What role does design play in sustaining the earth? “The biggest role,” says writer, journalist, and Merchant of Virtue author Bill Birchard. An environmental advocate and proponent of business sustainability, Birchard shared with us his thoughts on caring for the earth, the importance of measuring environmental performance, and of course, design.
There’s always a lot of press coverage around Earth Day. It’s hard to know whether we’re doing better or worse at caring for the earth. What’s your view?
I think it’s useful to distinguish between consumers and companies. As a consumer, it’s sometimes hard to see whether we’re doing much better. On the corporate side, we’re doing a lot better. And that’s significant, because corporations have a huge amount of leverage compared to consumers. A recent Sloan/MIT study showed that 68% of companies had increased their commitment to sustainability in the last year, compared to just 25% doing so two years ago. Companies still have a long way to go, but the trend toward greater responsibility by the most powerful institutions on earth—corporations—appears irreversible.
We’re a company that uses design to solve problems. What role do you think design can play in sustaining the earth?
Design governs how products are sourced, manufactured, used, and disposed of. So what role does design play? The biggest role. In the 1990s, a number of “green” leaders inside Herman Miller and other companies recognized this, and now many companies are designing products for cradle-to-cradle environmental responsibility, a notion championed by Bill McDonough. The most visible example at Herman Miller is the design and redesign of the Aeron chair. (I sit in one.) It’s nice to know it’s made of 53% recycled material (like soda bottles) and in turn is 94% recyclable. Only with smart, forward-thinking design can manufacturing companies move toward mimicking the cycles of nature, where all waste and worn-out goods from manufacturing eventually cycle back into new goods.
What examples of design and design thinking from around the world have you seen that have sustainability at their core?
Examples with sustainability at their core are hard to find because almost everything man creates these days requires fossil fuel to manufacture or operate. Of course, concepts like cradle-to-cradle design, biomimickry, and dematerialization are leading us in the right direction. In the meantime, it’s important to be reminded of how solutions guided by sustainability can yield breakthroughs that in hindsight are so simple and obvious. In the developing world, one of my favorite examples is the soda-bottle light. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at this Reuters video, which features an effort in the Philippines. Designers everywhere can be inspired by its ingenuity. It pays immediate dividends in improving people’s lives and saving fossil fuel.
If you could do one thing to care for the earth, what would it be? How about the one thing you’d want everyone to do?
I would keep on urging companies to measure their environmental performance. My first book was called Counting What Counts. It argued that the way for companies to improve their performance was to measure and report all the things that mattered. Numbers drive results. There’s no getting around it. So pressing leaders to set goals and measure environmental performance—something everyone can do in their working life—is a powerful way to make progress in caring for the earth. As management thinker Charles Handy says, “Counting makes it visible, and counting makes it count.”
What insights, discoveries, or lessons learned from your research and writing can all of us apply to advocating for the environment?
I titled one of the chapters in Merchants of Virtue “Magic Zero.” I chose the title because, as I was writing, I realized that company managers who set goals to reach zero—zero landfill, zero brown energy, zero products designed unsustainably—create a sort of magic. After all their people get over complaining about the impossibility of actually achieving the goal, they try things they would never have dreamed of if they were just planning to improve something a bit at a time. So my belief is that we should all advocate in our organizations for giant leaps—to achieve zero in one helpful way or another to reduce our environmental footprints. Given a little time to “redesign” our approach, we achieve breakthroughs—like the elimination of once-ubiquitous solvent emissions in manufacturing like toluene and xylene. Zero lights up people’s imaginations.