Sustainability Observations from the Road


This article was written by John Lewis in August 2009. This month we're showcasing some of our best, in celebration of four years of WorldChanging Canada.

I just recently spent a month away—both for work and for pleasure. My work travels included time in Switzerland at the Global Environmental Governance Forum and connection with some colleagues who were running a session in London that explored the use of art to explore issues around climate change. Reflections on that part of my trip can be found here.

I captured some other, more informal sustainability observations while I was on the road during some vacation time with my wife. Getting outside of your own day-to-day environment opens up your eyes to new things—and sustainability is no different. I’m always fascinated to see how sustainability is being addressed, achieved and articulated in other parts of the world and experienced some of these at a variety of scales.

London: Small box, big information.

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While sitting at Heathrow waiting to get on my flight to Berlin, I picked up a carrot cake from Prêt a Manger, a UK-based food outlet. The information on the package jumped out at me immediately.

Their self-proclaimed goal is to provide “handmade natural food avoiding the obscure chemical, additives and preservatives common to so much of the 'prepared' and 'fast' food on the market today.”

On their website, Pret has a “Pret Sustainability” section. This provides an overview of the areas they are looking at, including packaging, recycling, food waste, energy, food and carbon emissions. Three things about Pret stand out for me:

  1. Language. Communicating sustainability using approachable and simple language is vital. Pret does a really great job at this.
  2. Honesty. I don’t think I’ve seen corporate communication that is so direct and honest. It doesn’t try to use corporatespeak to make it look like they have this sustainability thing solved. They talk about their process and struggles and what they are trying to do to get better. An example can be found in their discussion of food waste on their website:

    "Tragically, despite running our very own fleet of electric vans (the Pret Charity Run), a few of our shops have no regular charities willing to collect our fresh, natural food at the end of the day. If you run a charity in need of good food let us know.”

  3. Collaboration. Pret communicates the issue of sustainability as a collaborative one. This makes total sense when you think of the connectivity and scope of the issues, but companies and organizations often only talk about what they are doing themselves and end the conversation there. As the example above shows, Pret seems willing to connect with their customers and partners.

Whether at the individual or organizational level, Pret demonstrates the ability to do what they can, but also recognizes that by communicating effectively and collaborating with others, they can move much further. This is something we all should do.

Berlin: Green and cool.

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While in Berlin, we visited the Reichstag—the home to Germany’s parliament. Razed by fire in 1933, the building was neglected until the reunification of Germany in the early 1990’s. Famed architect Norman Foster won a competition to rebuild the building. The building incorporated a variety of sustainable elements, including the use of combined heat and power generation, the use of biomass as the energy source for electricity production, extensive use of natural light and ventilation and the installment of 100 solar panels.

At the centre of this renovation, however is the Reichstag dome or cupola. It obviously provides an instant landmark, but has a lot of fascinating features. The dome is built around a “light sculptor”—a vertical bank of 360 mirrors, which directs light down into the parliamentary chamber below. This cone of mirrors works in conjunction with an automated sun shield that prevents solar gain and glare during the day. At night, the process is reversed when the artificial light from the chamber below is reflected upwards, acting as a beacon and letting Berliners know when the parliament is in session.

The design dramatically demonstrates how sustainable elements can be integrated into a broader program, which in this case include the architects’ intended themes of “lightness, transparency, permeability and public access.” (Foster and Partners, 1999)

One important travel tip if you’re looking to visit the Reichstag: it turns out that the blending of architecture, sustainability and democracy is a big draw. If you don’t get there first thing in the morning, you’ll have a massive line to contend with.

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Prague: Bring the heat.

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While staying in an apartment in Prague, our water was warmed by a small, wall-mounted on-demand water heater in our bathroom. While studying in Barcelona for a semester a bunch of years ago, we had one of these, but I had actually forgotten about them. The premise is pretty simple—rather than keep litres and litres of water heated, stored and ready to go, the “tankless” water heater only heats water when needed. The result is that you require less energy to heat the water as you are only heating when needed.

While in our apartment, whenever we would turn on the hot water tap in the kitchen or bathroom, you would hear a click-click-click....whoosh as the burner kicked in. Within a few seconds we were washing our dishes or showering away. On average, it took under 10 seconds for the hot water to start flowing. As you can see from the picture I took of our heater, it pretty much goes with any decor—including hot orange bathroom tile.

Like many technologies that bring green benefits—in this case reduced energy use-on-demand water heaters save money by reducing operating costs. Unfortunately, also like many greener solutions on the market, the up-front expense might deter people from making this choice as they are more expensive than tank heaters. When considering the ease of use during my time in Prague, the benefits of energy, cost and space savings versus a tank heater, I suspect that it won’t be too long until I make the switch in my own house.


Photos: John Lewis

In June, 2010, John Lewis and Mark Tovey appeared together on a panel at SubtleTechnologies, with Jill Anholt and moderator Philip Beesley, in a session partly inspired by this post (Artful Interventions).

In autumn, 2009, John Lewis started the Environmental Translation Project, designed to help people and organizations act in a more sustainable way, by translating complex information into plain English to make it both comprehensible and actionable.


For more great articles by John Lewis, see: