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The Designers Accord: An industrywide coalition to promote sustainability

Industrial designers who are uniquely positioned at the intersection of business, technology, and culture, may bring some clarity into the many shades of green.

The topic of sustainable or green design is of increasing urgency to companies involved in product development. Last year, it reached a tipping point in public interest and concern over global climate change, fueled by massive media interest.

Companies that fail to address it risk legislative punishment, as well as negative brand and sales consequences. But green also provides a huge market opportunity: recent surveys have indicated that key customer segments are willing to pay more for greener products.

Lots of companies at this year's Consumer Electronics Show were touting green design and environmental thinking, though as my colleague Adam Richardson observed, "in some cases, it seemed more sloganeering than anything very deep."

Not surprisingly, the backlash is rampant. Because green has become a forceful business imperative, it is getting harder these days to tell green design from "greenwashing" and to tell those who jump on the bandwagon from the ones driving it.

Consumers are harder to please too: increased demand for green products and services is contrasted by growing skepticism about moral free riders who take advantage of the public's goodwill for all things green.

Designers, and in particular industrial designers, who are uniquely positioned at the intersection of business, technology, and culture, may bring some clarity into the many shades of green. Since their work covers both the beginning and the end of the product development chain, they not only obtain privileged insights into user behavior, materials, and manufacturing, but they also possess a unique environmental responsibility, as well as the conceptual and practical power to actually make a difference.

As such interdisciplinary, enlightened vanguards of the new green conscience, they can drive an industrywide conversation and establish universal standards: "Sustainability promises to be one of the defining issues of our time, one with profound effects on our personal and professional lives," states the Web site of the Compostmodern conference on sustainable design. "For designers, it represents unique challenges as well as tremendous potential--nothing less than an opportunity to redesign how the world works."

Designers are hearing this call and beginning to institutionalize and externalize the knowledge that had previously been tacit and dispersed. Several leading design consultancies, including Design Continuum, Frog Design (full disclosure: my employer), Ideo, and Smart Design, have entered "The Designers Accord," an industrywide coalition to promote positive environmental and social impact.

The call to arms, which was first introduced in Frog's Design Mind magazine last summer, has since been endorsed by the influential design blog Core77, and it is growing as more firms pledge their involvement. In the coming months, the initiative will expand to include an open-source Web site in which member firms may share resources and ideas.

Cynics may say signing the agreement requires not much more than lip service, as most adopters will already practice many of the not-so-demanding principles outlined: "Undertake a program to educate your teams about designing sustainably; initiate a dialogue about environmental impact and sustainable alternatives with each and every client; measure the carbon, or greenhouse gas, footprint of your firm, and pledge to significantly reduce that footprint annually," and so on.

Fair enough, but that's not the point. What is more remarkable about the agreement is its open, "coopetitive" nature: for the first time, and disregarding their traditional competition, design firms (and also the two leading professional organizations, Industrial Designers Society of America and AIGA) commit to sharing their experience and pooling their resources for a greater cause.

That's a real paradigm shift, and it may indeed provide the lever that the Accord adopters are hoping for: "Our rationale is that, by collectively committing to having this conversation, our client base--the world's manufacturers, distributors, and services providers--will be compelled to evaluate sustainability as a key vector in decision making around the products and services they create for their base, the global consuming audience."