She works with start-ups,governments, and companies all over the world on challenges rangingfrom creating new products and services, to transforming organizationalprocesses and behaviors. Valerie is the founder of the DesignersAccord, the global coalition of designers, educators, and businessleaders working together to create positive environmental and socialimpact. Valerie's work has been highlighted in multiple publications,and she has been named a "Guru" of the year by Fortune, a "Hero of the Environment" by Time, and a "Master of Design" by Fast Company.Valerie lectures on design throughout the international community, andis an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts. She holds amaster's degree in cultural theory and design from Yale University anda BA from Swarthmore College.

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