Climate Designers UK asked me to produce a short presentation on the topic of environmentally conscious brands. The event was held online on Friday 19 February 2021. You can see the event in the video above and a full transcript of my section below:
I’m an independent designer helping brands develop their visual language. I came into graphic design via a bit of an odd path. I was actually trained as an architect. In architecture, sustainability is a conflict. Building something will have an effect on the environment so the thinking process changes to “how do we limit the impact we make?”
We’re seeing this thinking slowly become more widespread in other industries which are realising that they need to start acting on their statements. Over the last few years visual identities and advertising has meant we now link the colour green to sustainability. But just making your company logo green doesn’t make your business sustainable.
Branding, design and the creative industry is full of buzzwords. Green in particular is becoming more prevalent. It is common knowledge we need to change the way we do things. This is having a huge impact on brands. But what does “green” branding actually mean? And how can we prove it’s happening?
Back in 2018 Burberry announced in their 2022 responsibility agenda campaign that they are going to stop burning their excess stock. This announcement was aimed at being “look how amazing and sustainable we are”. This drastically backfired, highlighting the fashion industries secret of wasteful processes to maintain “brand value”.
Burberry’s agenda currently says this:
“Burberry’s commitment to sustainability is long-standing, grounded in the belief that for our future growth, we need to actively address the challenges facing our industry and the world in which we live. We are dedicated to reducing our environmental footprint and enabling social progress as we help transform our industry through powerful collaborations.”
Does this statement mean that the way Burberry operate is sustainable or is it just another piece of marketing to make you feel that they aren’t so bad? If Burberry truly believed in their statement then wouldn’t they be cheering for the end of fast fashion and not still making it? It’s incredibly difficult to find information on how exactly businesses conduct themselves.
As individuals we don’t have much control over the larger changes that are needed to combat climate change. But as independent designers or small studio owners we can look at our practices to reduce our impact and prove business can run in an environmentally conscious way.
When we design, our process is pretty much the same. We sketch on paper, work up concepts digitally, print, sketch, edit and then produce the final digital and printed assets. We can quantify this process, calculating our paper usage, printing ink, electricity usage, heating usage etc. This allows us to make informed decisions to improve our impact.
But if we truly wanted to open ourselves up to being green then we need to think of the wider picture. We need to know how our printer is being manufactured, where the pulp for our paper comes from, how the data centres that hold our cloud data are powered and so on
It’s not an easy task to find this information out. The transparency that we need as part of this supply chain isn’t there or it’s difficult to track down. Paula Scher and Naresh Ramchandani looked into this idea of transparency. Using the signage on tobacco as inspiration they created warning stickers for companies that highlighted the environmental impacts the company has.
Needless to say no company has actually actioned this project and applied it on their brand but it highlights a crucial point in the fact we just don’t know what companies are doing. There are certain things we can look for; certification is one. For environmental management, ISO 14001 is fairly common at the moment.
For those who might be unfamiliar; ISO 14001 is a Tool for companies to use and check their environmental management. It looks into how a business educates it’s staff on sustainable practice as well as how the offices used coffee is recycled. It’s difficult to be certified making it a good base standard for companies to aim for but it’s expensive, complex and time consuming.
You can also look for if the company has an FSC label. This certification is aimed more at products that contain use wood, paper and other forest materials. The label shows that the product is made with materials from well-managed forests or recycled sources. Another good base mark, but this time encouraging small businesses to certify.
Not having these certifications doesn’t mean you're not environmentally conscious. As I mentioned these certifications cost money which some business might not be able to afford. They also aim towards companies that want to sell themselves as sustainable.
In terms of looking into sustainability, there’s so much information out there. It’s also wrapped up in sales pitches, media spin, politics and disinformation. There are organisations who deal with non bias information taking into account a variety of data and distilling it into something more manageable.
The London Energy Transformation Initiative is one of these organisations. They look at the built environment and infrastructure. Mainly aimed at London, they also look at energy in a more holistic scale. In terms of reducing our impact, buildings and energy are crucial. According to UK Green Building Council, the built environment contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint.
So, where we work plays a significant part to reducing our impact. We do have some control over this but it is fairly limited in terms of business scale. Working from home, as we currently do, you’re unlikely to be in a Net-Zero building or have a lot choice when it comes to building performance improvements other than who’s supplying your energy.
The energy industry is one of the worst at the moment for miss-selling and confusion. Only a small amount of suppliers actually fund their own green energy, some will buy from independents and most will just trade Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates. As a consumer it is important to understand the difference, but companies certainly don’t make it easy.
The next thing to think about is your clients. Should we only work with other “green” businesses, or is there a requirement as part of a designers role to help businesses reduce their impact as standard professional conduct? And as we’ve discussed achieving a sustainable standard isn’t that easy and takes time so should it be our responsibility?
In terms of consumer lead businesses who produce, be it branding, UX, interiors, can we really call our businesses green? As an industry should we be using the sustainable or green buzzword to promote our business which can lead to disinformation and confusion? Or should it just be part of our continual improvement as an industry to make sure our businesses reduce the impact we have on our environment?