Monday, October 25, 2010

Announcing the Sustainable Design Auditing Project

Republished from the Re-Nourish Blog

Re-nourish, together with several partner organizations including the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC), is excited to announce the official launch of the Sustainable Design Auditing Project (SDAP), a multi-stakeholder working group tasked with developing open-source metrics for measuring the environmental, social and economic impacts of the graphic design supply chain. It’s time for the graphic design industry to start walking the walk.

The need for metrics in a changing industry

Many would have us believe the design industry is changing from a dependence on designing commodity materials to experiences and systems. This may be true: with climate change and conventional resource extraction now recognized globally as a legitimate threat to human development, we’re rethinking our relationships with production, consumption and disposal. There are many opinions about how designers should go through this process, and what direction we should move in as an industry, and as a culture. But which direction the industry moves is irrelevant if the language used to articulate this new reality remains opaque and exclusionary.

There’s no doubt the design field has changed dramatically over the last decade or two. Technological developments have made obsolete many traditional design roles - typesetters, anyone? - requiring designers to adapt or go out of business. Then came crowdsourcing and the proliferation of competitions as a means of soliciting creative work at low cost. This debate continues to rage, with many seeing such a development as yet another commoditization of creative services. And now - perhaps as a backlash to this commoditization - there seems to be another shift occurring. This shift in particular calls into question the very nature of design itself: what, exactly, are we all designing? And what should we be designing? Services, systems, experiences - these are the most frequent answers right now.

But without a universal and transparent means of communicating impacts and outcomes, whatever we choose to design going forward will be nothing more than a best guess or worse - a shot in the dark. And what exactly do we mean by “impacts and outcomes?” We mean: the true cost to individuals and communities, to waterways and land and air, and to economies. Outcomes and incomes are the what: the degree of toxic contamination swimming through a particular lake, or the number of jobs lost or healthcare plans cut, or perhaps the number of species disappearing from a particular monocultural tree farm.

Outcomes and impacts are not the same as standards, which is where Re-nourish started our journey and have since moved on from. Other industries already recognize the danger of proscribing one-size-fits-all solutions rather than measuring real-world impacts, and are furiously at work developing metrics and measures that serve as the building blocks for any honest, accurate discussion of social and environmental impact. The design industry needs to lead this charge, not play catch-up.

A universally-accepted set of metrics that measure impacts and outcomes in meaningful ways will allow designers to explore the implications of new design methodologies and frameworks on equal footing. It will prevent one small group of people or one particular commercial interest from monopolizing the conversation. It will encourage transparency and accuracy instead of greenwash and platitudes. This is a matter of fairness and inclusion and justice - everyone with skin in the game (and that includes every designer who finds themselves grappling with their changing industry) must have access to a shared language to ensure private interests don’t dictate the terms of our existence.

Underlying principles of SDAP

There are four principles underlying this project that must be present for it to be a legitimate process:
  1. Multi-stakeholder engagement. This should include the private sector (equipment and paper supply chain), working designers (including freelance designers, design firms, and in-house designers), academia, and nonprofits/NGOs.
  2. Ample public review and commenting opportunities. This should be executed through both online and offline outreach for maximim reach and inclusiveness.
  3. Full transparency, disclosure, and crediting. It is essential that all legal entities involved (including both for-profit and nonprofit institutions) are publicly disclosed in the interest of transparency. It is also critical to allow individuals operating independently of established organizations or agencies be able to participate in an anonymous fashion to encourage those who might differ from their places of employment to have a voice.
  4. Consideration of other credible, established metrics systems and processes.This process cannot be conducted in a vacuum, nor would it be wise to repeat efforts already underway. Specific systems worth considering as potential models or case studies include but are certainly not limited to LEED (architecture and construction industry), Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (agricultural industry), and ISO processes (accreditation industry), ULE 880 (general private sector), and Oxfam’s Poverty Footprint project (general private sector). 

What will be measured?

While specific metrics will have to be determined through the SDAP process, the following general impact areas should be considered:

  • Environmental impacts (e.g. energy, water, GHG emissions, toxicity levels)
  • Social impacts (e.g. labor and employment, health and safety, community development)
  • Economic impacts (e.g. productivity, profitability, local investment)

How will SDAP be governed?

Currently, Re-nourish is facilitating the formation of a Steering Committee comprised of representative stakeholders including designers, environmental nonprofits, manufacturers and suppliers, and academia. This Steering Committee will be the primary governing body, and will oversee a General Assembly of further stakeholders. Anyone can join the General Assembly and provide input into the metrics development process.

SDAP governance structure

We’re also working on a way to include an option for anonymity, to ensure those who might have input that differs from an employer will be protected. The challenge will be to balance this anonymity with the need for transparency.

How can people get involved?

In the interest of inclusivity and accessibility, we encourage anyone and everyone with a stake in this process to join us. There is no fee to join, and there is no minimum commitment.

We also encourage you to leave your comments below, and to spread the word: 

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