Why Sustainability Should Be at the Heart of the Creative Process

Designers Accord Unites the Design Community Around Environmental, Social Responsibility

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There's no shortage of advice out there for people and companies looking to embrace social and environmental responsibility in a more meaningful way (why, no less august a personage than Tommy Lee is now available to show one how to "give waste the finger," according to a banner on AdAge.com's home page plugging Discovery's new green cable channel).

At the core of the sustainability issue, though, is the stuff marketers are creating and the means by which that stuff is created, so we have to look first at how designers and the corporations they work for are putting that issue at the heart of their process. In a piece on this subject in the new issue of Creativity, which you should, of course, read, noted designer Bruce Mau observed: "Design is the method by which we will overcome the great challenges we face. If we don't make it beautiful, we won't have a future." In other words, solutions have to have a green ethos, but they also have to just be good. So how much of this long-term, sustainable thinking is incorporated into design process in the brand world?

A year ago, Valerie Casey launched the Designers Accord as a means to unite the design community around environmental and social responsibility. Her plan: to tap the collective intelligence of the design world so all players can feed into and from a pool of practical information, so that sustainability becomes an intrinsic part of the design process for all. Design companies that adopt the accord agree to a set of guidelines. Among them: a pledge to initiate discussion of environmental impact with every client, internal education efforts, assessment of the firm's carbon footprint and contribution to the DA thought pool.

One year on, the idea has caught on. The DA has gone from 450 participants to 100,000 design companies, educators and corporations from 100 countries. Casey, who also works as global global practice head of digital experiences at IDEO, says there's lots of evidence that design firms "are muscularly, religiously, nervously, enthusiastically experimenting with and integrating sustainability practices into their work." The DA offers a counterpoint to the competitive model in the creative community, offering a more collaborative model, says Casey (she dubs it "co-opetition").

The next phase of the Designers Accord will be a web platform, scheduled to launch in beta this summer. Casey says the web resource will compile and make public all the design wisdom that's shared informally among designers and at conferences and provide a place for the community to share case studies, ask questions, and post resources and opinions.

As for corporations looking to embrace sustainability in a more significant way, Casey recommends looking beyond tarting up existing products. "To 'green' a product misses the point," she says. "Our goal with sustainability should be to change the way people consume and the way industry behaves. In order to do this, we have to take an integrated approach, where sustainability is one of the key frameworks that influence the early decision making on the project. When thought of in the context of business and brand, sustainability rounds out the hat trick for product success."

For marketing, Casey also points to the importance of strategic change, making the external story "match an authentic internal story. Marketing should never try to compensate—through advertising—for the truth," she says. Casey says the age of "predigesting messages" is over. "Complex challenges often have complex solutions. Marketers are expert at communicating—but that skill could be used more surgically and productively to tell the significant stories of our time."

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and Creativity-Online.com.
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