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Adam Werbach: Make Sustainability “Irresistible”

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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.


A little bit about Werbach. He was president of the Sierra Club at 23. He founded Act Now in 1998 to engage the corporate and media world in sustainability. He declared a death of environmentalism shortly thereafter in the hopes that it would rise from the ashes and return in a new form. And this was because he was convinced that activism doesn’t work. Namely because he was working with a set of rules and solutions that were created by an earlier generation. It was complaint-based, not solution-oriented. It was unpopular, elite, and it was too slow.

So, Wal-Mart (where Werbach works as a consultant). Half of America walked into one in the last year. 1/100 of Americans have worked at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is America. So if you want to make a change in America, you better do it at Wal-Mart.

Making sustainability irresistible is not conventional carrot vs. organic carrot. It’s conventional carrot vs. Double Stuff Oreos. No one wants carrots, let’s be real. So Werbach realized if he could make carrots more irresistible to Wal-Mart, it might make a difference. So he started by talking to Wal-Mart employees. For them, sustainability is aspirational–eating healthy, spending time with their families, saving money. And they came up with this:

Personal Sustainability Practice
1) Sustains the environment
2) Makes you happy
3) It’s repeatable
4) And requires you to take visible action

10 sustainability captains were named at each store, and within six months it had spread to every Wal-Mart and Sams Club store. Today, about 70% of employees are still keeping up with their PSPs (and they still have about a 30% turnover, so that’s truly amazing).

The part of America who does not work at Wal-Mart thinks of sustainability as political, global and impossible. These people think of it as health, wellness and diet…and completely do-able. When they see an article about global warming, he says, they think, “Don’t eat that Twinkie!” Just because it’s a little bit better.

So the elitism? We gotta get over that. This is your audience. We all know about the sweeping changes overtaking Wal-Mart at the moment (more on Werbach’s role) Every brand carried by Wal-Mart needs to show them some sustainable changes in the next five years in order to still be carried there, and those brands will looking to designers to craft every part of that message. That’s you!!! Five new sustainable haircare lines will be on the shelves by April. So what are you going to do about that? Werbach says:

1) Do not be frivolous in price. Make this a revolution. And not just for Mac users.
2) Don’t accept an incremental change, when there’s a massive change to be had (no organic Double Stuff Oreos!)
3) And don’t be fooled by fluff. We don’t have time to be sentimental. We have to change things now.

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