Greener than Green: Eco Rock Stars Take Sustainability to New Heights at the Living Future unConference 2019
By Janeen Ellsworth
The Living Future Institute’s annual unConference in Seattle, WA, is where architects, engineers, property developers, designers and anyone else who cares about the built environment goes to deepen their knowledge and get hyper-motivated about sustainability.
Eco rock stars like Bill McKibben, who founded 350.org, Mustafa Santiago Ali, VP of Hip Hop Caucus, and Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and human rights champion, presented awe-inspiring keynotes. Attendees learned what they’ll have to do to qualify for the Living Building Challenge, which is the world’s most rigorous set of performance standards for buildings—targets aiming way higher than "just" LEED certification.
In conference rooms throughout the Hyatt Regency on Olive & 8th, they talked about incorporating these ambitious, green construction methods and products into their building projects. They hopped aboard ferry boats, taking field trips to see Seattle’s “living buildings,” all in their moss-covered, solar-paneled glory. They waxed on about hydroponics, place-making and indigenous populations. And there were parties. So. Many. Parties.
So, what the heck was I doing there?
(Thank heavens for Aunt Lizzy, Gaga, and Papap for making all of this possible. We owe you guys our lives.)
Doors Unhinged salvages and sells commercial door systems: frames, hardware, hinges—the whole shebang.
Are you turned on yet? Because doors are sexy, amiright?!
Can you believe that heavy, solid-wood, snazzy glass, even fire-proof doors regularly get tossed into the landfill during renovation projects—even when they’re in perfect condition and only a couple of years old—because tenants moving into fancy new office spaces want a fresh, updated look?
That’s what we talked about a few hundred times this week at the conference. Beyond sexy door hinges, I became particularly fascinated with how the folks who threw this event, which draws over a thousand people, pulled it off as totally “green.”
Since people flew to Seattle from all over the world (Australia, Finland, Mexico, and a ton of Pittsburghers went, too), each of us had to work extra hard to make up for the carbon we’d spewed into the air en route. Working together to achieve a sustainable conference meant there were a lot of rules to follow.
As a trade show vendor, our cute company T-shirts had to be made of organic cotton. Our brochures and business cards had to be printed on recycled paper with eco-friendly ink.
We weren’t allowed to bring any schwag to pass out that’s typical of industry trade shows: No branded keychains or multi-tools. Not even lousy pens! But, truthfully, who uses that junk anyhow? The Living Future Institute knows schwag is usually manufactured overseas by underpaid laborers, which is why it’s prohibited at the conference.
The guys from Helsinki who ran the booth next to us, however, went renegade: they handed out Finnish chocolates, which everyone loved, including me, and nobody from LF busted them on it. (Maybe the chocolate was marked “fair trade.” I ate mine too fast to notice.)
The coffees, teas, pastries, cheeses, fruits and crackers displayed on the hotel banquet tables were allegedly local to Washington State, as well as being organic. Local food trucks pulled up in the parking lot to feed the masses, too.
Whew! Disaster averted!
I can only surmise they were the kind of faux plastic cups made from corn oil, which are a more sustainable alternative to oil-based plastics because they biodegrade and don’t emit toxins.
Zero people that I could smell in my corner of the trade show wore heavy perfumes. Presumably they all got the memo on artificial fragrances destroying air quality. And, despite us being in Seattle, I barely even saw any performance fleece, probably these cats know the stuff is made of toxic micro plastics.
Andrew and I did our little extra part over the week by taking shorter showers less often, and by walking and taking public transit to and from our Air B&B on Capitol Hill each day. (Dragging laptops, door samples and heavy hardware behind us, no less.)
You do what you can, when you can, wherever you can, right?
I’m inspired by the progressive ideas I heard this week as we all sipped from our stainless steel water bottles, talking about salvaged building materials and food deserts. I’m heartened to know so many folks in the industry are excited about reducing waste and optimizing energy efficiency.
Because going off-grid, pretending 21st Century life isn’t happening, isn’t a real option for regular people like you and me. We live in the world--this world, the one with skyscrapers that need elevators; and townhome complexes that need heating systems; grocery stores that need refrigeration systems; and highways that need EZ pass monitors.
We need smart people who can figure out how to make all this stuff sustainable for the next few generations, so that we can keep existing.
So that we can do our jobs.
So that our kids can survive.
I’m honored to have met the smart people who are actively working on all this. Knowing that they’re committed to doing their part makes it easier for me to do mine.
So I’m heading back to Pittsburgh now, having skipped my morning shower. I’ll just stare out at the clouds from this Boeing 737, sipping from my stainless steel water bottle. Maybe I’ll plant some trees later to make up for the carbon I’m emitting.
And back in Steeltown, USA, I guess I’ll keep squawking about how to live green to anyone who’ll listen. Even if it does sound…ahem…elementary to all those eco rock stars in Seattle.
I'm Janeen; writer, mother, wife, and full-time, radical Reductionist. I share stupid-easy tips on how to save money while reducing your impact on the environment, & I'm committed to helping others live a life of simple sustainability.
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