Within the world of Graphic Design and the wider design community, good environmental practice has become the norm; In the past, incorporating good environmental practice had hindered the design process; now, almost all designers consider ethical practice in all their designs. I have been amazed in recent years by the originality and creativity that designers have used to explore ethical and environmentally responsible ways to design. We're so fortunate as designers today to operate in a world with so many opportunities to further and further push our process's ethics. Back in 1990, IKEA adopted the Natural Step framework as the basis for its environmental plan. This led to the development of an Environmental Action Plan, which was adopted in 1992. The project focused on structural change, allowing IKEA to "maximise the impact of resources invested and reduce the energy necessary to address isolated issues". The plan was radical and pioneered a new trend for environmental thinking within design and retail. The change was a considerable cost to Ikea, and the dynamic project wasn't immediately reflecting in their sales.
Today, however, the culture around environmental practice has changed massively; consumers are drawn to products that emphasise the importance of supporting the current ecological crisis. French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's foundation of ideas from his 1970 book Distinction (Bourdieu, 2013) has resonated with academics worldwide. The book explores what he calls 'cultural capital', a term used to describe how we can build up certain cultural aspects within our identity, which can help determine our social status and even promote social mobility. Bourdieu's theory's elements ranged from education, wealth, and the objects we surround ourselves with. Today Bourdieu's ideas can be compared to the current trend in good environmental design. Consumers surround themselves with products made with ethical practices to build up an identity that provides them with positive associations. Objects and products now have their own context, not only their monetary or physical value but also their footprint. Ikea's ethical thinking in 1990 has now caught up with today's huge demand for ethical practice, and Ikea now has a highly positive mind share - focusing around sustainability and sound ethical practice.
There are so many examples of how responsible practice within design has accelerated a company's growth and performance. In 2016 Patagonia reached a record-breaking $10 million in sales on Black Friday after announcing they had planned to donate 100% of clothing sales to climate charities. They had expected to reach $2 million in sales - "we beat that expectation five times over". Their customers' enormous love shown to the planet on Black Friday depicts the huge influence environmental practice can have on sales. We associate ethical products with being a better person, contributing to Bourdier's idea of building up a cultural capital based on our physical appearance and belongings. Comparing this with Judith Williamson's idea of brands being a form of 'distinction', we can begin to see a link between how individuals build up our cultural capital and how companies can build up these same identities for their products. What designers and companies are trying to achieve is very similar to the theories surrounding Bourdieu's work. Through distinction, brands can change their position in the field, and although the margins between the products are small, they're able to create significant differences in the way their products are perceived. For example, two similar products in the same market, one with a positive mind share around ethical practice and the other a negative, It's clear which one will do better within the current culture of supporting positive environmentalism. There are now so many more reasons for designers and companies to consider using good environmental practice; not only will this shift benefit the planet, but there are enormous opportunities for growth. I feel that many companies nowadays who don't operate ethically will notice a considerable opportunity cost.
When recently working on a rebrand for a boutique hotel, I noticed the value sustainability could play on a business's relationship with its consumers. I spent weeks designing a new range of packaging for the hotel's takeaway service. After debuting the packaging, I noticed a flurry of new reviews, all mentioning their appreciation for the hotel's sustainable approach. A massive increase in the businesses social media presence and an increase in sales soon followed. The product hadn't changed, or the service, but somehow that extra consideration for the design and the environment had hugely impacted the companies popularity and brand awareness. As Tom Murray, who advises companies on reducing emissions at Environmental Defense Fund, including Walmart, McDonald's Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co., has said he believes "We've moved past this concept that business versus the environment is a tradeoff".
Excitingly, we're now in a position where designers can use responsible practice to aid the design process, add interesting context and create dynamic new concepts through newly raised sustainability questions. A recent example of this that I love is Evian's new 500-millilitre bottle design. Working with fashion designer Virgil Abloh of Louis Vuitton, Evian has created a water bottle made almost entirely from recycled plastic and visualises this history through a distinctive hammered texture. The bottle can be fully recycled at the end of its life, and its unique shape represents this, resembling the crushing of a bottle. This new design is a bold step for Evian as they work towards being Economically Circular by 2025. This is just one of many exciting projects that use our newly found cultural value for environmental products to push the design process further. I love seeing how we can put vital political and social questions upon the design process. Ideas of companies operating at 100% Circular seemed like wild fantasies only a few years ago. Now, however, almost all major companies are working towards a similar goal. And at the heart of this cultural shift and mass political and social transilience are designers.
Graphic and Media Design