Sustainability has unquestionably achieved a stronger place in cultural exchange over the course of the past decade. What began as a conversation mostly lead by environmentalists has branched out to include proponents from all walks of life. As the topic dances in between the realms of a cultural movement and political correctness its growing traction allows “green” and “eco” to appear on more products, agendas, powerpoint presentations and even buildings. Undoubtedly, a meaningful portion of sustainability’s frontage is realized for reasons other than actually following its mindset, but is that okay? Does having individuals and corporations pitching “green” if they don’t really subscribe to the mantra help the movement enough to justify a thin sell?
Over the past two weeks I have run into a number of these instances where seemingly positive things actually gain their strength from very different motives. The result can be a tricky moral dilemma. One side can clearly say that progress is progress. Using sustainability as an example, the more companies that make green products or enact recycling programs in their workplace causes more people to become aware of the issue and begin making subtle changes to their lifestyles. With more frequency and repetition, positive changes could become the new standard regardless of whether or not the original intentions of the actions were completely genuine.
On the other hand, if actions are really only the product of a temporary mindset resulting from a well crafted argument, then it is only a matter of time before the argument changes due to any number of new cultural conditions. Instead of building ranks of true subscribers that are educated in the qualities and goals of sustainability (by the way, what does it mean?) the populace of fair-weather-fans end up dropping their ecological ways like a bad habit at the first sign of resistance.
Getting Things Done Green
Architecture serves as a prime example. Green building has exponentially increased in the profession to comprise a meaningful portion of total design and construction dollars. Entire industries have been constructed around the premise of decreasing a building’s environmental footprint: reclaimed materials, low-VOC finishes, energy efficient fixtures and appliances, the list is vast. In the U.S., a large percentage of green building falls under the banner of the LEED Rating System (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) run by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). A couple weeks ago, news was made when a man named Henry Gifford announced he was suing the USGBC to the tune of $100 million for misleading the American people the efficiency and energy savings of LEED buildings.
The merits, or lack thereof, of the claim are a conversation for a different article, but having worked on LEED buildings before I can attest to the fact that it is an imperfect system. There are also many buildings that end up being LEED for reasons that do not include a desire to be more sustainable. These could be a marketing pitch, local codes, or financial incentives. As an architect, it is only so often that I see a client who exclaims, “I want the greenest building you can make me! This should be an example of how everyone should build.” As nice as it is to meet those people, they are a rarity.
On the other hand, I have often said (like here) that the beauty of LEED is that it took green architecture and turned it into a product that Americans could purchase. It allowed name recognition for a progressive direction of our built environment while providing the government with a standard to set a benchmark to rate new projects against. I would argue that green building would not be as prominent today without the introduction of the LEED system.
So is it worthwhile to have a system that may not be designing perfect buildings but raises the bar above yesterday’s level while informing more Americans about sustainability? Is it okay to have developers build LEED buildings only because they think they can make more money from them?
Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
I found another example in an article by fellow blogger Kaid Benfield from the NRDC who wrote about how Apple renovated an entire subway station in Chicago, including the public plaza in front of it, when they opened a new store.
My first reaction was the one that many of us would take: great news! Here we have an example of a company giving back to the public sector and instead of just getting a new storefront, we get a public space and upgraded transit instead. However, it is probably fair to assume that the impetus behind the gesture included tax breaks and the likelihood of selling more iPhones.
A designer could most likely argue that the station and the public space could have been designed differently if a corporation interested in product sales was not writing the checks. Even one commenter on Benfield’s blog noted how drastically the station design catered to the new store. Was the integrity of the space compromised as a result of an ulterior motive of financial gain and marketing? From afar it is admittedly hard to say, but if the real reason of the investment was not philanthropy how long is it before the two goals diverge enough to be detrimental?
A last example on a broader scale is the International Humanitarian Aid given out by the United States to countries across the world. Every year the U.S. doles out tens of millions of dollars in aid funding to countries that helps supply a myriad of things from food to schools to disaster relief. These things often go to good things, however, to say that America gives out cash because we have a compassionate government is not exactly true. Our aid often goes to countries that we have trade agreements with for the purpose of gaining fiscal and policy leverage in other economies.
In that light, it kind of takes some of the shine off. Do new schools in a depressed African country outweigh the fact that federal officials are buying affirmation in foreign governments? For the families of the kids who have a new school it probably does, but what is that country sacrificing so that America can gain something else?
I would be interested in other opinions in what is decidedly a complicated, loaded topic. Admittedly, I think the justification depends on circumstance but when it comes to sustainability I think that having good things done for the wrong reason is providing more strength than detriment right now.
Sustainability’s spotlight is causing more restaurants to use 100% recycled paper for their napkins, more megawatts of renewable energy are coming online, more organizations have sustainability on their radar as something to consider as part of their image—but most importantly, the collective effect of all of those things are educating more people about sustainability as a concept and how it can find a more permanent place in our society.
The key is those of us who pitch the mindset not because we have something to gain, but because we believe in its merits should be using this time to have more conversations and bridge more gaps. Use the strength that non-believers are helping to create to carry the real message that much more clearly to those that are not just participating, but are really listening.