With sustainablity issues infiltrating brand communication, designers need their own green credentials. We examine the ethical considerations of spreading the green message.

Even if it’s not on your radar at the moment, sustainable or green design is likely to become a hot topic for your business soon. More and more clients and companies are adopting sustainable practices, and the green economy is growing exponentially.

“There’s a lot of green activity happening now all over the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) sector,” says Samantha Dumont, creative director at Dragon.

“For example, water brands are going to the expense of changing from paper labels on plastic bottles to plastic labels on plastic bottles – so as to not contaminate the recycling stream.”

As well as green credentials, many companies are announcing corporate social responsibility (CSR) measures that cover ethical sourcing and supply. Jan Ligaard, of Danish design company Icon22, has observed such a general shift in company ethics recently.

“Previously, it was mostly the companies that made their living in the ‘green’ segment who were very keen on always doing the right thing – both regarding their product and in the way they communicated to their users,” he says.

“However this kind of thinking is slowly getting a grip on a lot of other companies as well. CSR is getting bigger and bigger, and within this the green way of dealing, working and thinking is taking up more and more space.”

Shaun Westgate, creative director at Westgate Design feels green design is gradually emerging in tune with companies getting greener.

“We’re all waiting for a large global brand to come to the table with some radical new ideas to cut carbon emissions, which could then be a landmark event,” he says.

However, Darius Pocha, creative director of Enable Interactive, thinks the breakthrough in the UK was with drinks company Innocent’s packaging four or five years ago.

“I’m not sure they’re actually ‘green’ as such,” he says. “But they showed the way for responsible and sustainable brands to be sexy instead of worthy and boring.

"They did something different – they took a product that was basically a health food and wrapped it in a set of values that lots of people could connect with. And it still feels current, vibrant and aspirational.”

Bolted-on values

Pocha adds: “You’ve only got to look at the number of agencies who’ll try and ‘do an Innocent’ on their new client, as if you can just bolt those values on. The thing with Innocent is that it’s based in some kind of truth.”

As a designer you have two things to consider – how can you make your own contribution to saving resources, ethical economies and reducing your carbon footprint, and from a purely business point of view, how can you win commissions from companies in the green economy?

The two paths are linked. After all, surely a company with a strong sustainable message for the public will want to ensure that every part of its workflow adheres to the same ethos.

Simply put, if you’re already thinking green is it the case that you’re more likely to get the work? Jeff Culp, from the Government of Canada’s Super E Healthy Housing Project is one such client.

“As a company that takes eco housing very seriously we are ever mindful of the green credentials of the design companies we work with,” he says.

“We like to ensure that these go further than just ‘green-washing’. Their policies must have some teeth and I like to see them in practice.”

“Clients need to have confidence in their agency and believe they know the issues, understand them and know how to approach them,” agrees Dumont.

“Often client businesses have ‘sustainability’ as a key business objective and are actually committed in principle to improving the sustainability profile of their products and packaging.”

“Green clients expect you to share the same passion for saving the planet,” states Shaun Westgate. “Clearly your design solutions, the materials and the equipment you use should all have this in mind. Constantly reviewing you and your clients carbon footprint is key.”

Carbon Clear works with clients to gain zero impact status, and offers an online carbon calculator. It recently underwent a major rebranding exercise: “Our marketing company was selected on the basis of their ability to deliver a high-quality rebrand, rather than for their environmental credentials,” says CEO Mark Chadwick.

“However, we did select our printing company based on their ability to deliver products on recycled paper, printed using vegetable-based inks and with sustainable coatings.

"We’re working with a print producer to quantify their carbon footprint, to reduce their emissions as much as possible and to source high quality offset credits for the emissions that remain.”

Ideally Chadwick says Carbon Clear would look for designers to demonstrate environmental responsibility, to understand that they’re not wasteful, and are responsible in their outlook and their business practices.

“It is not necessary that they’re carbon neutral,” he adds. “But since we measure and offset our own emissions, selecting a company that’s also carbon neutral means we don’t have to then offset that activity ourselves.”

However, apart from obviously ‘green’ companies, the sustainability commitment and message can stay at the top level of the company, hidden in a corporate responsibility report.

“Unless the client organization pursues the path, it makes it very difficult for designers alone to make a difference,” says Dumont.

“Yet this shouldn’t be an excuse. If we [the designers] are not part of the solution we are part of the problem.”

“I have yet to experience a demand for us to have a green workflow, when working with clients,” says Jan Ligaard. “But then again, we also try to do what we can in the CSR department.

"By doing so, I guess we give these type of clients the satisfaction of the two of us being on the same page in this matter.”

“In my experience clients are more interested in how good you are at your job,” says Darius Pocha. “I think their view is ‘we’ll do the ethical bit, you do the design’. Which is right.”

“We have got an environmental and ethical policy,” he continues. “We recycle, our studio is solar-heated, we don’t do personal company cars and most of our guys walk, cycle or get public transport to work. But actually our most important credentials are the work we’ve done for our clients.”

Eric Karjaluoto, principal of Vancouver-based smashLab started to think about the issue of sustainability three years ago; however, it wasn’t until last summer that this research was put into practice and the company started to act (see box on ‘Design Can Change’).

“Sustainability is a complex topic and we can’t look at it in an overly prescriptive fashion,” says Karjaluoto. “There’s no checklist for doing things ‘right’, and in my research, I’ve found it difficult to even find a description of what ‘right’ might look like.

"I think that it’s better viewed as a journey that we embark upon with our clients. All of us have a vested interest in the future of the planet.

"We have to work together to find smarter, more creative ways to solve their problems, and part of this includes mitigating the damage that we collectively do,” he adds.

Karjaluoto is suspicious of designers looking to win ‘green’ work. “Maybe we should simply convert our existing clients to thinking in a more sustainable fashion, instead of using this as a sales opportunity,” he says.

“Perhaps I’m naive, but I believe this is an issue of responsibility. If we turn it in to a sales gimmick, we’ll damage the integrity of our effort and in turn lose sight of what it is we really should be doing.”

Ethics are not something to take lightly either. “Designers and agencies are paid to position brands, products and services a certain way in people’s heads so you do have a responsibility,” says Darius Pocha.

“For me it’s about honesty and integrity – if you’re confident that you’re portraying something accurately then you’re being ethical. The best and longest-lasting creative always comes from showing an essential truth about the thing you’re representing, anyway – spin never holds up in the long run.”

Samantha Dumont identifies another problem: “So many designers don’t seem prepared to pursue the path of ‘green design’ unless it’s really easy or it fits with what they want to do aesthetically,” she says.

“I think there still needs to be a big shift in attitude if we really want to make a difference as an industry.”

However Karjaluoto points out the heartening fact that over the past year the discussion in the design community seems to have shifted a little from one of restraint to one of opportunity.

“By this I mean that we have a number of sites now that consider how we can to minimize our impact, but at the same time, we have a number of people getting excited about the opportunity to create better, smarter work.”


Dig For Fire, www.digforfire.co.uk

Dig For Fire was appointed as the main creative agency for the Co-operative Bank and Co-operative Insurance (CIS) in 2005. For 15 years this has been the only UK high street bank with a customer-led ethical policy, and Co-operative Insurance followed this lead in June 2005.

Dig For Fire creative director Nigel Wood says: “From a design perspective, some of our most rewarding pieces of work have included our campaign for their student account (‘a free tree with every account’) and promoting The Big Ask, a climate change initiative in partnership with Friends of the Earth, which has made a real impact on government thinking.”

The client carried out an audit of Dig For Fire’s ethical/ environmental credentials before hiring the design company.

“As with all the companies they work with they wanted to be sure that we were in line with their ethical policy,” says Wood.

“Both companies have very stringent specifications for paper stock and printing, which we have to adhere to. Also, since we started working for them, we’ve thought more carefully about how sustainable our own working methods are.

"We’ve taken simple steps such as introducing more paper recycling bins around the office and avoiding mounting work on boards if we can by placing presentations in good quality looseleaf folders or presenting digitally."

Wood advises that as with most sectors, getting experience is vital. “Working with a strong ethical brand such as Co-operative Financial Services has opened doors for us with a number of cause-related or charity clients. Being able to demonstrate a real belief in the values or aims of these kinds of clients is obviously really important.”


Westgate Communications, www.westgatecomms.com

Westgate Communications created a corporate identity for EcoSecurities, positioned at the forefront of carbon market development. This included creating a Web site, corporate and advertising material and identity guidelines.

EcoSecurities’ corporate brochure needed to function in eight language versions and two size formats. “The design moved EcoSecurities’ creative environment a stage further,” says CEO Shaun Westgate.

Core messages overlay distinctive landscape photography to demonstrate the company’s global presence. The messaging is reinforced further with black-&-white thumbnail images of projects around the world and more detailed text.

The creative treatment of the advertising campaign uses dramatic landscape images with engaging and targeted messaging.

“The black-&-white thumbnail images provide contrast and clearly illustrate the global reach of the projects undertaken by the company,” says Westgate.

“Each ad conveys a different element of the EcoSecurities offerings, helping to position them at the forefront of carbon market development.”

The ads featured as part of a campaign in Environmental Finance magazine. “The design of the interim and annual report uses clean lines, a clear heading and title hierarchy,” continues Westgate.

“Powerful landscape images are visible and are accompanied by black-&-white thumbnail images illustrating the variety of projects undertaken by the company. Each project was overseen from the design stage right through to production.”

Going Green: Designers walking the walk

smashLab, www.smashlab.com

To meet sustainability aims, smashLab has moved away from much of its print-based work to more strategy and interactive projects. “Limiting the amount of physical material we create and transport has made us more sustainable,” says principal Eric Karjaluoto.

“At the same time, we’ve been mindful of some of the little things we do in our studio. When we use paper, we really use it. In the past, this was simply a matter of habit; we wouldn’t think anything of “running a few extra copies.”

"All paper is used on both sides. We often employ the other side of a used sheet for brainstorming and concept work.”

smashLab staff are supplied with transit passes, the company turns off lights on bright days and invoices clients digitally. “There are endless things that we can all do to make a difference. We just try to take things on as we can, and look for opportunities to do better.”

Dragon, www.dragonbrands.com

Dragon has instituted a number of initiatives to achieve an environmentally friendly workplace. “We take a fully holistic approach by considering all factors, not just recycling and turning the lights off, but travel and food too,” says creative director Samantha Dumont.

“Like many other companies we recycle paper, but we also recycle materials used in the creative studio, cardboard, glass, aluminium, ink cartridges, furniture and computers. All these items are collected, sold as parts or given to charity for re-use.

"Rather than producing Christmas cards, we put the money towards sponsoring two primary schools in Uganda. We set a standard by providing fair trade and/or organic produce for our employees and clients.

"Public transport is encouraged but when required we use either Green Tomato cars (environmentally-friendly cab company) or Radio Taxis (a carbon-neutral black cab firm).

"Steps have been taken to reduce emissions by encouraging employees to travel by train rather than by air travel and when air travel is the only option, we offset the costs by planting trees and such like. Dragon also offer employees the Cycle to Work scheme www.cyclescheme.co.uk.”

Carbon Creative pledges to plant trees for all new customers and existing customers who place an order of more than £500.

Carbon Clear helps companies around the world develop and implement carbon management strategies, helping with strategies for cost-effective in-house reductions in carbon footprints.

A small green FAQ

What is Greenwash?
Greenwash is marketing/PR speak for making a company seem like they have better environmental or ethical credentials than they actually do.

What is a carbon footprint and how can you find your size?
Your carbon footprint is a measure of the impact your activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide. Several calculators are available online including:

Can designers use recycled paper for client work?
“There are options such as FSC-certified papers, which are produced in a manner that supports the responsible management of forests,” says smashLab’s Eric Karjaluoto. “We also can look at the PCW (post-consumer waste) content of a paper as a key factor in our purchasing.

"Some stocks contain high PCW content and are FSC certified. There are also alternate options including papers comprised of kenaf, cotton or hemp; however, the availability of these alternatives still seems somewhat limited.” See WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) for more information.

How can designers be more green?
A designer’s primary sources of carbon emissions will likely be electricity consumption, travel to client meetings and couriers to deliver products. Take steps such as switching off unused lights and equipment, use public transport or video conferencing and use a courier that is managing its carbon emissions.

Plan ahead and use the Royal Mail or use a trunker (such as ParcelForce or TNT) rather than a point-to-point courier, as they are more carbon efficient. (Info from Carbon Clear)

How can designers take a more ethical approach?
“We wouldn’t recommend specific country boycotts,” says Mark Chadwick, CEO of Carbon Clear. “It’s more about having an awareness about where you source from, and making yourself comfortable with the business practices of your suppliers.

"If you’re buying a product from overseas, understand where it’s coming from and what the labour and environmental practices are. If you are sourcing from the UK, look for accreditations like ISO14001 that will give you comfort that environmental impacts are being assessed.”

"Since we started working with [Co-operative Bank and Co-operative Insurance] we’ve developed an extensive brand guidelines document based on a fusion of ethical and customer focused principles,” says Nigel Wood, creative director, Dig For Fire.

Design Can Change

Design Can Change, www.designcanchange.org, is a good starting point for designers looking for sustainable ways of working.

Launched online in early April, it offers a number of resources and tools for designers to employ, and the chance to join a discussion about green design issues and to be inspired by other projects.

It also offers a pledge to work towards sustainable business. The company behind the site, smashLab, also recently started a forum that helps visitors share ideas and suggestions.

“It allows us to leverage the knowledge of the community, as we all work to better understand the problem and explore solutions,” says one of the founders Eric Karjaluoto. The feedback to the site has been overwhelming to say the least.

“Nearly 1,000 people have already taken the site’s pledge, which means that they are all actively changing how they work to make sustainability key to their process,” continues Karjaluoto.

“This site is a good starting point, but we need to push for better resources yet. It’s my hope that it helps spur thought and action around the issue, resulting in new efforts by other designers.”


Carbon Clear, www.carbon-clear.com
Design Can Change, www.designcanchange.org
Dig For Fire, www.digforfire.co.uk
Dragon, www.dragonbrands.com
Enable Interactive, www.enableinteractive.co.uk
Icon22, www.icon22.com
smashLab: www.smashlab.com
Westgate Communications, www.westgatecomms.com

Further info

WRAP, www.wrap.org.uk/
Renourish, www.re-nourish.com
The Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition, www.corporate-responsibility.org
AIGA: http://sustainability.aiga.org/
Treehugger, www.treehugger.com
ISO 14001 Information Zone, www.iso-14001.org.uk
Super-E House Initiative (SEHI), www.nrcan.gc.ca

Illustration: Neil Duerden, www.neilduerden.co.uk