In my talks and workshops, I am seeing many students and young professionals are seeking guidance. On woman sent me questions that might be helpful for other purpose-driven people looking for meaningful work.
1) What are some practical steps one can take towards translating theory into practice?
Finding a situation with real problems to work out is the best way. At your work place, school, or volunteer organization, these are where opportunities to really start the process of turning theory into practice come alive. Listen to people’s pain points or pay attention to possibilities. I recommend starting with the trash or the obvious thing that is wasteful and working backward to inquire about why is it this way and what can we do at all levels of the system to make it less wasteful, non toxic to people, animals, water and soil. Why is it designed this way? What can we do in our business, organization etc to make it environmentally friendly, use less resources, and connect with others who might benefit from our partnership.
The biggest challenge turning sustainability theory into practice has been changing people minds about their responsibility and capabilities to do anything about it in their sphere of influence. Relationship building and communication are fundamental to seeing that anything is actually done. Unless you are running your own show and infuse ethical design and sustainability from the start. However, even that requires great communication and understanding between you and your vendors or customers. Values, social status, and cost savings, are elements of motivating people to integrate sustainability. If you have this finesse with people, that is to get them to drop their egos, see the long term consequences, and take responsibility, you have a real gift that is needed in this work.
Asking for what you want to see is another practical step. It is related to having great communication skills to motivate people to understand and adopt practical steps for sustainability, but you also have to start asking the right people the right questions or do small tasks that address the problems you are trying to solve that can gain momentum. “The revolution starts as soon as the dishes are done.” This is a quote from the Occupy movement, which speaks to basic things being in order before you tackle bigger things if you are working backward. For example, I’ve called and asked vendors or service providers if they could not send packaging or have their wasteful packaging redesigned. I’ve also asked businesses to fix something they sold or take back the product to reuse it. I call this seed planting with connections to start the process of them thinking differently about their service, design, products or processes. They may not do it, but if enough people ask they might start listening. That is a big reality in this work, that there are many practical things that can and need to be done, but sometimes your role is to plant a seed or the concept so people will awaken to it and be inspired by the awake people who are already implementing.
2) What was your path to this work?
My path has been uncompromising so far because I’m tenacious, strong (willing to follow my heart), and idealistic especially in my 20’s. I started learning about this stuff from my very resourceful, zero waste grandmother you was very poor during the depression. I grew up in Wyoming where the landscape provided immense imagination and I was inspired to know how other people lived and how did their landscapes effect them. I took International Studies and Development courses in college and started learning about holistic ethical design and change management essentially. I’m lucky because I have always deeply loved and respected the earth so this was also a thread through my whole development. The past 10 years I have only wanted to only work for conscious companies which meant I worked for a lot of passionate startups that didn’t have the funding or support to launch as far as their dreams, and the recession crushed a lot of this work too. I've worked for free a lot, way too much. I also needed to find which skills would benefit my passion for sustainability. I discovered it was project management, strategy, marketing, and innovation or design thinking work. I have a natural ability to work with and see systems so I wanted to find the best leverage points. I came at this with letting my passion lead and my skills develop around it, but this has been my path which has made me versatile, a specialized generalist, I like to joke. When giving advice about this I recommend people do the deep work of getting to know themselves, their natural skills, the skills they want to learn, and the areas of intrigue, basically, what do you love. Then match this with your passion and start co-creating, (working with others, a product/service, or organization) and make yourself a part of what you believe can be possible.
I believe that in the United States that entrepreneurship is a driving force for conscious change with ecologically healthy outcomes. I have tried to start businesses as well. I either didn’t have the funding I needed to launch them appropriately, the recession crumbled these dreams, or I found out what parts of the start-up process I most enjoyed and what parts I didn’t want to do, and I had to ask myself if I really wanted to become such another company selling jackets that are way to expensive to make and sell for the average person. I’ve realized that much of selling sustainable products has meant catering to the wealthy and that really bothers me because the healthy, sustainable way shouldn’t be the expensive way.
My path has not been easy or financially lucrative, I believe some people have managed to do the good work of sustainability and make great money, but I have found in Portland, Oregon that investing, providing policy support, and financial compensation for this work has not been robust or really here. However, I did manage to work for an organization that blends my passions of art and the environment together and I feel lucky and that was a rare find in the United States. In partnership with an industrial and sustainability designer I have been involved with more strategy and design thinking work, but again we are finding that few businesses are truly investing in help to shift towards this work, but they are interested in business development that might have sustainable outcomes. So we have had to change our process, language, and service offerings and this is better because it will reach more people. This is a valuable lesson in having other valuable skills, while you are able to be humble enough to infuse your sustainability passion in the work without needing to wear the badge so everyone knows what you are doing. It is easier if the company supports your values, though.
Entrepreneurs that have these values are building businesses that are conscious/ sustainable and thus they get it already and are not reaching out to us for help. I acknowledge that we may not be in the right place or marketing to the right people for our strategy business, but I’ve been at this for 10 years and am seeing patterns in my experience. This isn’t to say that I don’t see new opportunities, but I see them more in education and empowering people who want to make a difference in their work and want guidance. I see people reading about how to do things and that’s really inspiring. This seems like a DIY movement in many ways, which I think is great and I hope to still encourage, share resources and advocate.
3) What resources or opportunities are you looking for to aid in your work?
- I’m looking for opportunities to work for companies with a healthy budget, a flexible, global perspective on company culture, and the values to go through a redesign process to be a conscious company if necessary. I’d really like a job doing this, not just freelance work.-The opportunity to partner with a big brand or a medium brand to implement circular ideas and relationships would be great.
- I’d like the opportunity to go to the Netherlands to see what in the Circular Economy is actually happening. A lot of this work can be conceptual so seeing it work in reality on a bigger scale is an opportunity I’d like to have.
- I’d also like to work with a mentor to help me see what I’m missing, such as how to prospect really well and land contracts, essentially be a better sales person or find a sales person.
- Money and connections, being sponsored to create think tanks or design charrettes for the right mixes of people and projects.
- Figuring out the best use of tools and teaching techniques for whole systems thinking and facilitation. I’m looking into learning more about teaching for this.
- Meeting with other people working in this field who have complementary skills. Diversity is key and you can’t know or do everything.
4) What barriers are there to be considered or overcome in achieving implementation?
There are many, but I believe the biggest one is a fear of change and a distaste for the extra thinking and work involved. It’s like learning a language, you want to speak French but it requires a daily practice. Additionally, people have to be willing to experiment and be willing to fail and learn from it. Entrepreneurs seem to be better wired for trying new things or working with people dedicated to design or innovation within a company. Knowing the best people to connect with within an organization who want to and actually have the power to make this work happen has also been a challenge. You have to look for small things can be done in each situation to overcome this barrier. Listening is really the first step.
Group dynamic can really get in the way, egos, people trying to prove themselves... I’ve experienced this myself. I think strong vision and leadership and well-tuned teams make implementation possible. Relationship building and negotiation skills are critical. If the dominant culture is about competition instead of collaboration it is really difficult, but not impossible, sometimes competition drives innovation. I’ve run into a lot of "Founders Syndrome" or leadership that doesn’t want their vision to change, or they many say” this is how we’ve always done it.” Which is funny to me because that shows a lack of evolution or adaptive management which isn’t how nature or organizations work to survive. This could all boil down to a fear of change, inflexibility, and serious lack of imagination which is so dangerous.
Resources and time come up as barriers as well, this is classic project management concerns. This is why we have adaptive management or Agile methods, basically for quick feedback loops. There are practical barriers to not having certain things in place that would make implementation possible, like robust reverse logistics, locations of materials or manufacturing that make closing the loop more expensive, or a machines or processes that need to be created to do a thing, like to extract something or make something. These are easier to deal with than emotional or moral barriers.
5) Are there any methods for connecting with professionals or companies doing holistic ethical design?
Yes there are, and it’s a matter of meeting people, researching, asking the right questions and tracking companies and people doing the work. I think reading articles and following up on who they are featuring is also a good way. I’ve found sharing information with people with this field of interest is the best. Realistically, the younger generation has had more education and examples of this work in your awareness, so I’m hoping there will be more designers and professionals doing the work soon.
6) How can one vet a company to distinguish between green washing and a legitimate good practices?
This is an important question because sometimes people lie, but I think you can feel it out by seeing who they might be partnering with, what are they really selling, such as the feeling or solution are they providing. What type of business they are in and where the industry is on the scale of ecological thinking. Sure there are things like recycling, energy efficient light bulbs etc. and these things are great first steps, but so is the thinking and work in the deeper layers of the businesses such as the design layer, or the material or service offering. Is it solving a problem and producing an ecological outcome as well? Is this company just offsetting its wasteful practices by buying “environmental” solutions? If you can get to them I think talking to the leadership and the people actually doing the work and not the marketing department is important. I like looking into trash cans and talking to customers who use the service or product as well. I think the companies solving a problem in a way that is so obviously legit that they don’t need to say how green they are can be more interesting than having to wade through a green marketing facade. Use your intuition on this.
7) Are there any resources you can suggest to learn more about biomimicry or the circular economy?
Asknature.org is a great start for biomimicry and checking out books at the library. Janine Benyus is the queen of this world.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation is the main driver of the circular economy internationally and they are spreading the word and partnering with companies all over. I'm so grateful for their work. I recently found great resources for designers at Ideo.com in the circular economy world as well.
I’ve noticed that when I give a talk on the circular economy or about using art to market sustainability, that the young professionals and students arise and want to know how to do this work, how to get involved. These questions have happened so much that I’m writing a short book to share what I've learned. It’s tragic that we have people at the ready to make a difference, to work for equality, ecological health, and holistic systems and they don’t feel like they can find an open door. I’ve been there, and we can’t afford to lose their passion to discouragement.
In my wild wiggly path of doing this work, three things have kept me going navigating the uncharted waters of applied sustainability and social change.
If you are a student or young professional reading this, please email me your questions so I can cover angles and topics you are interested in or find the right person to answer it for you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m working on an online book and I would love feedback, donations (via PayPal using my email address), and stories to make it as successful as possible. Please reach out.