Towards Creative Activism

Companies whose stories are real, compelling and smartly designed are starting to shine. Sarah Rich of World Changing explains how Creative Review’s readers can help genuinely green businesses to thrive

Conscious consumers in the modern marketplace rarely face an either/or proposition. Gone are the days of choosing between pleasure and principle. Gone is the sacrifice of flavour, colour and style in the name of environmental responsibility. With the likely exception of toilet paper (which it seems still cannot be made both recycled and soft), many of our everyday items can now be found in a luxurious shade of green.

Savvy advocates of sustainability know that business is not the enemy of the good. In fact, it can be a vehicle for doing better in the world, and making a comfortable living with a guilt-free conscience. But in an increasingly crowded green business sphere, knowing who’s authentic presents a challenge. The responsibility for giving not-so-sustainable products a green face – as well as for making truly green products as desirable as their counterparts – lies entirely in the hands of designers, as the make-up artists and storytellers for brands. In a consumer culture teeming with excess and endlessly driving our desire for more stuff, designers become responsible, too, for reconsidering how we engage with products, and how we might transform the consumers’ motivation from quantity to quality, and from singular to whole systems thinking.

There are three primary categories into which green-oriented brands fall. The best of them don’t craft their identity around sustainability. Their social and environmental characteristics tend to show up as if they are a given in the bigger picture of a current, cutting-edge brand; because the reality is that a lack of awareness around these issues equates to a lack of viability in the twenty-first century. A second category comprises campaigns that do direct their messaging squarely on green, but intentionally incorporate an urban edge and a modern aesthetic in order to combat the stereotype of something four decades too tired. Finally, there are those brands that aggressively present an “eco” image as a way to capitalise on the green consumer movement without matching their practices to their pretence. This “greenwashing” trend has fairly well permeated the industry and it’s now up to consumers to develop a radar for spotting duplicitous brands. As a New York Times article on greenwashing put it, “When a trend starts to show success, it’s a design pile-up…[But] merely dressing up the package is not enough. There is value in telling a story, but it must be true.” Companies whose story is real, compelling, and smartly designed are the ones who are starting to shine.

Then there is another category, which transcends or stands peripheral to the others, and may represent the direction green consumption is headed. It’s design for the elimination of excess – dematerialisation – in which user experience takes precedence over acquiring more things. Product service systems, or service designs, reconceive goods as functions and permit users to obtain access to the outcome yielded by a product without actually owning it, meaning each of us needs to consume less in order to get the same result. The concept has taken hold well in the UK – perhaps better than anywhere else in the world – where sharing of commodities such as cars, office space and power tools has become relatively commonplace.

An inventive group of students from Cologne recently developed an even deeper interpretation of the system, called Wir Hier Service Group. After researching what kinds of things consumers generally take for granted, Wir Hier’s designers ascertained that a successful service system would approach “mind redesign” by offering interlinked sets of services rather than discreet programmes. Wir Hier already has around 30 service systems in place. The systems themselves serve as a marketing tool for the company, which brands its programmes heavily, allowing the meme to spread virally as a result of the enhanced community interaction the services foster. For example, their “Tea-4-Two” programme dropped branded tea bags in community mailboxes, with a location, date and time printed on them. At the designated meeting place, neighbours would share tea and get to know one another. This kind of branded service preserves the value and profitability of the entity that creates it, while fundamentally transforming what the users seek, and what they gain by engaging with the product. Wir Hier dematerialises the structure for consumption, and strips it down to pure experience.

Somewhere in between the material and immaterial product lies a new niche that straddles the gap. One player emerging at that junction is Nau, an apparel company out of Portland, Oregon, whose updated take on classically “crunchy” outdoor clothing merges urban cuts with a socially and environmentally conscious corporate mission. The apparel collections themselves do push gently on the envelope of outdoor style, but where Nau has really innovated is on the design of their retail space, which they don’t call a “store”, but rather a Webfront.

At a Nau Webfront, one sample of every piece in the collection and every available size hangs ready for visiting customers to try on. But the company encourages shoppers to use the Webfront just as a testing platform for the clothes, and to then make their purchases online at computer kiosks located on-site, then take delivery at home. By running retail this way, Nau dramatically decreases the regular inventory required at its multiple physical locations, thereby reducing the impacts of freight and lengthy supply chains. In order to help this experimental model fly, they’ve applied design strategy to strengthening their web presence, which will be a key component of their Webfront success. Nau has run several innovative multi-media online campaigns, including a low-budget web documentary about a woman living in a compact, off-grid mobile dwelling, crossing rural, suburban and urban divides and sharing her observations. The video had a feverish viral run on the net, reaching half a million eyes in a single day.

But it can’t all disappear. Nau may encourage customers to buy fewer, more versatile and longer-lasting clothes, but they still sell clothes. And we will always need clothes, just as we’ll need toilet paper and food, shoes and vehicles, and plenty of other furnishings for our comfort and wellbeing. So the question every green company and designer now aims to answer is, “Can we have our cake and eat it, too?” And the answer is yes.

Take Terra Plana, the British footwear company that makes trainers out of recycled uniforms, sport jackets, rubber tires and used denim. The shoes have a distinct design that pinpoints all the characteristics of a hip, young, urban target market, and like the best of these emerging green companies, Terra Plana’s product would be desirable on style alone, even if it lacked an ecological agenda. But its value escalates on account of the company’s commitment to sustainable materials and social responsibility. They’ve designed a series of icons that communicate the various details of the shoe and its production process. A similar effort was undertaken by Timberland, the less stylish but much bigger footwear company that recently began printing “nutrition labels” on their shoe boxes, which provide calculations of the energy required to manufacture the shoes, the materials they contain, and other impact-related information. While it may be more of a brand-beautifying gesture than a truly useful display, it represents their attention to shifting consumer priorities.

But how do we distinguish between gestures towards responsibility and practical transformation? How does a designer know if they are just painting a face on an idealistic idea, or applying aesthetics to a substantive and sincere brand? There’s no easy answer, but there are designers out there who’ve made it their business to learn the back story of well-branded companies, and subsequently developed compelling campaigns from what they’ve learned.

Background Stories emerged from designer Arlene Birt’s research at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. It’s an early concept using graphic design to tell the story of chocolate production for a variety of different brands. The theory Birt addresses is “context connection” – a fairly self-explanatory name for the process of helping consumers establish an understanding of the bigger picture from which their products come. By using well-designed, brand-aligned graphics on the inside of the packaging, the education arrives in the consumer’s hand in a simple, digestible form. To deepen the mini-lesson on the wrapper, an affiliated website provides clickable pop-up details on each element of the illustration that will link you even further, to resource pages on drying and fermentation processes, and even the websites of the shipping and trucking companies who transport the ingredients to the factory. So far Birt has designed concept labels for Dagoba, Green & Black, and Hershey’s. Dagoba, which is branded (and began) as a small, chocolatier with a conscience, is actually owned by Hershey; and Green & Black, which has as similar identity as a high-end, fair-trade brand, was acquired by Cadbury Schweppes several years ago. But Birt doesn’t use her skills to expose or defame corporations; this is constructive design activism. Through visual storytelling and extensive resource offerings, Birt builds an accessible education for the skyrocketing population of consumers who want to indulge without feeling guilty. What better launch pad than chocolate for demonstrating that decadence and diligence can go hand in hand?

Brands can design all manner of slick packaging and alluring ads, but in order to achieve credibility, they have to deliver transparency with every product and interaction. The conscious consumer wants to know what’s in her cake before she eats it. Creatives and designers face the challenge of telling the true story behind a brand in a way that’s sincere, engaging and reassuring so that green business can thrive and the bar can keep rising on what sustainability means in the market.

Sarah Rich is a writer and editor working where sustainability intersects with design, branding and consumer culture. She is the managing editor of, and co-editor/co-author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams)


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