As I sit in the posh auditorium seats of the McGraw Hill conference center at the 2009 Greener Gadgets Conference, keynote speaker Saul Griffith calls me a “planet f**ker.” To be perfectly fair, he starts by calling himself one, and then tells the audience we all are equally at fault for a culture that has each American using 12,000 watts of energy per year. As I sit munching the proffered local and sustainable fruit and yogurt parfait (served in an actual glass dish rather than a disposable container) in a room full of people energized to live green or sustainable lifestyles, I balk at Griffith’s suggestion. I have, after all, just composted my tea bag and wiped my nether regions with post-consumer-recycled toilet paper at this convention.

But Griffith (pictured below) walks us through his obsession with energy consumption, charts only a person with a PhD in physics such as himself could truly appreciate, and shows us just how much energy he used last year. He leaves nothing out — trips to see his mother-in-law, powering his electric toothbrush, his culpability in the energy the U.S. government uses to power our tanks and pave our roads — it's all up there. In the end, we realize that our decisions all have impact, whether we drink organic wine or buy hemp socks. All of us are dumping CO2 in the atmosphere, simply by nature of being American citizens.

Griffith’s name-calling kicks off a full day that aimed to teach a very important message: We need to redefine our sense of sustainability, and we need this to be part of our ethos as global citizens. He suggests heirloom products — a return to an era where companies make such high quality goods that we cherish them as heirlooms and buy once to use for a lifetime, even passing them on to our children.

The message sinks in with conference attendees. I smugly think of my own kitchen, where my husband and I use his grandmother’s Kitchen Aid as happily as she did. But I realize it’s the only such appliance I can ever claim to own. Everything else in my life? Green as it may be, it’s all disposable, from my dying toaster to my elephant-poo paper notebook. At lunch, I sit with a group of women lamenting the loss of repair culture. They discuss Italian shoes they’ve had for 20 years, mourn the closing of their local cobblers, and agree with Griffith that we all need to go to war against our wasteful ways.

Rahul Sharma, North American vice president of Freeplay Energy, takes the stage later in the afternoon to reinforce this notion. “Green” and “sustainable” are becoming buzzwords, overused, and lead consumers to think only of what the products are made of. Unfortunately for us, there is no more “away” to throw either our used up mercury-free batteries or the CO2 emitted in making our solar panels. We need to focus on the entire life cycle of the things we consume, including the ways these products or procedures affect the human lives around us.

A product’s greenness or sustainability would then become a bi-product of a truly thoughtful design, Sharma implied. His co-panelists discussed solar flashlights that enable African farmers to deliver live animal babies after dark or help U.S. troops navigate the night terrain of Afghanistan. Or playgrounds using reclaimed tires that supplement math curriculum in schools. Because of the thoughtful design of these products, they improve countless lives around the world, but they also make sense from a sustainability standpoint. Emily Pilloton of Project H Designs asked the audience to always consider the people in everything we create.

We absorbed this message along with the crudités (served on compostable Harvest Collection plates) as we watched the design competition, where speakers and attendees discussed and voted on the greenest gadget design. It is little surprise we selected the Tweet-a-watt via an iPhone applause meter as the day’s big winner. This device seemed to satisfy every aspect of the conference’s presentations. It encourages users to modify their energy consumption by publicly posting their watt use on Twitter. The design is communal, as creator Ada Limor puts online everything you need to know to make your own -- or improve upon her initial invention. Rather than use resources to make something new, Limor repaired/adapted an existing wattmeter. By all accounts, a great kick-off to end our collective over-consumption and rethinking sustainability.

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