Words By Emily Pilloton
Photos By Jen Dessinger
In early 2007, on a plane returning to San Francisco from her third harried business trip of the month, the veteran designer Valerie Casey sensed the first unmistakable feelings of revolt. As an important player in the design world, Casey, 35, had been pitching new packaging and product-design strategies to corporate giants with less-than-stellar environmental resumes. Hesitant to even broach the topic of sustainability at the risk of scaring off her potential clients, and anguished at her own cowardice, she began, there on the plane, to write a "Kyoto Treaty" of design, a call to action for the design industry to turn away from environmentally irresponsible, profit-driven practices and commit itself to sustainability.
That impromptu manifesto has now been formalized as the Designers Accord, and a broad coalition of 100,000 designers, engineers, and corporate leaders have committed to the ideal of environmentally and socially responsible design. The accord gives actionable shape to the role and responsibility of designers. "The Designers Accord recognizes that the shared mind is more powerful than the individual alone," says Casey, "but that individual action is key to its success." Adopters must publicly declare their participation in the accord, initiate a dialogue about environmental responsibility with every client, put programs in place to reduce their carbon footprint annually, and teach employees about the importance of sustainable values in design.
In the old days, a firm hired to design packaging for a product might have suggested an inexpensive, highly functional material. Having adopted the Designers Accord, that same firm must now research and suggest more environmentally friendly materials, and try to convince its clients of the importance of using them. It doesn't sound like much, but as Casey says, change in the design world needs to start somewhere.
Almost a year and a half after its inception, eight of the most influential product design firms (the D8, as Casey calls them, in a witty nod to the G8)--which include ideo (where Casey now works; designers of the PalmPilot), Frog Design (designers of Motorola MP3 players), Continuum (designers of the One Laptop Per Child $100 laptop), and Ziba (designers of KitchenAid appliances)--have all adopted the accord. It's quickly becoming an industry standard--so much so that Design Directory, an online resource of more than 6,000 design-firm listings that was recently launched by the design blog Core77 and Business Week--allows users to filter searches for designers and firms by whether or not they have adopted the accord.
Yet, despite the accord's growing list of supportive design firms, Casey believes that the firms' clients are the real untapped resource: "You can just imagine how we could amplify the effect of the movement if Google and Microsoft joined," she says. "It's hard to imagine any member of the creative community not wanting to be part of the conversation that has the potential to revolutionize our industry." The paper-supply giants Mohawk and New Leaf have recently signed on, not just making their own paper products and processes more sustainable, but also starting conversation with and demanding higher standards from their network of suppliers, clients, and partners.
It's not often we gauge the success of a great idea by its future obsolescence, but despite the accord's growing influence, Casey is hoping to soon see it disappear: "It's a privilege to be shepherding this cause, but it's not about what I say anymore, it's about a dialogue. I hope that in next few years, these principles will be so integrated into the way people think about and practice design that it won't be necessary to have the Designers Accord."
And with each new victory, Casey sees the design industry slowly becoming a more relevant, change-making force in the world. "As a designer, I feel a responsibility to make positive social impact," she says. "Designers are a community of activists, not aestheticians."
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