Design for Earth: Questioning Greenwashing

Green has gone mainstream. But as green walls, rooftop farms, and tree covered skyscrapers become the norm in cities around the world, critics ask if these developments are simply the latest face of greenwashing. Environmental advocates such as Naomi Klein have long warned of corporations that attempt to mask questionable records by emphasizing green elements. Klein has challenged industrialists who partake in flashy, eco-conscious campaigns but do little to alleviate the impact of their businesses on the climate. Many companies spend more money convincing consumers that they are green than they do on actual green initiatives; some corporate green initiatives actually harm the environment.   Stefano Boeri’s proposal for a “Forest City” in China (source) Urbanists worry that greenwashing has spread to urban design and architecture by literally covering up buildings with plants. The vertical farms, plant-covered towers, and eco-villages that once seemed far-fetched are now not only possible but all the rage. Bringing greenery into the city may reduce emissions and improve air quality, but it does little to address the deeper causes of urban and environmental stress. Greening initiatives increase the economic value of places, risking displacement of economically vulnerable residents. Does a greenroof on top of a superstore help uninsured workers? What difference does a green tech-campus make if it requires hundreds of parking spaces?   Rendering of a Walmart greenroof (source) One architect who questions greenwashing is Alejandro Aravena, director of the firm ELEMENTAL in Chile. At last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, Aravena exposed the wasteful side of design by exhibiting 90 tons of detritus from the previous year’s event. He also tackles underlying challenges, by collaborating with communities to empower them to design affordable and sustainable housing for themselves. In this age of tree-covered skyscrapers, Aravena’s commitment to modest and even monotonous design stands out. Quinta Monroy residential development by Aravena/ELEMENTAL (source) Questioning greenwashing demands that designers ask whether the green city must be a luxury for the privileged and whether sustainability initiatives accelerate inequality. Designers in all disciplines must look beyond rhetoric and aesthetics to evaluate the impact of environmental design. How can we, as designers, reconcile our role, which is closely linked with the market economy and overconsumption, with environmental and social awareness? Designers invested in truly sustainable practice are encouraged to submit a proposal for the topic “Questioning Greenwashing” at the Congress for the World Design Summit.