Ecological Correctness

Film shows businesses' ways of helping Earth

April 20, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

It's fashionable in the corporate world for company leaders to talk about protecting the environment and creating a "sustainable economy."

Now, a 55-minute documentary by Maryland-based filmmakers shows how much can happen when executives put words into action. It also underscores the powerful role architects and product designers can play in formulating strategies that lead to change.

The Next Industrial Revolution, which airs at 8 p.m. tomorrow on Maryland Public Television in observance of Earth Day, focuses on companies and institutions that have gone beyond the talking stage and taken specific steps to implement ecologically intelligent design concepts. They include:

Nike, which creates athletic shoes with no poisonous chemicals in the soles.

DesignTex, which markets dyed fabrics so toxin-free that remnants can be recycled as garden mulch.

Oberlin College, which recently opened a building that was designed "like a tree," capable of cleaning its own wastewater and producing more energy than it consumes.

The common thread is that each of the owners worked with American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart. The two are pioneers in a worldwide campaign to transform the relationship between commerce and nature.

"When we follow nature's rules, growth is good," McDonough says. "The question before us is not growth vs. no growth. It is: What would good growth look like? ... What if we grow health instead of sickness, home ownership instead of indigence, education instead of ignorance?"

Though the film premiered earlier this year at New York's Guggenheim Museum and has been shown at events, tomorrow's program will be the first television airing of the documentary by Maryland filmmakers Shelley Morhaim and Chris Bedford of Earthome Productions in Stevenson.

Morhaim is a filmmaker, lawyer, community activist and founding member of Earthome, a nonprofit organization established to promote sustainability and environmental education in the Chesapeake Bay region. Bedford is an advocacy filmmaker who has made documentaries about the labor movement, the environment and social justice movements.

The Next Industrial Revolution is the first film produced by Earthome Productions. Initially skeptical about corporate agendas, Morhaim and Bedford met with leaders and rank-and-file workers at companies that have adopted McDonough's and Braungart's principles, including Ford Motor Co. and the Herman Miller furniture factory, both in Michigan.

Narrated by actress Susan Sarandon, the film shows many of the ideas they saw in action, from the "green palette" of Nike's shoes to the greening of Ford's vast River Rouge plant, now the centerpiece of a $2 billion project to restore the Dearborn, Mich., riverfront.

Together, the filmmakers say, these different approaches are the start of a worldwide movement to make contemporary industrial civilization as safe and ever renewing as nature itself - the next industrial revolution.

"We did not want to "green wash" the companies; we asked tough questions," Morhaim says. "In the process, we uncovered a major corporate movement to analyze and change current methods of design, production and distribution with the potential to revolutionize business worldwide.

"The highly successful companies featured in the film want to increase profits and protect the environment. The McDonough-Braungart protocol gives them a way to achieve both goals."

Throughout the film, corporate executives reiterate the point that "green" products must meet all the performance, cost and aesthetic standards of "normal" merchandise.

"In the past, `green' translated to either prohibitively expensive or ugly and shoddy," Morhaim says. "The McDonough-Braungart designs turn that thinking on its head."

By going inside the companies, Bedford says, "we show the transformative power of these ideas and the very real challenges that had to be overcome for success."

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