Getting Out of Las Vegas

Leaving Las VegasOriginally posted on November 7, 2011. As we look to build a strong economy, we’ve more questions to ask ourselves than ever before.  Chief among them is the sustainability issue.  How do we promote economic growth while at the same time making a shift to buying energy-efficient goods that have fewer detrimental effects on our health and the health of the environment? Here’s what colleague and friend, Casey Willson, wrote about this issue: “Market changes are required for the success (of sustainability and climate change goals), and the ultimate driver will be lifestyle changes of all people, especially those who are the early adopters in developed countries.”

Casey Willson* used these words in an introduction between the prominent organization founded with the help of Richard Branson, The Carbon War Room, and BethAnn Lederer, Working Wonders’ founder and CEO.  Working Wonders takes this mission very seriously because changing the retail landscape in the United States will change our world.  Building high-visibility national brands in the areas of food, clothing, and home lifestyle – each brand a green-from-the-ground up Benefit Corporation – will provide clear, accessible choices to the people who are most interested in growing up a green economy.  These people number over 80-million strong, representing one-third of American adults.

Changing what’s behind consumer products—the unhealthy blind supply chains—is the key to sustainability. But right now consumers, especially those in the United States, make up a large part of the demand that keeps unhealthy and unsustainable supply chains in place.  There’s a cycle of consumerism that many people would like to change, but simply can’t escape. Innovative, transformational retail is what’s needed to disrupt this cycle and satisfy widespread desire to do and live better.

We know why this needs to happen, that our present cycle of consumerism hurts us and hurts the environment, which brings us to the question of how to make it happen.

First and foremost, retail needs to look different in order to achieve economic and environmental sustainability. Between 1968 and 1972, architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour studied the retail landscape and, in their book, Learning from Las Vegas, validated the suburban sprawl and retail iconography we’re now so familiar with as a legitimate form of architecture. Modern America found value in the decorated shed, effectively a $10,000 building with a $100,000 sign, which today we call a big-box retailer, and allowed these decorated sheds to proliferate in a “Non-Plan” system that prized immediate, emotional gratification above all else. That there was no plan for how this landscape grew didn’t matter, so long as consumers could feed the growth.

Forty years later—unchecked growth now a blight on the landscape—Americans are realizing that growth without planning can’t be sustained indefinitely. Rather, it’s become quite important to many consumers that we put a plan into action. Ours is a plan to engineer something new, something more thoughtful, intelligent, and responsible. For this reason, a green-from-the-ground-up retailer cannot look like another big-box store; it simply can’t comply with the established iconography of conventional consumerism.

We will have consumerism, and for the purposes of rebuilding the economy, we need consumerism. But to do so sustainably, we need new iconography to represent the difference between convention and revolution. America has already exhausted the strip center, the mall, and the big box store.  The Village of Working Wonders will stand out on the modern American retail landscape.

If, as Casey Willson writes, “the ultimate driver will be lifestyle changes,” then ours will be a retail destination that looks like a place where people can change their lifestyles. We will invite three architectural firms to submit designs for the Village of Working Wonders. Right now, we’re finalizing our criteria, some of which was outlined in our last post, and considering a number of firms that have distinguished themselves in the green building sector.    Our goal is for Working Wonders to have a physical presence that becomes an icon of green living, as recognizable as your local big-box logo, but better in every way.

*Lester S. (Casey) Willson is the retail industry and sustainability program manager at the Lead Center of the Maryland Small Business Development Center Network, located at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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