Zara Arshad | Report

How to Green an Embassy

Bilingual sign for the British Embassy Beijing's new recycling system.

Earlier this year, Great Britain’s former foreign secretary, David Miliband, visited Beijing to foster greater dialogue between the UK and China about low carbon economic development. We — the UK — deliver more joint policy and engage in more technical and educational work with China on climate change and low carbon development than any other country. What is the value in this, however, if we are not leading by example?

This is the very reason I accepted the Greening and Environmental Support Officer job at the British Embassy Beijing, which simply entails reducing our carbon footprint. “Simply” may be a misleading word; working in China and in an embassy with zero budget means that even straightforward solutions, such as implementing a recycling system, pose a challenge. However, re-education is key, and the most effective means of bringing about transformation is by altering individual habits. Collectively, these small changes could lead to massive change.

One of the first things we did was to sign up to the 10:10 campaign (launched in London last September), in a pledge to reduce the Embassy’s carbon emissions by 10 percent in 2010. 10:10 has also brought us closer to the British Council (which is based in a different building), and we are now collaborating on a tree-planting event to take place at Beijing’s Botanical Gardens. Ideally, this will generate a buzz about greening outside the office and bring together those who would not usually congregate during working hours. This will be an opportunity to foster dialogue, as well as enthusiasm.

Cover of Be:Green Express newsletter, Issue 3.

After we put together a carbon footprint report for 2009, specific areas of high carbon emissions became evident. I initiated a series of mini-campaigns based on these areas — waste, transport and energy — which made the work manageable and easier to focus. The first mini-campaign was called “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and approached Embassy waste; we introduced composting and a more intricate scheme for recycling that separates paper used on one and two sides, cardboard and plastics/glass/metal. Paper that can be re-used is sorted and made into notepads.

As we put systems into place, we are trying to get people more energized about being environmentally friendly. One way to do this is via good design. For our present recycling system, for instance, I worked on new, visually appealing labels that had more information. The goal is to make recycling, a monotonous and dreary practice for most, not just imperative but also interesting.

Our current transport campaign has overseen changes to the Embassy fleet, where energy efficiency is now taken into consideration when new vehicles are purchased. Recent changes mean we now own three hybrids and are on schedule to achieve a 12 percent reduction in transport carbon emissions. Planned initiatives to educate local staff in green driving and a greener car-booking system (where priority is given to greener vehicles) aims to reduce emissions further. Additionally, we have provided each Embassy section with a target to replace one in ten flights with a train journey or video conferencing. The Ambassador has led the way by taking an overnight train to Shanghai.

Notice on energy conservation measures

The Embassy itself is split over two buildings, which means that we have to spread our work very thinly. I am also trying to involve local NGOs and organizations wherever possible through, for example, lunchtime talks with Greenpeace China. But I have now started to involve the really local Chinese market; after weeks of organization with security and domestic staff, we have managed to set up a scheme where our divided waste is collected by a Chinese couple that survives by recycling items for money. Recycling in China is completed in a down-up (rather than top-down) chain; arguably, this is better as it means the poor can actually benefit from our waste. We can then offer these recyclers an alternative advertising platform and spread the word across the expat community.

Finally, a dedicated greening page has been added to our UK in China website. Once every fortnight, I spend time working on our greening newsletter, BE: Green Express. This was a new creation on my part, and has become our main communications vehicle. The newsletter features stories on staff who have taken measures to reduce their carbon emissions, like our transport manager who recycles cardboard boxes and newspapers and uses the revenue to buy food for the Embassy cats!

When applying for the position six months ago, I saw no requirement for “creative thinking” in the job description. Perhaps there should have been one, as creative approaches have helped to overcome immense challenges, especially with a budget of zero. It is in situations like these where designers can illustrate their true power to change (attitudes). Now that the foundations have been laid, I aim to push this potential further and keep the momentum flowing.

Posted in: Social Good

Comments [9]

Keep us posted! Good luck!
Silus Grok

This is a pretty blindsided take on design for sustainability.

I would have thought the locale of the embassy would be a great site to examine the role design plays in globalised systems of production, consumption, and waste. It was an opportunity to explore how the politics of development (are we sustaining development or developing sustainment?) and capital distribution make their material mark on the dynamics of our artificial geographies.

But no, locale has been ignored, and this has become a generic story that could be about any building, anywhere in the world. It is yet another example of how both design and sustainability is intuitively depoliticised, instrumentalised, and packaged as a techno-creative fiction.

Design writers will continue to do design a disservice so long as that talk of the importance of being 'environmentally friendly' (the focus needs to be on how we sustain artifice (which is social and material), not naturalness) and 'creative problem solving' (design needs to become a practice of critical problem defining and redirection).

The kind of talk that is really necessary might not be as comfortable to articulate, but we cannot expect a condition of unsustainability to shift unless we generate some form of effective antagonism.

I strongly suggest a rethink, followed by a rewrite – something that opens up the significance and potential of design rather than closing it off.

Matt, I think you're missing the point here.

I was asked to write about what I do because it is an example of employing design in a non-design role. I'm not talking about huge change or saving the world; I'm trying to show that small gestures can, collectively, make some sort of difference in the workplace (no matter how big or small). Perhaps notices on how to use the AC efficiently may seem trivial to you, but you would be surprised how much (internal) difference this has actually made. It is true that this could be "a generic story that could be about any building, anywhere in the world," but how many Embassies, offices and companies around the world use design to better themselves internally?

Zara, thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment, I do appreciate it. I have gone way overboard in response, but I hope you will interpret this as an attempt to treat both you and the issue with appropriate sincerity.

My argument centres on the proposition that, if the question of what design has to contribute to sustainability is not posed with an awareness of structural conditions, encompassing both macro and micro readings, the answers that follow will be limited. Therefore, on the contrary, I feel that I have indeed understood your point, but I find it to be inadequate and lacking in critical perspective.

Importantly I do want to express admiration for the work you have done. The critique I make however relates to an oversight of your writing, which amounts, in appropriating a phrase, to asking your readers to observe the individual ‘tree(s)’ that you have saved without also taking a perspective on the conditions that threaten the ‘forest’ at large.

China is the second largest trading nation in the world, and the UKs third largest imports partner. London, as one of the worlds most significant financial centres, is a nexus for the extraction and consolidation of surplus capital, and the provisioning of credit that fuels a compounding rate economic growth. The UK is a site for the wasteful consumption of Chinese manufactured goods. China is a site for reinvesting the savings earned through ‘innovative’ efficiencies (in labour, materials, power etc) into expanding and accelerating the throughput of manufactured goods.

This demand for constant economic growth, which demands a constant search for economic efficiency and innovation, effects a net increases in the ‘externalities’ of the production processes, but also impacts on human geographies. It may have been interesting to know how the neighborhood and architecture of the embassy compares with other locations in the city. From what I’ve seen of cities like Sydney and Phnom Penh, designed space always reflects a politics of (inequitable) social relations (this kind of work has been done by D.J. Huppatz at the website Design Philosophy Politics).

Why is this relevant? Tony Fry has stated that the ability of a building to sustain turns on 1) the nature of the building, 2) how it is used (what you have addressed), and, 3) what the building is used for. Fry goes on to say that if the activity housed by the building is a force for unsustainability, then gains made in the first two areas are negated (see his book, Design Futuring, p188). As it stands, efficiencies you may have won risk being reinvested in the productivist cycle managed by the embassy. For now the most enduring gain is perhaps the symbolic capital that your work generates in the form of a ‘green’ embassy. The question therefore has to be asked, what broader conditions need to change so that altering individual habits (which I absolutely agree is important) really does have the impact you want it to?

This may seem an impossible situation for a designer, but in the logic of ecology, nothing can be isolated from the analysis of the whole, even if in practice we are (currently) politically disabled. Therefore, in your writing, the failure to account for the role of the embassy, as an embassy, is a failure to account for its persisting unsustainability.

Counter to the requirement of relational thinking, designers are operate in a well defined sphere of influence within which they are expected to produce (creative) results. The boundaries of this confinement are not articulated, but they intuitively regarded as a genuine form of constraint. Any designer with a prudent sense of self preservation would think twice before crossing into areas they are not entitled to.

Conforming to practical constraints can be forgiven as an act of prudence, and it is still genuinely possible to produce commendable and worthwhile work, just as you have managed in your position (remarkable even, given a budget of zero). But I find it more difficult to forgive this confinement when it comes to writing about design.

This is not to say I do not understand the constraints that are at play in writing. The field of design self-manages a certain kind of discourse; a manner of talk and thought for which fluency is a precondition of the right to both talk and be taken seriously. Design education schools novices in this discourse, and in doing so produces a market for its reception. Publishers like Design Observer trade off the currency of this discourse, acting as gatekeepers of the field, consecrating the sacred ideas and identities, managing the objects and positions of debate, and denying space and attention to what is irrelevant or mediocre.

I see nothing essentially good or bad about this. It is neither corrupt nor insidious, it is the ordinary working of a field of practice. In doing so it establishes a standard of work and a community of knowledge. What concerns me is that as things stand, the talk that holds sway in the field of design, the ideas that are most often affirmed and articulated, are failing to help the field and its practitioners to assert a knowing influence in the interests of sustainability.

You were asked to write about design in a particular way and you conformed to it, not just in a concertedly conscious way, but by an intuitive self-censorship, a ‘playing up to’ what you know the expectations are. Again this is not what I see as the problem. It is a condition of writing for any publisher or audience. I’ve been through the same experience myself, as has any writer.

What concerns me is the duty that writers owe to the interests of sustainability. If design practice is already so constrained, the role of design writers must be to, firstly, provide an understanding of the problem that can be viewed above the contingencies of current practice, and secondly, what amounts to a much more difficult talk, articulate ways of thinking, talking, and acting that help design become a potent political and directive force.

From what you’ve written I do applaud the obvious work that has gone into what you have achieved. I absolutely do not want to deny your efforts or trivialise your work. But by not offering an evaluation of your own, even of the changes you have made (how is the hydrogen sourced? what might it take to eliminate the need for transportation? how might the embassy generate only recoverable waste?) I feel you have trivialised the issue to a point where significance is only redeemable through critique. To work in a space of such power without contemplating the impact it has on design and sustainability is a telling inditement, not of you, but of what design thinking has come to mean. My only fear in giving this criticism is that it is taken as entirely personal. This point should be regarded as a general critique of the state of thought, and the possibility of expression within the field – something we are all complicit in.

Pretentiousness, thy name is Matt.


That is SO true how that guy was “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed”. I mean seriously who does that guy think he is!!!!!! Steven Hawkins?!?1? lol

Pretense is so lame because its all about “an attempt to make something that is not the case appear true”.

Thats why its SOOo important to show when people do that because if ther are things that what hes said there were actually was true then we really are


PS. Loving the the ironic use of “thy”

It's surprising how much you can achieve just with awareness. A couple of years ago we were going through a severe cash-flow crisis and I called a staff meeting to talk about cost reduction.

One thing that was discussed was being frugal with electricity. We decided that we'd all be careful about turning off lights and fans when leaving a room, and if we ever saw an empty room with appliances/lights on, we'd turn them off.

Just by implementing that small thing, we shaved 40% off our monthly electricity bills! I was astounded at how wasteful we had clearly been before.

Now our motivation was financial, but the benefits encompass a whole lot more than that. Imagine if through the wave of a magic wand everyone in the world began turning lights off when not in use.

I applaud you Zara. Keep it going!
Andy Malhan

This is awesome Zara!

Thank you to both :)

Jobs | June 21