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Compostmodern 2009 is Just Around the Corner


In the past, you might recall that we were on the ground for the last few annual Compostmodern events held in San Francisco thanks to that city’s AIGA chapter. Unfortunately, we are bound to our respective more-eastern coasts this winter (because we love to freeze?) and won’t be able to make it. But you don’t need us to attend things, as we’re certain you’ve grown as a person since you’ve been reading us on a regular basis, we think you’ve built up a lot of confidence, and we believe in you. Besides, if years prior are any judge, our friends at this event, both hosting and guest speaking, are going to kick it extra hard. Here are all of the important details:

Compostmodern 09 will be held at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco on Saturday, February 21. The event will be webcast live and will be available for 90 days following, encouraging online participation and satellite events at AIGA chapters and educational institutions everywhere. This year’s conference demonstrates how sustainable solutions converge as design, ecology, social activism, business, and economics intersect. Speakers include Eames Demetrios of Eames Office, Saul Griffith of Makani Power, Allan Chochinov of Core 77, California College of the Arts (CCA) Design MBA Chair Nathan Shedroff, climate strategist Michel Gelobter, John Bielenberg and Pam Dorr of Project M and the HERO Housing Resource in Alabama, Emily Pilloton of Project H Design, and Autodesk Sustainable Design Program Manager Dawn Danby. GreenBiz editor and sustainability author Joel Makower will reprise his role as emcee.

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Post-Compostmodern: Now What?


We’d be lying to you, dear readers, if we didn’t admit that before this weekend’s Compostmodern conference, we were in a very bad place.

Maybe it’s just the typical occupational hazard that comes with being a blogger. But when you’re bombarded, every day, with designers touting the eco-sensibility of their newest utterly useless product you should buy for only $499.99, architects who want to be praised for using some non-toxic paint on their latest 500,000 square foot monstrosity, and creative people using up valuable resources to launch misdirected movements about using up valuable resources, it’s enough to make us want to reach our hands through internet until we can wrangle the mouse from their smug little hands and whack them over the head with it until they get it.

So when spoken word artist Dawn Maxey stood up and read her little poem on eco-hype yesterday (read the full text), we wanted to run up on stage and kiss her. Oh, how we feel you, sister.

Valerie Casey addressed that eco-fatigue we’ve all been feeling. But she coupled it with a very interesting point about movements in general–they spike, then dip, then slowly gain more solid acceptance over time. So don’t despair, we’re all just feeling that spike. The dip has yet to come.

Except now, this movement belongs clearly to designers. Activism didn’t work, said Adam Werbach. We are in need of better stories, said Alex Steffen. We need to stop making stuff, said everybody. And Casey made a great argument for why designers by nature are perfect to spearhead change. But when Casey showed the slide above, which was sent to her by, in her words, a “very prominent and well-known designer,” it really got us fired up. Because every single company we heard represented at this conference–Mark Galbraith and Nau, Jane Savage and Nike, General Electric and VSA Partners, yes, even Werbach and Wal-Mart–has realized the importance of not just being designer-centric, but being designer-dependent in order to make big changes. People: There. Is. No. One. Else.

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Adam Werbach: Make Sustainability “Irresistible”


Adam Werbach opens the closing keynote of Compostmodern by saying something very simple. We need leaders. We need leaders and you are in the sweet spot. Designers need to exercise the power you have because you own the process that needs to be changed.

Then he says he has to speak honestly and he’s probably going to offend someone in this talk. Goody!

The Industrial Revolution is not only over, it’s falling apart. Now we’re in something else–call it the Sustainable Revolution, if you want. Some people are waiting for a crisis to take action, but it’s already here. The oil is gone and there’s a dengue fever outbreak in Texas and the ocean already rose up and swallowed the city of New Orleans. The stone age didn’t end because they ran out of rocks, he quips. The slide rule didn’t just “go out of style.” Things don’t change unless we have something better to replace it. The Industrial Revolution won’t end because it’s not working anymore, it will end when we make sustainability irresistible.

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Valerie Casey Introduces the Designers Accord


Jessie Scanlon‘s article sets it up perfectly. Valerie Casey (who used to be at frog, now at IDEO) was on her third cross-country flight that month and had just seen An Inconvenient Truth when it hit her. She decided to start doing some research. She came across an albatross carcass which had 1036 pieces of plastic in it. And she learned about giant sections of the open ocean where all the floating plastic in the world seems to congregate. She was suffering from acute apocaphilia (aka exposure to climate porn) and she was having something that sustainability guru Ray Anderson calls the “spear-in-the-heart” moment. Because her slides were so awesome, we’re going to include as many as we can.


She decided to start putting together a plan that positioned designers as the leaders of this movement. Apparently, not all designers felt the same way.

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Sustainability at Nike, Considered By Jane Savage


Around 2000, Nike was getting targeted as one of the big companies around the world for their manufacturing (do we need to remind you of the sweatshop labor rallies?) Why do you think Phil Knight got really defensive about all that? It turns out it was because they already had a big program underway. Jane Savage is one of those people who was busy building sustainability into the products. They’ve started a program that’s not Nike-branded, and not even specifically “sustainable”–it’s Considered Design, with a URL launching later this year. It’s a design philosophy that combines sustainability and innovation, across their holdings.

Nike’s corporate headquarters is a model of sustainability, with record numbers of people biking or using public transit to get to work. A building on that same Beaverton campus was the first existing building to be rated LEED Gold (it was designed by William McDonough). They used to be the largest purchaser of organic cotton, until Wal-Mart converted. They publish all the names of every vendor they work with. They also share their technologies with others in the footwear industry.

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Dawn Maxey’s Eco-Backlash Poetry Is Totally Refreshing


As a wonderful pre-lunch appetizer, Dawn Maxey, a spoken word artist, gave the crowd at Compostmodern an earful (in a good way). Her poem about the women who pile their carts full of organic goods at Whole Foods, sport the “this is not a plastic bag” bags–and by the way, they have seven Priuses, did they tell you?–because it’s trendy, was a highlight of the morning. Maxey gave us the full text of the poem, which we’ve included below, but we enjoyed this line in particular:

See, it’s gone from a Pri-us to a Pri-ME.
it’s all about how cool I can be

Check out more of Maxey’s work at her homepage, the Stanford Spoken Word Collective and YouthSpeaks.

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VSA’s Jeff Walker Uses His Ecomagination


So all this talk about sustainability here at Compostmodern is great, but what about those evil gigantor corporations that Alex Steffen showed slides of in his presentation? You know, like, say, um…General Electric? VSA Partners’ Jeff Walker (who we are not related to, but did share a cab with last night) was charged with greening GE using a program called Ecomagination. Don’t roll your eyes quite yet.

Walker says that VSA has actually been working for GE for a long time (along with lots of other big brands) and the difference between GE’s strides and their other clients are that GE sees green as a business proposition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. GE’s decision to greenify came after the corporate disasters like Enron and after the company’s leadership shifted from Jack Welch to Jeff Immelt. It was also part of their moving towards a more creative core mission (and we say, a design-centric one) that went all the way back GE’s founder, Thomas Edison: invention, innovation, and imagination.

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Mark Galbraith Says the Smarter Apparel Company Starts Nau


Portland-based Nau is an almost one-year-old outdoor apparel company formed by smart people who came from Marmot, Nike and Patagonia, and VP of product design Mark Galbraith is the super design-centric person who sources Nau’s responsible materials and fabrication. Founder Eric Reynolds based the company on a philosophy called UTW (that would be “Unfuck the World”). So why start a company at all? Well, to exert some control or influence on culture, for one. But Nau’s mission was also to take design as a philosophical basis for changing the way business is done (woohoo!).


The Nau product is just the physical representation of that philosophy; they established an Ideal Garment Criteria. First they really tried to twist the traditional uses for certified, responsible organic cottons and wools (no hemp-y, crunchy fabrics here), as well as polyester made from post-consumer waste. The clothes themselves are designed with recyclability in mind so they can deconstruct your parka easily. Another material, polylactic acid (PLA), is made from corn.

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Joel Makower and Alex Steffen: How Good Is Good Enough?


Sustainability is like teenage sex, says Joel Makower, the fantastic Compostmodern moderator (Compostmoderator?). “Everybody says they’re doing it but no one really is. And those who are doing it aren’t doing it very well.”

In all seriousness, says Makower, who has been greenblogging at GreenBiz before it was called ‘green’ or ‘blogging,’ we don’t have an answer for a simple question: How good is good enough? Is what we’re doing really making a difference? Is this the best it can be? We have no way of knowing any of that. And this is the question we should try to find an answer to today.

Alex Steffen of Worldchanging, gave a few suggestions (and might we mention we met the delightful Sarah Rich last night, who edited the Worldchanging book). Steffen switched up his presentation a little bit from the last time we saw him in Denver. After a nice set up about the horrific consumer behavior of Americans (and once again, yes, we really are the problem, since we are the most bloated consumer culture on the planet), he revealed that the real problem is that Americans are just trained to want this luxurious upper middle class lifestyle. And not just a private jet, says Steffen, but a plasma-screened entertainment center with cushy ergonomic chairs on that private jet.


What we really need to aspire to a different kind of upper middle class lifestyle that cuts our impact by 80%. Heck, why not try for 90%? The two best things you can do? Don’t go so many places in a car to get things (or don’t have a car, or share one), and know the stories about how your things get to you (or share those things, too). You might really have to do some research but the answer is as simple as making a better map of your neighborhood, or finding the story behind your cafe-bought coffee cup. But those actions will ultimately make you infinitely more happy than dreaming of your flying home theater.