19 posts categorized "Social Responsibility"

Bingo for Social Innovation

Bingo for Social Innovation

I am trying to use fewer adverbs in my everyday speech, but it's proving truly difficult.

I have a tendency to use many variants of these vacuous filler words. They billow in the midst of my conversational flow like empty barges floating in the ever-active sea of otherwise coherent thoughts—painfully flavoring what I say without really saying much at all.

Perhaps if I had to deposit a dollar in an "adverb jar" for every time an adverb slipped into an email, text message, or blog post, I would dissuade my language center from allowing the disgraceful -ly to attach itself to adjectives struggling to break free of my Visual Thesaurus-like thoughtstream.

(An aside: I fear by the time I'm done writing this post, I will be penniless, wallowing in an alley, having been bludgeoned to death by an angry soul wielding an unabridged Webster's dictionary. Thankfully, the red cover of the book will hide the blood spatter.)

This anti-adverbial tirade was brought to you by a recent IDSA event in Seattle entitled, "2010 Design Debate: Can Design Save the World?" There weren't a ton of adverbs that evening, but the entire talk had me ruminating on the language that we use to define and solve problems in the world of social innovation.

Continue reading "Bingo for Social Innovation" »

Slides from "Designing the Design Problem"

Thanks for everyone who came out (virtually) to see my presentation yesterday at Creativity Oklahoma's online conference on applied creativity in art and design. Scott Belsky did a great job of describing the philosophies behind Behance and the research about how people make ideas happen that became the foundation of his bestselling new book.

While Scott was talking about fulfilling creative projects, I took a different tack and provided methods that frog uses to marry our innate skills in creative problem solving with the evolving practice of "problem making" to better serve both clients and users in crafting compelling products, services, and experiences. As a case study, I shared research data and insights that had been part of frog's initiative to encourage HIV testing in South Africa, Project Masiluleke.

This 20-minute presentation was carved out of a longer work I'm putting together regarding the specific kinds of activities that make up what's called "multi-vector research," which is the secret weapon for any design team that is trying to tackle a complex and systemic business problem or world problem and discern what exactly should be designed to influence it for the better.

From Observation to Vision: The Promise of Human-Future Interaction

The Watermarks Project [watermarksproject.org] is a public art project that explores the generally accepted prediction of the sea levels rising, due to climate change.

I've started a blog on frog design's Design Mind website called Intangible, focused on sustainability and service design. Whenever possible, I'll be cross-posting articles from that blog on ChangeOrder.

Imagining a sustainable future is like observing a series of waves crashing upon a shore, imperceptibly eroding the sand away.

It isn't clear whether we're at high or low tide, so we can't be sure how far to stand from the water. We try to judge, in the far distance, if there are large waves that may get our feet wet, or even worse, pull us out in the undertow. There are a fearless few out surfing the breakers, but most people are content to rest on their towels, sun themselves, and read a book or two. There is no clear understanding of how our actions on the shore will change the quality of the water, or what lives beneath the surface. Our influence on the known world is intangible.

Continue reading "From Observation to Vision: The Promise of Human-Future Interaction" »

The New Decade of Design Thanking

Design Thanking

This will be the new decade of design thanking.

Not thinking. Thanking.

After hearing John Thackara speak last year, it really sunk in for me that design as a thankful or generous gesture—without any measure of expected reward or large-scale impact—is the huge gaping weakness within our profession. Taking small-scale actions on a day-to-day basis requires a kind of personal behavioral change that is very hard to sustain without some kind of feedback loop (or paycheck). We get lost in the work and not in the people that make it meaningful.

At the same time, I've struggled with the term "design thinking" as an end-all, cure-all to the world's ills—mainly because it can obscure the effort to convert thought into action, and action into profound, wholesale effect. We could spend lifetimes piling up all of the time spent thinking without giving voice to our thoughts.


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You Had Me at Hello

Will Food for Work

On a daily basis, I am bombarded by hello.

Outside my office, there are solicitors associated with a wide variety of nonprofits—Greenpeace, the Red Cross, Save the Children, and other organizations that are licensed by the city of Seattle to ask for charity support.

Some of these men and women are direct employees of said nonprofits, while others are hired by third-party firms to stand on street corners with three-ring binders emblazoned with representative logo and/or matching jacket and cap. In both cases, they are paid in an admixture of time-based salary and percentage commissions for money earned over the course of each day's work.

Life as a solicitor on the street is purely a numbers game. Having worked in the sales-hardened worlds of direct marketing, I can tell you that the average response rate for a direct-to-sale solicitation is 0.5%—meaning that you can talk to an average of 200 people via a printed sheet of paper and receive back one response in return. When dealing with emails or advertisements, the throughput can drop even lower, to mere tenths of a percent. And when dealing with telemarketing, the likelihood that you'll even be able to get a warm body on a land line to answer the phone is slim.

To see the amount of sustained effort it would require to engage an everyday person with a nonprofit solicitor, I sat outside during a busy lunch day and watched the solicitors working in the field.

Continue reading "You Had Me at Hello" »

The Long Ow: Fulfilling on the Promise of Human-Centered Design

The Long Ow: Fulfilling on the promise of human-centered design

I spent time over the past three months with IDEO's Human-Centered Design (HCD) toolkit, which is derived from the daily practices used within their firm as well as by design practitioners around the globe. In answering a recent survey they'd sent out to solicit input for a future edition, I couldn't help but observe that the chart below seemed to be missing a few crucial points in the realm of innovation fulfillment. I'm dubbing the chunk I added to IDEO's chart "The Long Ow." The original chart:


My thinking here is meant to extend the empathy we solicit through observation and design—and which makes human-centered design possible—and extend it fully through the process of producing the desired change. We are very good at thinking in deliverables, within process boxes, but the ideal process for HCD is more like a heartbeat. Being a designer can feel painful, but the real pain begins when the planning becomes reality, and the tangled mess of sticky complexity that our clients are struggling with begins to unravel in finite degrees through brute-force effort. We can only ease that pain slightly, and help them bear it as they aim to create a meaningful impact.

Whether you're aiding a governmental task force, a local homeless shelter, an ailing nonprofit, or a corporate client wanting to lessen their negative influence on the world at large, working to effect major positive change across thousands of people—maybe even millions of souls—takes a level of sustained effort that is often buried, implicit, in the root of any design concept. And from researcher to artifact-maker to those people who are tasked through their communities and corporations to effect positive change, it's critical to surface those heavy physical investments and inevitable compromises that are part of any implementation of a human-centered innovation. (Read: Looking to fulfill systemic change, along with the behavioral impacts that cascade down through communities and into people's lives in ways that can't even be comprehended as part of any design exercise.)

We often gloss over is the army it takes—both figuratively and literally—to effect considered change beyond the design process. If we're working within a social context, we also need to be prepared if we have the latitude, culturally, to advise and/or join that army in helping to support the necessary artifacts, observe the progress of systemic change, help to troubleshoot the inevitable compromises that will adjust or dilute your overall understanding of the observed problem(s), and consider how the cycle can begin anew with fresh observations to iterate the initial foray you've attempted.

In the world of commerce, this kind of dialogue is often considered under the umbrella of change management, business transformation, and other domains littered with MBAs. In the nonprofit sector, as well as with initiatives spearheaded by various governmental departments and/or NGOs, these discussions are also often considered outside the range of the humble designer. But as we begin to expend more energy in rejiggering systems and services as opposed to focusing on aesthetics, we will bleed over into these spaces currently occupied by the McKinseys and the USAIDs of the world. And hopefully they will want to solicit our help in a partnership to make our concepts real.

Sustainability on the Compost Pile


Two caterpillars, three baby slugs, and a spider. That's what I discovered when I was washing my broccoli from the farmer's market.

I'm a big proponent for supporting my local farms. But for a city slicker like myself, raised in the suburbs and weaned on sparkling clean Costco-sized produce, the brand experience I'm having with eating local produce is taking me straight back to nature—and in a way that makes me a little queasy.

Until about four years ago, my process of eating fruits and vegetables had been managed by large factories bent on quality assurance and pallet-perfect stacks of nectarines. As a result, the inherent waste in the activity was disguised from moi, the consumer.

Now, a little bit of the factory is me. And really, that's how it should be. If I was a farmer born in the 1860s, things would be a hell of a lot harder in this regard: I would be growing these fresh strawberries, weeding them, watering them, killing any major pests or bugs, crouching down on my knees to pluck their sweet fruit off the bushes—thereby dirtying my knees.

A whole world of physical labor has now been replaced by reading "1 pint 4–" off a chalkboard, peeling cash out of my wallet, carrying the carton home, turning out the berries into a colander, and picking out of the bunch the five or six berries consumed by rot or sporting a happy little worm. Really, I need to get over my squeamish stomach (and my allergy to spider bites... whenever I find a spider in my produce, I'm apt to throw him into the compost bin instead of carrying the poor arachnid outside, where he's likely to get chomped instantly by the birds that live around our apartment.)

Just as the process of buying a bag with three pristine red peppers plays into our notions of packaged food perfection—and disguises the waste inherent in the plant-to-store manufacturing process—what in our genetic makeup causes us to reach for the unblemished fruit instead of the peach sporting a black eye?

The problem, really, is our notion of short-term value overtaking the impact of our long-term actions. And this is made manifest through our notion of waste.

Continue reading "Sustainability on the Compost Pile" »

What Are You Waiting For?

Getting Real

The next big client isn't knocking on your door. You are.

I haven't seen many companies barging around, waving fat wads of cash to create the next big whatever. That is, not without major strings attached. Until the next wave of savvy clients arrive, you should consider using the power of design to make something better. Anything, really. Use your powers to design something useful for you, and by extension, the world.

Continue reading "What Are You Waiting For?" »

The Pitfalls of Marketing Social Responsibility, Part 4 of 4

See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series.

Based on the pitfalls shared in the past three posts, I think there's a few very simple guidelines that companies can follow to minimize the amount of perceived hypocrisy your social responsibility marketing can have on your brand.

1) Don't spend money on marketing social responsibility. Spend it on being socially responsible and being humble about how far you need to travel in your quest to lessen your impact on society.

This could be translated as, "Put your money where you mouth is, marketer." If you're spending millions of dollars on a corporate campaign to say how great you are, you're wasting money actually being great and signaling to your customers that there's a perception issue that needs to be shifted. There are better ways to evangelize your behavior than this.

Take a page out of the Patagonia playbook. Sure, they spent money on a nice Web site to highlight the true cost of creating and shipping one of their items to you. But they do something practically no one else does: they show you the good and the painful truth, and acknowledge they need to do better. How rare is that?

2) Use public relations and internal communications with your employees to broadcast social responsibility from your employees out, through their social networks and community activism. Forget the full-page ads.

Spreading the word through your employees is more valuable than any marketing will ever be, because it is spread by humans in conversation instead of one-way broadcast media. For topics as slippery as social responsibility, which always have their ounce of hypocrisy, these topics require a conversation to discuss all the nuances of what you're trying to accomplish. Give your employees the data and the support that they need to have a conversation, then step back and don't try to control the conversation. Let them speak their minds, for good and for bad.

3) Don't expect your customers to spend more for social responsibility as part of your marketing push. Unless your product is game-changing.

Going green, for some companies out there, may be seen as a smart business decision and also as a reason to charge more for their products. Your customers shouldn't have to bear the burden for how you change how your company operates and markets their services. If you amortize the costs of social responsibility into your current portfolio and let your customers know that they're getting a greener product for less cash, they'll find more perceived value in your offering and be more likely to participate.


Truly, it doesn't get any more complicated than this: Don't spend money to say you're changing how you do business to save the world. Just go out and save the world, and people will talk about it. Ignore the "greenvertising" race that's going on in the ad world, as companies jockey for position as the nicest, kindest, happiest little car manufacturer or producer of clothes. More action, fewer full-bleed ads!

The Pitfalls of Marketing Social Responsibility, Part 3 of 4

Chevrolet Tree Hugger

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

This post talks about the following rule:

3) Don't pretend to be what you're not. This is the worst hypocrisy.

Anyone remember Pallotta TeamWorks?

It was an experiment in for-profit charitable giving, run by a charismatic, cultish CEO. This Los Angeles-based company produced a roster of events such as the Avon 3-Day Walk for Breast Cancer, the AIDSRide, and many others. Their well-honed marketing and PR machine created an appearance of a vibrant, tight-knit community of people across America that would take part in hardcore athletic activities to raise funding for hot-button medical initiatives that needed research breakthroughs. Their events were well-attended, well-run, and chock full of people who really felt they were making a difference.

I was one of them. I participated in the 2001 Avon 3-Day Walk in Washington, D.C., raising with my wife over $2,000. And at first, the event was a blast. I met a ton of amazing people and really pushed the limits of what I thought was possible for me to physically accomplish.

During the second day of the event, as we lounged in pain around the camp and chowed down on a lackluster spaghetti and tomato sauce, Dan Pallotta gave a speech about what his company wanted to accomplish as a whole. He painted a bold vision of us making a real impact in breast cancer research, complete with jingoistic music swelling up in the background to punctuate his responses. He showed us an events roster for the upcoming year, encapsulated in a gigantic brochure (probably 24" by 12", full color, dozens of pages) that would be mailed to us after the event. He hoped that we would take part in more Pallotta events and keep the flame for their foray into making the impossible possible.

As a marketing professional that had spent the past four years working with nonprofit clients such as American Diabetes Association, I knew that something was very, very wrong. Such a brochure would cost at least $8 to produce and mail -- a move that smacked of complete fiscal irresponsibility. Barring low participation in an event, the highest fraction of every dollar donated should go directly to the associated charity. Where was all this money coming from?

When I returned home from the event, I immediately found a groundswell of citizens and journalists on the Internet that were savaging Pallotta's for-profit basis and event performance. Pallotta's bold experiment was shaped around a mission that put the participant's transcendence of their physical limits (an epic bike ride, a 60-mile walk) before the actual results of those actions for the associated charities. In the AIDSRides, as an example, only 21 cents of every dollar raised went to charity.

When confronted with these numbers, the companies that had hired Pallotta to produce their charitable events immediately fired him. As a result, the company imploded and laid off all 250 of its employees.

If Pallotta TeamWorks was a non-profit enterprise and had carried traditional non-profit values, they might have operated on a shoestring and shown real results. Their core values were at cross-purposes with the core values of what charitable giving should be: a selfless sacrifice for a just reward. Their core audience of hardcore exercise do-gooders saw straight through their marketing hype and personal empowerment doublespeak into their lack of sacrifice.

This leads to the only corollary of the third law:

No matter where your company exists, it is a world citizen. Behave like one by giving back thoughtfully and not being voraciously greedy.

Pallotta created their own little world and ignored the big picture. People think about companies and brands like they think about people. They have a face and a voice and a history. Yes, they still need to bring in revenue. Just make sure you do so in a way that is mindful of your impact on the community and the context in which you create your gains, and be prepared to give some of it away in exchange for greater respect.

It sounds so easy in theory. But in practice, this is where almost every company falters. No matter how many contests you hold to encourage green citizenship or how much money you invest in promoting your investment in social responsibility, people will only ask why it took so long for you to get started. This leads me to my final corollary:

It's best to invest in social responsibility without promoting it. Unless you can create a legacy.

Unless you're Patagonia or TerraPass or any of a list of companies that have centered their entire business practice and brand strategy around sustainability, consider making incremental change without viewing each action as a marketing opportunity. Wait until there's a holistic story to tell that doesn't smack of opportunism.

Here's a good example. Within a period of months, Tully's Coffee switched their espresso to organic/Fair Trade, brought composting into all their stores, changed the engineering of their materials to make them compostable, and began bringing local/organic baked goods to support their coffees. By creating a legacy with their business choices across the board, they changed their stance in the market and even made Starbucks look a little weak in the knees. At least, until Starbucks fought back. What I find really interesting is that Tully's never heavily promoted the switch on their Web site... And didn't want to acknowledge the articles floating around regarding how Fair Trade is actually retarding the process of bringing better coffee on the global market?

Yet again, every step forward for social responsibility is on a slippery slope. I applaud companies like Tully's that are looking to renovate their business model, realizing that it's one of the only ways towards true sustainability and being responsible for their actions on society at large.

In my last post in this series, I'll talk about ways to approach spending money on marketing social responsibility, if you must...

The Pitfalls of Marketing Social Responsibility, Part 2 of 4


Read Part 1. This new post talks about the following rule:

2) Don't have anything to hide. It just makes for more hypocrisy.

Have you ever taken a trip to the fine city of Energyville?

Chevron has taken it upon themselves to design a game that shows just how hard it is to keep electricity flowing to the nation's cities without traditional fossil fuels in the mix. And you know what? They're completely right. It would be hypocritical of me to think that within the next two weeks, let alone ten years, we're going to be able to generate enough energy from alternative energy sources to create a major offset of fossil fuels in the United States to power our cities, cars, and planes.

That said, Chevron is hypocritical to think that a simple game modeled off Sim City and designed for smarty-pants liberals who listen to NPR and wear corduroy is going to change my impression of their company and business model. Yes, they have invested billions over the past half-decade into alternative energy sources--but I know that's a mere fraction of the profit they've been raking in from this multi-year spike in oil prices. It is not in their corporate interest to shift from their main source of revenue (oil) to envisioning a future tied up in alternative energy sources. They have to keep the pumps running, putting out other fires, and paying out those serious dividend checks.

For the American populace and the Democratic government, Chevron has an infinite distance to travel to be seen as a good citizen. It was never part of the core DNA of the Chevron brand to be promoting "Human Energy" -- that was an evolution required by a hardcore assault by the Democratic government that's just the tip of the iceberg. Chevron's "Will You Join Us?" microsite is just an attempt to soften the blow of reality and make the public aware of just how morally fraught their position is. For those who don't see the whole picture, they have succeed, but at what cost? Chevron is part of a web of hypocrisy contingent on real change across multiple industries. Every time they report record profits for their shareholders, they look more like a hypocrite.

So, how can Chevron escape out of this marketing death spiral?

By following this corollary to the second law:

Humility and honesty is the only antidote to hypocrisy.

Not in a clever video game, mind you -- humility in a company-wide acknowledgment of the real impact oil has on the world at large and the direct steps they're going to take over the next 50 years to evolve their business out of oil and force other industries, such as car and airplane manufacturers, to focus their energy on alternative fuel sources. Articulate who you want to be without oil and people will respect you for your honesty and vision -- plus, you'll make more impact than all the companies like TerraPass that are trying to aggregate people's individual contributions into a motivator for real change. That would be a reflection of a true commitment to sustainability.

A similar strategy to Chevron has recently been taken by Chevrolet to focus on how they're developing a range of fuel solutions for their vehicles. This kind of marketing is just primed for a backlash, however, as it doesn't show true humility about how they'd like to get into the zero-pollution game with all of their car lines. And if Chevrolet doesn't pay off their vision with measurable results, they will always be seen as the villain. And it doesn't help that their primary ad image when this campaign broke was a boy hugging a tree. Um, right.

It'd be easier for Chevron and Chevrolet to spin off their green businesses, get them successful, then fold their old, tainted brands out of business than to reinvent their brands as they exist today.

Maybe I'm the one being naive... but it seems from this flurry of marketing activity, the oil game can't change unless you get out of oil. The whole position of "Saying No to No" that I saw in a recent Shell ad (that ripped off a photo that was on the cover of the CommArts photo annual and the New York Times Magazine) is saying to avoid being hypocritical. That's even more meaningful coming from an oil company, right?

The Pitfalls of Marketing Social Responsibility, Part 1 of 4

Carbon Buttprint

It's difficult to work in marketing and live without illusions. Hypocrisy is something you can't escape when you sell a product or service. There is no perfect marketing message.

Unlike public relations, which can veer from great journalism to thinly disguised product placement, marketing doesn't claim to holiness. You're telling other people to focus their attention on a single element of a complicated product or service, all the while attempting to differentiate your client from their peers.

No wonder people equate lawyers with advertising professionals at the bottom of the professional food chain. Both of them deal in arbitrary versions of the truth, contested and argued before a court of your peers. At least salespeople get to have a conversation with their clients, while marketers often inject static messaging into the world at large, hoping that their audience aligns their loyalties with your line of thinking.

When you look at your marketing message in this way, I think it becomes evident why it's so hard for companies to market charitable initiatives, present themselves as socially responsible through mass media, or demonstrate true concern about environmental change. You're asking people to look you in the eye and perhaps smile, but they can't help but focus on the spot of blood on your cheek, trickling slowly towards the ground...

With this in mind, I'd like to propose the following three laws regarding the pitfalls of marketing your corporation's social responsibility. And at the end of this series, I'll provide guidelines that companies can follow to minimize the amount of perceived hypocrisy your social responsibility marketing can have on your brand -- and so you don't end up as a social offsetter like CITGO.

This post talks about the following rule:

1) You can't market social responsibility without an ounce of hypocrisy.

CREDO Mobile (formerly Working Assets Wireless) gives 1% of all wireless fees to liberal charities and organizations, straight off the top. Over they past 23 years, they've given $50 million to charity. Sounds great on paper. Looks good in the ads. Makes you feel like you're part of something bigger. Keeps you in your tribe of like-minded friends.

And if I do the math correctly, that is approx. $5 billion in aggregated revenue for Working Assets. So... why don't you just give that $50 million straight to the charities involved and use AT&T? Over the past 60 years, AT&T has donated $1.6 billion dollars (and counting) to social causes from their foundation. Sure, I don't have control over where AT&T donates their money. $1.6 billion is a micro-fraction of the many gazillions AT&T has made over the years. And I know they're getting a big tax break from their foundation revenue. With that in mind, I'm going to stick with their cell-phone service and go write a big check to the ACLU.

I love the idea behind CREDO Mobile and hope that they have continued success. But I can already hear the meetings cranking up in the AT&T corporate offices about how to cut off CREDO at the pass and crush them with their own big charitable digits. Every little bit counts, but if you've got lots of big bits, you have a better story.

This leads to a corollary to the first law of marketing social responsibility:

Context overrules substance. Your audience and competition will always have a counter-argument to your marketing position.

No matter how much you donate to a charity or how much you reinvent your business model to be more socially responsible, be aware of the context of change.

Change in the realm of social responsibility is incremental and somewhat arbitrary. You can never do enough to manifest real impact. It can only be aggregated over time and eventually quantified on a fiscal basis. Unlike marketing the benefits of a product such as a cell phone, which can be itemized and positioned against similar benefits of your competitor's phones, social responsibility has no parity other than how much you donate and who it goes to. Equality between charities is morally relative -- one person's National Rifle Association is another person's American Cancer Society.

Now, another corollary:

The risk of hypocrisy increases as social responsibility increases.

Take, as a recent example, the TerraPass.

Carbon offsetting is the rage in social responsibility. The TerraPass has gained a lion's share of press in the market, promoting offsetting as well as behavioral change as key ways to make a difference in the environment and help reduce global warming.

According to the ticker at the bottom of their website, they've helped 75,000 individuals and businesses offset 708,573,072 pounds of carbon emissions. That made me feel warm and fuzzy, because those numbers show that they've made a tangible difference. Their site does a bang-up job of describing the ways that you can participate without veering into preachy territory. It made me comfortable to give it a shot.

So, where's the hypocrisy in the TerraPass? It's hard to sniff out, but I'll take a stab:

They're selling the future. And the future is a hard product to offer, because it may never materialize in the bright, glossy, natural form that we imagine. (Yes, I have read The World Without Us. That isn't likely to happen... yet.)

I went and reviewed the Executive Summary of the EPA's summary report on Greenhouse Gases. It said that there were 6,089.5 teragrams of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere in 2005. Needless to say, as I did the math my warm fuzzies rapidly evaporated under the hot sun of those statistics.

A much, much greater quantity of people -- an order of magnitude greater -- needs to participate in the TerraPass program and others like it before any real change occurs. We're so far in the hole on carbon emissions that it can seem a Sisyphean task to recover.

With regards to carbon offsetting: you can market the benefit, but the only tangible is how you feel after you've written your check and the knowledge that sometime in the future, the needle will swing one micron in the right direction. (And this seems like a silly little point, but here goes: they started with a team from a university, but are now a corporation. As a nonprofit, they may have been able to administrate their efforts more affordably and sink their excess revenue into more projects. On the other hand, as a for-profit corporation, things can get a heck more nimble and there's usually less politics about the whole enterprise.)

The TerraPass vision? 10 billion pounds of carbon offset and a million people participating in their program. What's wrong with that? Not much, unless those billions are amortized over, say, 25 years. Using the above math, and assuming the carbon output of the U.S. is stable, we won't have made that much of a dent. Why not just browbeat the oil companies through legislation into speeding up their development of alternative energy sources? Reduce plastics use and replace with alternative, biodegradable resources? There's always a faster way, with the right money and resources, to go further. Oi.

This is a third corollary of the first law:

A better charitable decision can always be rationalized by your audience. Be prepared for it. Roll with it. Consider using it.

I love the TerraPass and will be using it when I take plane flights. But I have no illusions that I'll perceive a demonstrable, positive climate change in my lifetime from their efforts. And there's no way TerraPass can be a success if they come out of the gate with that kind of truth. Sorry, Al Gore, but here's how I'm reducing my carbon footprint: I'm not having kids. What kind of special bonus credit do I get for that?

A Case Study in Social Offsetting: CITGO

Social Offsetting

Sell now, reap the reward now, ignore the consequences later. This strategy is social offsetting. This strategy is an all too common parlance in today's advertising world.

The work can be socially responsible, but not sustainable. It can be meticulously researched, but not insightful. It can be extraordinarily gorgeous in its production values, but vapid. It can illuminate deep investment in local communities, only matched by the vast sums lavished on advertising said investments for brand lift.

A recent example is a brand advertising campaign currently running for CITGO. It's a perfect example of social offsetting -- focusing on the positive impact on local community, making an investment in social responsibility on a day-to-day basis, all the while ignoring the long-term expense owed to the world at large regarding the product that they sell.

CITGO Local Jobs Ad

Social Offsetting is a Risky Maneuver

Why is it that our oil industry, which is one of the most profitable corporate ventures in today's economy, is wasting gallons of money on incredibly dumb advertising instead of investing in our increased independence from petroleum products? This is a rhetorical question. We know the answer: employees, shareholders, political stakeholders, and franchises. Incremental profits and dividends. Short-term and long-term gains.

The greenwashing race has been on since the heady days of the BP rebrand, and long enough for the inevitable backlash to crash down on unsuspecting corporations, drag them through the muck, and gracefully recede to leave their gasping corpses on the beach for all to see. Gracefully rich corpses, mind you.

What concerns me now, however, is that oil companies with little or no "green story" are pouring money and thought into tastefully executed ad campaigns that attempt to either immunize customers from the increased hypocrisy regarding oil use in America, or shift our focus onto immediate human needs and turn a somewhat blind eye towards the future impact of the use of their products.

Looking at these dumb ads can be like reading a terrible creative brief. Take the ad which I've included here from CITGO.

Imagined creative brief: Companies such as Chevron are touting figures that point to their investment in alternative energy. Customers are angrier than ever about rising gas costs. How can we increase brand lift for Citgo and potentially increase consumption of our gasoline without a strong social responsibility/alternative fuels message?

Solution: Let's focus on the human condition. Let's make it personal. It's more important than ever to foster brand loyalty towards a specific brand of gas, since it's pumped by a local gas station near your home. It's not about the price of the gas. It's about supporting local business and communities and the jobs in this unstable economy that are preserved. It's about the people who man the pumps.

This position would be fabulous... if it really meant anything. By reading the copy in this ad, I learned a number of things, but none of them created a real point of differentiation against other gas stations, or other local franchises, for that matter.

This well-designed, well-executed ad has only served the purpose of making CITGO look like a company that doesn't give a damn about the long-term effects of their products on society. The sale of their products benefits the owners of their franchises and their shareholders. Bully to them. But it isn't sustainable. It doesn't hold up against their competition, who are hammering on sustainability hard. CITGO just looks like they're being facile. And it never helps when the guy who owns your business also happens to be a head of state that loves to hammer on George W. Bush (which we Democrats do anyways, but we usually aren't hanging out with Fidel Castro).

As we follow this logic:

CITGO thinks we all believe oil companies (may) own our corner gas stations, and the employees that work there are shills for the man. Just like at 7-11. And McDonalds. In fact, they assume we don't know that many major corporations that sell products sourced globally are franchises or licensees. Which would make CITGO just like pretty much any other corporation that sells a parity product. They have to franchise them. They don't want to dirty their hands with the actual effort managing thousands of local retail locations would require, including becoming good local citizens on the ground level.

Since the oil industry is doing so well, it's helping to keep people employed and prosperous in a down economy. This is the same case for any scarce resource, and while we haven't reached peak oil yet, they're in the business of putting us all out of business. Again, the short-term view rears its head.

These employees have money to support local communities, since they're doing so well. Ah... just cause they're doing well doesn't mean they're supporting local communities. Don't assume that everyone that owns a CITGO station is a good samaritan, unless it's required as part of their corporate charter (which I wouldn't be surprised if it was.) But this is a small point. You're still selling gas. Are you really being telling me something in this ad I didn't know already?

What really gets my goat, however, is that I spotted the CITGO ad in Harper's, where you practically need a Master's Degree to read some of the book reviews. These well-educated readers are going to see this ad, think about it for two minutes, and shred it with their intellect like a hot knife through Earth Balance buttery spread. Especially since the editors at Harper's have focused on peak oil issues and energy independence as a major topic of interest for some time now. Did your media planner read the magazine before making the buy? Did your media planner think that 97% of Harper's readers would know that CITGO is effectively owned by Hugo Chavez? (Actually, they might score some points there with those wacky Marxist college professors.)

Yes, it helps when you place your dumb ads in magazines where people will recognize just how dumb they are. Now come up with something better that doesn't belittle the real situation we're in.

I'm waiting with bated breath for the ad campaign from McDonald's about how they're supporting local businesses, as well as farms and slaughterhouses, and by extension making the world a better place.

The Right Kind of Transparency

Clearly, if we have cars, we need some kind of fuel. I totally understand that. I have an old Corolla that I drive to client meetings and band practice. I can't be so much of a hypocrite that I can't understand that I'm contributing to the problem. In fact, I'm educated enough to know that if I could reduce this argument to a simple answer, we wouldn't be having it. It's a wicked problem that will take hundreds of years to unravel.

However, I am mindful enough to think of the impact of my driving four miles to work, and try to minimize it by bussing or biking. I am investing time, energy, and attention into ventures that are looking to get us out of the petroleum game, both in making lifestyle choices (such as buying very local foods), in choosing socially responsible investment vehicles, and in having been a vegetarian for 13 years.

And because of this, and because the biodiesel movement is fraught with all sorts of risks and perils, I actually appreciate it when companies such as Chevron point out that they've invested $1B in alternative energy and are attempting to migrate their business into that as a long term venture. $1B is a drop in the bucket compared to their profit margin last year, and their marketing has its own hypocrisies that piss me off and will be mentioned in a later post. But I appreciate it when they don't skirt around the fact that we need oil now, but are trying to sell me a future with reduced independence. This "putting ourselves out of business" argument holds a lot more weight for people who are mindful about their footprint.

Now, if you've made it this far through this unintentional screed, you're going to be very interested in what follows. (And I should disclose that I wrote all of the above before I went to the CITGO Web site.)

For some reason, CITGO actually pushed to the public not only all of the TV and print ads, but also the media schedules for their ongoing campaign, their top-level market research, their audience segmentation and personas. I think it's pretty rare when a corporation puts live to the viewing public the thinking that supports their advertising at a strategic level. And there's a good reason why we don't expose this thinking to our audience. It makes corporations look ruthless, manipulative, and reductive. In many ways, that summarizes intelligently executed marketing strategy. However, seeing the wizard behind the curtain has a way of making the puppet show look mighty flimsy.

Thanks to CITGO, I know that I fall into the Progressive Activist category when it comes to their marketing. They've created a lovely logo to personify my recycling-junkie ways. They've told me when they'll be reaching me with these ads. They have big plans to educate the masses about their efforts. They've identified the issues of greatest importance to me and my corporate fellows, such as Environmental Stewardship, Local Ownership, and Social Development. Yes, Environmental Stewardship is one of eight pillars of their positioning, but they aren't talking about reducing dependence on oil. After all, it says on their Web site that "gasoline is still cheaper than bottled water" with regard to how much value they can squeeze out of every ounce of crude.

Yes, I'm quoting somewhat verbatim from copy on their Web site.

Yes, it is quite embarrassing to tell your customers on a page advertised on their corporate site exactly how you're going to convince them that you're not all that bad. Then again, look at poor Barkley out of Kansas City. They couldn't stem the PR nightmare and the flood of money that gushed out when 7-Eleven pulled out of working with CITGO in 2,100 stations due to its ties to Venezuela and Hugo Chavez. Even local gas stations are doing the same today. CITGO is clearly looking for a way to purchase themselves out of a rock-bottom brand position with the American public.

And they've continued that downward trend beautifully by showing me just how much they consider me part of their future. CITGO's exposure to the public of their market research and segmentation plans, how they are working to shape my opinions to like them more, and the lengths they want to go to do so in public, bald language, is both arrogant and galling.

Don't tell me how you're going to change my mind to like you more -- especially when you didn't include a Web site URL or other call to action in your ad to find out more information. Clearly, you didn't want me to look. I did. And look what I found: Beautifully designed, tastefully photographed, well-written ads calculated in a gambit to "change perceptions about CITGO among opinion leaders across the country," targeted at influentials like myself.

Guess what. You succeeded. I now have an even lower opinion of CITGO.

And I also have a parting request: Invest your advertising money in something more worthwhile, like these local communities that you love to tell me that you support.

Sustainability is Experience Diversity

Sustaintability Collapse

We may like to gloat about once-in-a-lifetime experiences, the long vacations to exotic locales and unrepeatable dinners at the restaurant that closed long ago, but more often than not, we discuss the things that we share in common.

Television shows. Products that can obtained anywhere, always taste the same, and are sold for the same price (or less, if it's on sale) no matter where you find them. Starbucks, Target, and Jamba Juice, repeated endlessly on an ever-repeating suburban filmstrip.

At least we have something in common, right? Something to chat about on the long ride home, on Twitter, at the cocktail party where you don't know anyone around you and don't know where to begin.

Well, let's begin at the beginning: People share relatable experiences. That's been going on since we invented language. Then advertising came along, and talked about all these products and services that sewed us even closer together in a cultural microcosm, shaped by shared products that reflected our lifestyles. At least, that was the intent.

Advertising is most effectively applied in differentiating parity products, and the very idea of nurturing a parity product runs completely counter to sustainable business practices.

The idea that a mass produced product, which supports a shared experience, ties us together as brethren in an otherwise undifferentiated American horde. It's pointing to a fundamental hypocrisy about mass-produced products and the efficiencies that corporations engineer to keep their prices low.

If you're running a sustainable business, your only competition should be yourself. The energy and ethos behind your products or services should be as crystal clear as a plate glass window.

This is why corporations are scared witless about the complete reinvention that's necessary to be a responsible corporate citizen. It's infinitely easier for a corporation to react to its corporate peers. It's nigh difficult to turn yourself inside out, change everything from how you product your products to whether you should even be selling those products anymore. Organic Rice Krispies, anyone?

No wonder so many companies are pouring salt on the wound: marketing cars like the Chevy Volt in the hopes that some green will rub off on their other products; starting up crafty arguments about why we can't give up on oil just yet; calling foods natural in the grocery store when they aren't organic, sustainably grown, or local. Let's focus on the battle and lose the long-term war, one hypocrisy at a time. You're still selling me cars, gasoline, and produce shipped overnight from Chile. (More on the latter later.)

Change doesn't happen overnight, but without real incentive to change, then nothing will happen. Fast. Watch the land rush towards and away from biodiesel. Sustainability is the antithesis of the next big thing. It's a bunch of small, unique things that come from around the corner.

We need to encourage people to make choices that use fewer resources, more equitably and intelligently, and in the process, provide a more unique result.

As designers, we need to shy away from the mass experience and think about how we foster small, local, exclusive experiences. Desirable experiences made from things that will peacefully fade away with little to no impact on the world.

Here's some ways we can help usher in this new kind of thinking about business.

Focus marketing on fostering unique individual experiences -- micro-products that extend off brands for a limited time. Encourage clients to build businesses out of them, clustering them together meaningfully.

Stop thinking about consistency. Focus on the evanescence of your product in the face of time, its exclusivity, and how that can be a powerful motivator if you have something truly unique.

This business model is familiar to vinters, brewers, and other fermented products, but has yet to heavily impact mass-produced goods at supermarkets, which are controlled by multinational corporations.

When touring the Scharffen-Berger chocolate factory in Berkeley, California, the guide told us about how they would purchase and blend cacao from multiple sources every few months to try and keep the flavor profile across the product consistent. This required great care and attention from their cacao buyers to get the highest-quality beans that had overlapping taste characteristics, often paying up to five times the market rate and often ensuring that their beans were organic in nature from cacao farms that were vetted for fair labor practices.

At the same time, their cacao buyer would ensure that if a great batch came through with a very strident and unique flavor, they would buy up all of those beans and make a unique line of single-origin chocolate bars that would vary season to season. These single-origin bars, to my palate, completely trump their main products in terms of quality and taste. And when those bars are sold out, they're gone for good. Can you imagine a straight-up single varietal Hershey's bar? That's not American. (Don't get me started about chocolate. I'm as passionate about chocolate as I am about design, and that's scary.)

Practically any mass-market product can be produced on a small scale, in a clustering model, in a truly sustainable way. It just requires playing by your own rules, going against the grain of large-scale business ventures.

One of my friends, Melissa, is the first florist in Seattle to exclusively offer local, organic, and sustainably grown flowers. She's creating this kind of dream, customer by customer, and even planning a co-op to wholesale those flowers to other florists, breaking a chain built up by the big dogs like Teleflora and 1-800-FLOWERS. She's one of my inspirations and role models for how it's possible to take a given about an industry controlled by corporate giants, completely reinvent the rules, and offer an experience supported by exclusively local, handmade, and mostly organic merchandise in her store as well. Her store sticks out because there are so few people in a socially conscious city that are actually walking the walk.

Every time I think a thought such as, "Hmm... I bet that plastic factory can't find a replacement for those plastic spoons," I see something like Taterware and am continually reminded that corporations rarely are motivated to change their behavior. Individuals are making the difference in the sustainability game.

Be aware of the nuance of your decisions. It's not always easy to know you're doing the right thing, and you'll need due diligence at every turn.

The Eat Local movement, among other current trends in sustainable agriculture, is promoting that we eat what's in season and available in our local region, ideally within 100 miles. The logic dictates that you'll reduce the use of fossil fuels in transporting, say, grapes from Chile to your supermarket.

There's been some recent, very fascinating talk in the New York Times Magazine that has dug into this premise very deeply, what I find most important from this dialogue is that whenever a critical mass of people gloms onto a purchasing trend, what usually happens is that people make the easiest choice to fulfill that new desire. In the example from the above article, the Catch-22 is buying locally-grown produce spawned in a greenhouse during the winter. It's local: check. Compare this to buying tomatoes grown in a warm climate by the sun (free energy), and then shipped to you. Less energy use... but in both cases, not sustainable.

Often, when making a case for sustainability, it's the lesser of two evils, unless you can control every single decision through the food chain, like my friend Melissa above. In the winter, she needs to ship in organic flowers, while in the summer, she can get them grown locally. It has to balance out in the end.

If you're passionate about being a thought partner with your client, you should engage them regarding sustainability in not only their marketing, but in anything that you consider an environmental factor.

I don't think it's unfair to bring up to a client that you see opportunities for them to improve their business practices, brush up their PR, and less their impact on the environment. And if you're being hired to obscure or gloss over the facts at hand, you should be prepared to mosey along.

The measure of success for a marketer is their ability to understand the essential truth about what their audience needs from them, not imposing what they believe the client wants at a merely abstract level. Bringing sustainability into play as a fundamental attribute of your business forces you to come to terms with not only what your audience desires from you, but also what the audience desires for the future of our society. This kind of scrutiny is massive for any slow-moving corporate beast, but I do hope that the wheel will continue to turn, ever slowly, to get this cruise ship into dock, where it can be recycled for scrap.

Trying to Solve a Wicked Problem?

It Would Be Easy

When you work as a professional in the area of solving problems for clients, no matter what your discipline, there's rarely a roadblock you run up against that can't be overcome through collective brainpower or sheer brute force.

Most designers would be loath to concede defeat in the face of a client need. We thrive on challenges that require all of our wits to surmount, either by solving a difficult problem with an elegant design solution, or reframing the problem to probe the thinking behind it and come up with a new problem to solve properly. Wrong audience, business, message, media: no problem. Just adjust these dials, push a button or two, and we've recalibrated the machine for maximum throughput. Press "print" or "go live" and all will be well in the state of Designopolis.

Once you start playing with the big corporations, however, you aren't solving simple problems anymore. Instead of digging a hole to plant your tree, you're asked to move a mountain, spoonful by spoonful, to the other side of the bay. And while you're at it, can you raise customer satisfaction in the 24 to 40 age bracket by 20 percent and sell $2 million more of our product line, and pronto? Different goals and needs become tangled together. What you as a designer can control, and what your client controls, become contingent. Insert a wicked problem here, and it'll all go haywire.

Wicked problems. Big, thorny, gnarly problems. The kinds of problems that drive our creative industries to sleepless nights, burning with their own sort of dangerous energy, morphing over time and confounding marketers left and right.

The idea of "wicked problems" was coined by Horst Rittel, a theorist of design and planning and M. Webber. (See the full Wikipedia entry here.) I've copied Rittel and Webber's list of wicked problem criteria here from Wikipedia because they can't really be paraphrased, and while they're related to social policy planning, as you read through this list some previous clients you've worked with and the problems they were trying to solve might bubble to the surface of your mind:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.

  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.

  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.

  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.

  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

While scientists have been spending years trying to develop various tactics to break down and expound upon wicked problems to derive positive change, we as designers can't easily engage with wicked problems -- that is, without entering into a client-designer relationship without both parties being aware that the problem is wicked and that we can only define success as a specific type of improvement agreed upon by both parties. Without calling out the complexity of a problem before engaging with a client, and being aware that you can't "solve it," you can't easily escape failure. This is why marketing is both an art and a science. You can quantify your goals and your previous actions, but only hope to predict the outcomes of your current and future actions, based on a snapshot of your audience's needs that are fluid, at best.

When I first read this list, a wicked problem for designers seemed to fit these criteria neatly:

Being asked to steer public opinion regarding a complex societal problem to sell a product. Hello, greenwashing. Social responsibility marketing, or any kind of marketing that is hinged on "changing the world for the better," really, is a function of a wicked problem. This is why there's hypocrisy inherent in promoting incremental improvement towards an idealistic goal of reduced environmental impact for, say, a plastics corporation. I could go on and on regarding this subject, but I'll leave it here with the knowledge that my thinking alone won't make a major dent in this problem. Marketing products through social responsibility requires reductive thinking on the part of the marketer and the market, which doesn't always indicate positive change from the requested action on the part of the customer.

The following didn't seem like a wicked problem at first, but it's definitely indicative of some of these criteria and hard to overcome:

Being asked to create belief in a company's actions when the customer's desired experience is never acknolwedged. If you are asked to motivate consumers to act based on a poor product experience, it's going to be an uphill fight. The rules change monthly, if not daily, based on customer behavior prompted by variables you can't control. Designers can't solve these types of problems without systemic change by the client, and can only effect positive change by attempting to foster alignment across all parties in the long term -- and hoping your competitors don't move to entrench their relationships with said audience at the same time. This type of situation requires designers to have discussions with potential clients about doing more than a marketing campaign. It requires a systemic gutting of how that company approaches their customer experience to achieve real success. Otherwise, you're just moving the needle positively in one area while the other ones plummet.

You'll notice that posing any type of positive solution to these wicked problems fall outside the domain of what designers can usually control. And nowadays when a client comes to you, asking for a solution to a problem that can't really be solved, only improved, it usually requires reframing the problem on a grand scale -- reaching your hands into the mechanisms of their organization to point out where the real problems may lie. This can be a scary place for a designer to operate, as it isn't always our core competency. Also, as marketing can be very reductive -- Universal Selling Proposition? Three product pillars in the body copy? -- I would argue that any type of reductive thinking will actually worsen a wicked problem unless it's grounded in a very sophisticated long-term plan that strings together those marketing nibbles into a holistic, long-term pattern that generates meaningful change.

Ecotagging: Fostering Transparency for Sustainable Business

Consumers now expect sustainability and ecological sensitivity to be factored into the cost of manufacturing and selling consumer goods. Corporations such as Patagonia, through their Footprint Chronicles, and Timberland, with their nutrition label for social responsibility, have started a major trend that pulls back the veil on the apparel industry, making us aware of the major demands that the textile industry put on our world. It's not enough to just offset your purchases. Through our purchasing decisions, we can alter how the industry operates.

The EcoTag for apparel, shown below in a draft format, was designed as a prototype to make sustainability factors more transparent for purchasing decisions across all brands -- not just these brave few who are striving to lead the industry. The ultimate goal of the EcoTag is to incent corporations to make their sustainability measures accountable to their customers. “Sustainability grading” or other methods of ranking products, derived from ecotagging, would create new ways for customers to evaluate the value of a product, while forcing corporations that have since been uninterested in bringing sustainability practices to their businesses to change their behavior.

The front panel of the tag displays the standard SKUs for a product, as well as the costs of offsets and recycling that have been factored into the product price.

EcoTag Front

The back panel of the EcoTag gives a view into how a piece of apparel was sourced, produced, and shipped, as well as the average carbon cost and whether the clothing is organic, recycled, and/or biodegradeable.

EcoTag Back

Ideally, the tag would be resized, printed, and affixed to goods in a way that had minimal impact on the product’s carbon footprint.

Without an industry-wide standard for this type of information, it will continue to be difficult for consumers to make educated decisions about what they purchase and how their purchases will influence the world. With proper education of the consumer at point of purchase, the latent waste of the textiles industry may be reduced and ideally replaced with more sustainable options.

Download a one-page PDF summary of this piece at this link: http://www.davidsherwin.com/EcoTagForApparel.pdf.

If you're interested in helping with this endeavor, please feel free to contact me at david at davidsherwin.com.

Design and Business Sustainability in 2012


One of my co-workers recently lent me a copy of the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. The entire book is a stunning thought experiment about what would happen to the world if all the humans suddenly vanished. How long would it take for nature to recover from our influence? What are the real impacts of our daily lifestyle choices on the world at large? What systems do we have currently in place, such as nuclear and petrochemical energy creation, that would have an explosive impact on the Earth if we weren't there to manage them?

As I read the book, I jotted down a few questions that came up that we designers should be considering now, as part of our day-to-day responsibilities. It will take us some time to formulate real ways to answer them.

Should we worry more than we do currently about the environmental impact of an interactive property, and plan our user experience accordingly to lessen its effect?

I could see this movement as having the following slogan: Make Hits Mean More. Code your apps tight. Make them efficient on your processor. Make sure your hosting service uses green IT. Improve overall usability. Save a kilowatt or two.

Last month's Harper's magazine had an interesting short piece about how each Google search burns a certain number of watts. When you tally up the number of searches engaged by search engines on a daily basis, we're burning a helluva lot of power to see where Britney Spears had lunch on Tuesday.

We will have methods to quantify this impact on our power grid, and perhaps even be charged for our electricity consumption amortized across the Internet, the number of searches we engage, and any other wasteful Internet usage. There will be systems to quantify power used across a web site or Internet application. We may even test our code for browser compatibility alongside its overall wattage use per click.

Will people be warned of the environmental impact of their purchases online or in a physical store?

As designers, we will need to develop rationales to guide our clients into greater transparency on whether the world needs their products, and if so, what kind of impact purchasing their products will have on society as a whole. People will need to see, in product marketing, the long-term effects of their choices beyond their own lifespan.

For example: baby clothes and toys, which are swiftly outgrown. You can recycle baby clothes and toys by passing them along to new mothers, but eventually, the polyester and plastic clothes will enter a landfill and degrade into tiny bits that in a few thousand years will perhaps be eaten by microbes that have evolved to consume plastic and its derivatives.

We can't expect our clients to shoulder this kind of burden while we're just pointing the way. It will likely be a shared responsibility, and we'll have to create methods to kindly shame the big companies into shifting their business strategy.

Will the environmental impact of a future product, or even a meme, be accurately measured and rated before it hits the market?

The tools don't exist to make this kind of assessment over time... yet. But they will.

"Great thought, Jim. You'll make millions off it but it'll generate at least 20 million pounds of carbon waste, use as much water as Lake Michigan in processing, and kill dozens of whales and three species of waterfowl. Should we come up with something better, or see if we can improve your idea to have less of an environmental impact?"

People will need to make judgment calls before they even engage on making a product or service. This kind of filter for a business decision hasn't been clearly articulated across Wall Street, because both public and private corporations had been traditionally focused more on making money than on leaving no trace. Sustainability is the next arms race for public corporations, and will be full of claims such as: "We use 5% less waste in our packaging, reducing our overall waste by 50,000 tons." All while the bottle's still made of plastic. And not being recycled.

Are we really being creative enough about finding a better way to assess a product's long-term impact? Companies will need to evolve existing products that sell well to either minimize their impact, or make the decision to cut them entirely (such as spray aerosols) and invent new products that aren't as convenient, but won't, say, destroy the ozone layer accidentally over New Jersey.

Designers will need to be vocal and raise their hand when they see potential problems, both in product design, development, and marketing, to ensure the long-term interests of the Earth aren't being trounced.

Designers can also encourage innovations that, for products with a short lifespan, biodegrade gracefully with low or no environmental impact. A company that makes tricycles, for example, could replace the plastic with a corn derivative or another compostable substance, which would break down over a year or two. This is already happening with plastic silverware. Consumers will need to be sold on the benefits of owning a product that will fall apart quickly and return to the earth in a non-harmful way.

The only danger with this technology is that we'll need to be sure we don't overtax the land necessary to grow the crops we'll use to create the plastic alternatives.


I have other questions, but in order to save a watt or two, I will beg them off for another post. However, I'd like you to expend some watts by posing some more questions regarding the future of design and sustainability.

The Rise of Eco and Indie Luxury

Designers asked to work with a luxury brand know the general rule of thumb: make it look twice as valuable with half the budget and a fraction of the tangible materials.

Designers also know the dirty, dark secret of marketing luxury goods: quality of design can trump quality of materials. Quantities may run low and costs-per-piece high, since you have a limited audience and a limited quantity. Products may be outsourced to factories overseas and only cost incrementally more than their regular brand cousins. The product always includes a premium markup, to create an aura of value.

And that aura of value is morphing into something new.

The idea of Old Luxury (high fashion, high quality, high touch, high price) has fractured over the past ten years into a number of new and surprising categories that make it even harder to market a product as Old Luxury, but even easier to draw an audience into considering a purchase at a higher price point.

With the coming recession, there is going to be a shift from the New Luxury or "masstige" market into Eco and Indie Luxury:


Old Luxury will never take a major hit, because people who purchase Old Luxury products have enough wealth to support their lifestyle even if their portfolio drops 50%.

But people who consider New Luxury products as part of their lifestyle will seek a greater meaning for their purchases. The new categories that I've noted, Eco and Indie Luxury, provide that meaning above and beyond what an Old or New Luxury brand can provide.

The old thinking went like this: If you want to simplify your life -- if you really want to do more with less and own things that no one else owns -- then be prepared to spend a premium, have fewer options to choose from, and defend your piece of ground with the (limited) members of your tribe. Go to Wal-Mart if you want to get the most for the least. Never mind that the same factory may have made your fancy Coach bag and those Wal-Mart briefs.

The new thinking is much more complex. And exciting.

Eco Luxury

I recently found myself fingering a Jil Sander wool jacket at Barneys Co-op that I could easily see myself wearing. Ten minutes later, a very similar jacket was at Banana Republic for one-tenth of the JS jacket "sale price". Old Navy around the corner, another similar jacket that was one-sixty of the BR price.

The major difference between the three, other than a slight difference in percentage of wool and the cut? The Jil Sander jacket had no label inside it and was the simplest, most minimal design.

This seems pretty obvious to a New York fashionista--they'd know the jacket was Jil Sander when they saw it because of its styling and notch it in their little mental black book. And when you're in that kind of community, you're part of a semi-closed circle that amplifies the value of your lifestyle choices (or devalues them, depending who you run with).

But then I walked over to the Nau store. Welcome to Eco Luxury. Their black jacket that costs the same as the jacket at Banana Republic was made through sustainable practices. It looks sleek and different from all those other jackets. (Full disclosure: I drool regularly over their clothes but have not made a purchase... yet. I also critique them regularly because it's hard to be play luxury and sustainability at the same time...)

This single piece of clothing brings up all sorts of considerations I didn't have when I was shopping at Williams-Sonoma or Tiffany's. Do I want a high-end necklace that's biodegradeable? A high-heat spatula that's recyclable? It doesn't sound so far-fetched in 2008. In 2018 it'll be an assumed part of the buying decision.

In clothing, travel, and a host of other markets, Eco Luxury is poised in the wings to infiltrate and overtake the New Luxury category. In ten years, it's likely that Eco Luxury won't exist as its own category anymore and will be absorbed wholesale into New Luxury -- only because it can be factory produced and has the potential to be marketed on a mass scale. Call it New Eco Luxury, which hopefully will never go out of style.

Indie Luxury

Generate your own fashion. Design your own products. Take it open source. Generate a global audience in a matter of days. It's all possible and it's happening every day. Products can be priced for their scarcity, originality, and impact, and sold within a community that's outside of the traditional purview of corporations insistent on controlling their brands.

A mere decade year ago, the context of the store environment created the tangible value--that was the only place you could get the product. Is that Jil Sander jacket less valuable if I buy it on eBay? Er... what's eBay? Nowadays, sites like eBay and Bag, Borrow or Steal are hammering down the value of Old Luxury and New Luxury brands in mid-size retailers like Nordstrom and Tiffany's.

The old thinking here:

The story I tell about how and where I purchased the product creates the tangible value. Especially if the product is on parity with others in its market. The tribe protects the brand value. Luxury marketers dictate the rules of the game. The cost of entry is the cost of the product. Don't play the game if you aren't serious about being vocal to protect your "investment." Cults and communities online and in the real world defend or destroy the brand value. This happens quickly in the fashion community as different houses veer into and out of style.

The new thinking:

But for the rest of us, the unwashed, the cost of entry can be seen as a psychological barrier, a badge of your inclusion in the tribe, and the only perceived result of the purchase in the physical store.

The purchase is also influenced by economic and social factors. Right now, there's a buzz in the air as banks and investment firms take multi-billion dollar hits to their bottom line from underestimating the risk of sub-prime investment. Why would I blow $5k on a jacket when everyone is suffering?

The Internet has created many more opportunities to access and purchase luxury goods, but also the seeds of their destruction. As more people create online communities around their favorite brands, these communities will communicate about "online deals" as well and further dilute your product value. These communities will also start producing the luxury goods themselves.

I'm paying more attention to this category than Eco Luxury, because it brings the thinking of the long tail into an industry that's always been tight-lipped and inaccessible. And there are people that are doing sustainable work in this area to go head to head with people like Nau, which is exciting.

Of course, companies will try to monetize Indie Luxury by generating communities that ease fulfillment and promotion of product sales. But Indie Luxury as a category will always resist being under a corporate thumb and will generate its own communities and spin-off products that trickle up into the mainstream.

The Dot of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is something you can't escape when you sell a product or service. You're telling other people to focus their attention on a single element of a complicated product or service, all the while attempting to differentiate your client from their peers. When you look at your marketing message in this way, I think it becomes evident why it's so hard for companies to market charitable initiatives, present themselves as socially responsible, or demonstrate true concern about environmental change. You're asking people to look you in the eye and perhaps smile while you're talking, but they can't help but focus on the spot of blood on your cheek.

The challenge of marketing any product or service that includes a social responsibility message requires you to confront what I like to call "the dot of hypocrisy." Your message won't be effective unless you focus on one idea in each communication. If that one idea is a naked social responsibility message, however, you're in big trouble.


If you lead with a marketing claim that is solely based in a social responsibility message, your audience will pick it apart. This is something that I'll be exploring more in-depth in some other posts, but the short argument is this:

Product claims may seem logical to marketers, but they are emotional in nature to an audience and tied up in a mess of factors that include your brand perception and your product position, value, and quality. You can try to control your brand and your product, but you can't control how people perceive the value of your charitable giving or social responsibility. People nowadays say that they think it's critical for companies to be good global citizens, but that single claim isn't enough to get them to act. Social responsibility has to align with people's purchasing factors to make a dent in the dot of hypocrisy.

Sometimes minimizing the dot of hypocrisy is this simple:


Can you think of any examples of companies that have diminished the dot of hypocrisy in an elegant way?