Posts tagged “michael pollan”

Green? Ennh, problem solved. Almost? Um, not quite.


is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government or even a non-government organisation to sell a product, a policy or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.

Frankly, after some talks (more of the same stuff we’ve been hearing for a while) at the recent IDSA Shift conference I feel like designers and other eco-do-gooders are as guilty of greenwashing as the supposed evil corporate fat cats. We face a barrage of examples that are dramatically missing the real details. If you want to make the case that we need to solve the world’s problems, that’s one thing. If you want to make the case that design and designers are solving these problems, that’s another.

The barriers to innovation and change are political, financial, cultural, not a lack of smarts, gumption, or whizbang know-how.

Lifestraw should be familiar to many.
But as our friend Dina Mehta pointed out in a conversation last year in Bombay, the real problem is how to get people in rural areas to understand that water contains invisible poisons that they must avoid. Based on her work with and awareness of India’s rural population, she saw this as the bigger challenge.

But Lifestraw (and others like it) are presented as a fait accompli.

How many times have you seen some innovative design for a homeless shelter? Low ecological footprint, low cost, easy put up and take down, etc. Wonderful. Well, why do we still have homeless folks sleeping on the street? Oh, because what municipality is going to allow a built encampment? Let alone spend money and give land away for homeless people to live in. That’s a huge political challenge. I’m not suggesting the real problem is homelessness, but the real problem is how to get your solution adopted. But no one wants to talk about that.

Similarly, designers create something but emphasize that it’s biodegradable, as if that solves everything. But it doesn’t. Things that degrade leave material behind. If plastic bags biodegrade, you[‘ll have something left behind. We like our pretty graphics with ugly stinky machinery turning into happy flowers in gentle meadows, but that’s not really what happens. Biodegrade is an oversimplification that ignores some real consequences. The problem isn’t solved and presenting a solution implying that it is solved is the form of greenwashing that I’m getting fed up with.

You could make a similar point with claims (like those made by presenters at RISD) that “corn is renewable.” Ask Michael Pollan about the problems with corn.

The fact is that there’s a moral, ethical, technical, environmental, and social calculus beyond our ability to manage. How does one decide where to look at a problem and a potential solution. We can’t agree on paper vs. plastic or to-go cup vs. ceramic. This is Tenner-level complexity.

Eco-eager designers do their efforts a disservice but oversimplifying or denying this complexity. By misleading through omission, they echo the institutions they claim to be fighting against.

Standards Shifting

Fresh and Clean International Food Safety Standards

When I took this picture (in Bangkok) I marveled at the fact that something as basic as food safety was advertised as a benefit to shoppers. What about taste? Value? Good times? Good friends? An interesting menu? Nope. Fresh. Clean. Safe.

Yet here in the U.S. we’ve got scallion problems at Taco Bell and recent problems with spinach. Am I having a Michael Pollan-induced panic or are we not as far ahead as we kid ourselves into believing?

Fruit Comes To The Door


In a post-Omnivore’s Dilemma world, we had a recent chance to participate in a service usually reserved for big cities – home delivery of organic produce.

Here in Montara (pop. 4000 or something; home to an Alpaca ranch, a cafe, and a convenience store but very little else commercial) there is a little produce stand called “Sweet Peas” and they’ve begun home delivery.

I don’t think I’ve ever had non-restaurant food delivered (and I can’t remember the last time I had restaurant food delivered at home). We were totally struck by our visit to the suburbs of Mumbai when our host called and ordered some bottles of water and cigarettes and they appeared a few minutes later. One of my first real design/research projects, in fact, was a grocery store home delivery service (pre-Webvan, in fact, pre-web). And many many years later, I finally experienced it.

They send out a Tuesday email with a spreadsheet; you fill it out and email it back that day and the food comes on Friday. Leave the resuable boxes (they have our names on a sticker) out next week and do it all over again

I’m intrigued by the complexity of the cultural factors that impact the experience, and here’s my first pass at it:

Home delivery – food comes to the door – time-saving and convenience
Organic – I admit I don’t care about this as a principle, but some of the food does taste better, richer, fresher. There’s a snob factor to organic as well that I’m sure I am participating in. Hey, those two boxes cost $41. The prices are definitely higher, but I’m trying not to compare apples and apples, if you will.
Local business – I am surprised at how much this appeals to me – maybe the lack of commerce in my area makes this more tangible. Maybe I can relate, as a small business myself. The fact that we walk our dog past the owner’s home and see the garage filled with produce boxes makes it more tangible; we’re presumably doing good for our community and helping someone we can point to make a living. Of course, our Safeway employs locally and shopping there gives people jobs well. But Safeway seems like The Man and this feels like Sticking It To The Man; a rare chance to feel some power, to have some choices. These delivery services have appeared over the past several years in big places like New York (where FreshDirect seems to have had a similar cultural impact to Starbucks) and Vancouver. We’re getting some of that big city flavor of small(er) business in our own small community.
Small farms – I don’t know if this true and I don’t care to verify it but I get the vibe that the producers of these products (perhaps because of the organic thing) are small businesses themselves, and as consumers we hear about the corporate farms and how that’s vaguely bad, so there’s a further flavor of Doing Good attached to this purchase.
Local farms – Again, I don’t know if this is true, but it’s part of the mythology of the service – but I’m guessing the food hasn’t come a long way (the stand itself highlights some local farms). We’re being told that having a product sit on a truck and burn fuel to go a long distance isn’t good for us or the environment.
Reactive eating – For our first purchase, we picked from a list, but Sweet Peas will also let you specify a weekly dollar amount and simply pick stuff for you based on what’s fresh that week. In combination with the local food thing, this suggests a different philosophy of food consumption, that we bend with nature rather than forcing it to our will through the magic of science
Surprise and Mass CustomizationBecause of their local and small nature, Sweet Peas seems very willing to help come up with a weekly menu that is some combination of staples (i.e., we always want 3 bananas) and what’s fresh (i.e., to make a total of $XX.XX). Even if we don’t make use of that, the flexibility and choice seem very appealing.


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