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A Worldchanging Salon in Brooklyn
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For our second New York stop on the Worldchanging book tour, we organized a "green salon" with the crew behind the annual design show, Haute Green. About thirty people congregated in the eco-renovated Williamsburg loft of Kimberly Oliver, for what turned out to be a wonderfully stimulating and inspiring evening of conversation about what's coming next in sustainability.

The room was full of brilliant minds, mostly from the design, media, architecture, and art worlds. After some organic food and drink and conversation about the book itself, we sat everyone down, handed out pens and paper, and asked the question: If 2006 was about green becoming "the new black," what will 2007 be about? What's next?

Kimberly Oliver spoke first, postulating that sustainability is on its way to a tipping point where it will become ubiquitous and mainstream à la "Green is the new Wal-Mart." Treehugger founder Graham Hill wondered if mainstreaming would just lead to greenwashing and a dilution in quality of available green products. Bart Bettencourt (of Haute Green, Scrapile and Bettencourt Wood fame) agreed, adding that this year we'll see even more marketing geared towards a green consumer, which brings the danger of inauthentic claims. On the other hand, Bart sees corporate adoption of green practices as a good thing if we can keep the bar high. "We're still in a transitional period," he said, and if we can hold to our standards as we move through it, we might hit the tipping point Kimberly brought up.

Several times, conversation came back to the notion that we need to keep the bar high, that in the absence of strict standards and real vision, the current vogue for environmentally- and socially-responsible consumerism would merely dissipate into an excuse for greater consumption.

Rebecca Silver pointed out that there's a knowledge gap which hinders progress in design and large-scale manufacturing, as well as in widespread responsible consumerism; we need a certain amount of basic education to get the green momentum going -- and, added Sandra Hansel of Design Within Reach (which graciously sponsored the evening) -- we need to feel like there's no deep sacrifice involved in becoming more responsible.

But does it matter, asked Graham, if people understand the complexity behind a green product, as long as they are finding sufficient motivation to choose it?

Most of the group countered that it does matter: since the gap between current practices and sustainability is so large, education must be constant if consumers are going to learn to choose the truly green from the only marginally green. "What's green today might not be green tomorrow," said Rebecca.

So coming back to the original question... As Alex has often said before, this cresting green wave might be compared to the early edge of Internet Boom -- lots of venture capital and investment dollars floating around and a near-boiling eagerness to make a fundamental shift, particularly in business, by throwing funding in new directions. That there will certainly be an investment bust to follow at some point should not frighten us, because in the meantime, many sustainable practices will become widely adopted: after all, the Net's alive and well, even after the Dot.Com bubble burst. And, given the magnitude of the challenge ahead of us, the potential for radical capitalism is pretty profound.

It's a sign, Alex pointed out, that this is not the old environmental generation. The last green advocates were spending their time raising the alarm; this generation has already heard it ring. And we are empowering ourselves to push solutions.

"But what about those members of our generation who still feel apathetic?" asked Sophie Donelson of Elle Decor. What about the fact that we sometimes require a personal revelation to change our behavior and our minds? Kimberly told the story of hearing a recent panel of sustainability influencers, all of whom cited having kids as their green epiphany.

But of course, most people who attended the salon are still kidless, and yet we've all had personal turning points that led us to our pursuits and passions. So what jolts us awake? Alex suggested that it is our ability to see the consequences of crisis in our own lives. The crisis is not looming, it's here; and as we witness events like Katrina, we recognize the infinite layers of consequence implicit in warming up the globe.

Indeed, the conversation was starting to ring with mild negativity. That's when Kristen Dettoni from InterfaceFABRIC -- one of just a handful of guests who work at a giant corporation -- chimed in to call us out. From where she stands, she said, things don't look nearly as grim as we might suspect. Interface is perhaps the best example to date of the very real possibility off turning a big corporate ship around.

Many agreed that as our ecological chickens come home to roost, regulations and resource constraints are likely to push the market even more strongly towards green and responsible practices and products. We know a better world is possible. And, as we broke for more wine and some organic chocolate, there was a sense in the room that we can't wait to start building it.

[image of loft from (and loft renovated by) Matt Gagnon Studio] -- more shots from the salon to come...

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It's great, via Worldchanging, to get to be a "fly on the wall" at such a conversation. But naturally, it raises questions. Just what did Kristen Dettoni of InterfaceFABRIC mean when she said things "don't look nearly as grim as we might suspect" from where she sits? Which things, and what is it about her perspective that confers authority for such a claim?

If we who take the time to be deeply informed about the scale and rate of the challenges are to believe the Kristen Dettonis of the world when they whistle a happier tune, Worldchanging can help us by substantiating their perspective. Interface's story is extraordinary but hardly typical. Just as one Nelson Mandela may be enough to restore faith in human nature, but not uncritical belief that, because Mandela exists, humans can do no wrong.

Posted by: Ted on 25 Nov 06

Thanks to the team for such a great and effective gathering of folks. Let's hope the crowd grows from 30 to 300!

I would just like to comment on Graham Hill's question, "does it matter if people understand the complexity behind a green product, as long as they are finding sufficient motivation to choose it?" I would have to totally disagree with the rest of the crowd and cite that I think he has tapped what I think is the biggest barrier for Green Entrepreneurs, their enthusiasm to educate and ‘convert’ people.

What’s going to make this positive shift into sustainability for the greater population is most likely NOT re-educating the mass public on what and why a certain product is so important, but rather competing with and eventually replacing current ‘bad’ products with ‘good’ products. Let’s not mistakenly assume that Americans are eager to learn about any of this (they are not particularly interested in picking a decent government for themselves) so why do we think they will care to research and figure this out on their own?

Don’t get me wrong, the amount of people ‘waking up’ to this topic all over the world is increasing every day, but we still have so far to go. Education should be used to solve problems like fighting HIV AIDS and telling contractors how to choose building materials. Let’s beat the consumers and large corporations at their own games: price and design. Once it’s ‘cool’ to purchase 100% sustainable puma’s (or whatever) it won’t matter if all the junior high kids know why they’re buying them, but their purchase power will matter and it will raise the bar for competitors and other products.

Looking after large corporations to make sure their ‘sustainable’ claims are accurate will be a whole other problem, but I would rather worry about HOW sustainable they are as opposed to seeing no action at all.

Posted by: Eric on 29 Nov 06

Hi I would like kick in a couple of cents on the “what does it take for green to be the new khaki" discussion. To my mind, it's important to answer the question why do so many people make sub-optimal and contradictory decisions? A cleaner environment always polls very well, yet actual decisions and actions don’t jibe with the talk. Is it just talk is cheap or are there barriers that prevent people from acting in a way that would be consistent with their supposedly green views?

I will first say that when I first discussed this topic with a friend recently, I came down wholly in the education/consciousness raising camp vs relying on fashion/taste/ease of use. A good “green? mousetrap will be imitated by Madison Avenue. Was Pepsi Clear really a healthy product? hmmmm. Moreover fashion/tastes change. Off the poached salmon get me a sirloin. Yet relying on education is too long a process. Our decisions today will have global ramifications in the second half of the century. So waiting for our kids to become environmentally aware on Earth Day is too long a process. Not to mention that on Earth Day and every other day, they being taken to school in a SUV!

As for whether talk is cheap vs seemingly overwhelming barriers I guess I the barriers are the only thing with any complexity. If it’s just cheap talk then there is little to discuss. So what are some of the barriers:
1.Disenfranchisment. My individual actions are too unimportant to make a difference on a global scale. Similar to the lower voter turnout. My vote doesn’t matter, my recycling and my use of renewable products doesn’t make a difference.
2.Time-inconsistency. Our consumption decisions today may not directly impact the environment in our lifetime.
3.Extra Cost of Being Green. While these costs may or may not be purely monetary, there is a cost of educating oneself to make a green choice. So many products so little time can overwhelm many people.
4.Varied Environmental Message. There are so many environmental challenges and concerns. As a result, anything environmental can get lumped together and confused. Do the Yellowstone wolves have anything to do with sustainable living? It seems that for a lot of people the many voices of the environmental movement can be cacophonous.

When I look at this brief list of barriers, it strikes me both approaches are necessary. Education to make people realize how important their decisions are and to empower to make the correct decision. However, remodeling the message so it’s simplified and Green choices are not only cool but also easy is a critical way overcoming some of the challenges of embracing a green lifestyle. Are there ways getting a sustainable seal of approval for products akin to USDA’s Organic stamp? I’ve gone on for too long here but wanted just to throw something into the cauldron.

Posted by: Stuart SB on 11 Dec 06



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