Responsibility & Accountability
We can be powerful agents of change by demanding greater choices
Why isn't more being done about the environment? When are we going to stop allowing companies and people to abuse irreplaceable natural resources and sell damaging products? Who is responsible for making sure that the products we use are made from sustainable resources, can be recycled and/or repurposed, are not encased in wasteful packaging, consume large amounts of energy being transported or were produced in sub-standard or hazardous "sweatshop" conditions? How can I design in such a way as to improve or restore the environment?
These are questions that we, as designers and citizens, hear on a daily basis—or we should be hearing . . . and we should be asking. Because of the nature of the work we do, we design professionals can answer these questions in many instances, or we know who to ask to get the answers. Often, the answers begin with the designers themselves—with the buildings they design and the products they specify. In the words of the old Pogo cartoon: "We have met the enemy, and they is us."
I am not suggesting that design professionals are responsible for all the environmental woes in the world—far from it. The responsibility for the current (and future) state of our environment rests with each individual member of the human family.
But design professionals must accept personal accountability for protecting and enhancing the environments they design. They must specify and produce projects that help heal and restore existing environments, and design new projects that are environmentally responsible now and for the future. They must do the research, seek the answers and use their buying power to demand the products and resources that will enable them to create sustainable environments.
Instead of asking, "Who is responsible?" and "Why can't someone do something about this?", designers must learn to ask the hard questions of themselves:
What can I do to make this project more earth-friendly and sustainable?
In what ways can I have an impact on development and manufacturing processes to increase and encourage the production and marketability of sustainable products and materials?
Recently I came across John G. Miller's book, QBQ! The Question Behind the Question. In it, he argues that a culture of blame, complaint and procrastination has supplanted personal accountability and taking action within our private and public institutions. The question to ask, says Miller, is not, "Who is responsible?" but rather "How can I make a difference?" I found myself challenged, as a design professional, to take personal responsibility not only for all aspects of the practice, but particularly for the design of healthier, safer and more sustainable environments.
The design professional must embrace sustainable design as a best practice and look at each project through the prism of personal accountability:
How can I make this better through the specification of sustainable products and the implementation of sustainable solutions?
What can I do to make this project have less of a negative impact on the immediate environment and the global community?
In what ways can I improve my current business practices and transform my firm into a "green" business?
How can I leverage my buying power and the influence of my client to demand greater commitment to sustainable design from suppliers and manufacturers.
How can I make the best business case to my client so that he or she will not only accept but expect a sustainable solution
We know that change is slow to occur in the marketplace without increased demand. As much as we would like industry to "do the right thing" for its own sake, it is unrealistic and unfair for us to wait for industry to solve the problem alone. It rests with us, design professionals, to be the change agents by demanding greater choice and better resources that are not only "green," but sustainable and recyclable or reusable. Until we do so, production will continue to lag behind environmentally responsible design.
So the next time you find yourself asking the question, "Why isn't sustainable design being embraced by more clients?", ask yourself the question behind the question. And have the courage to listen to the answer.
Linda Elliott Smith is president of education-works, inc. in Dallas, TX, and serves as president of ASID. She has served the society in a number of volunteer positions for more than 20 years. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480; fax: (202) 546-3240; www.asid.org.