Most of us working in the world of visual culture are in the business of creating demand for consumption. We are notorious for coveting any shiny new object that keeps us on the bleeding edge of trends. These are not qualities one usually associates with the sustainably minded. However, there are designers and design firms reconciling their personal and professional lives to a greener way of being. They’re recognizing it’s not enough just to encourage clients to be more sustainable. “If all we do is think about paper, ink and production,” notes Aaris Sherin, a professor at St. John’s University and author of SustainAble: A Handbook of Materials and Applications for Graphic Designers and Their Clients
, “then when we’ve fixed that low hanging fruit, where do we go and how do we contribute?”
Moment of Truth
The journeys some designers have taken to answer this question are instructive. “One thing kept standing out for me,” says Valerie Elliott, managing director of iD2 Communications in Victoria, B.C., who is also the national sustainability chair of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada. “I’m in an industry that compels people to buy. I learned that of all the products created, 94 percent ends up as waste and 6 percent ends up as product. Eighty percent of new products will end up as landfill within six weeks,” she points out. Needless to say, she found these numbers “really compelling” and realized, “Many design professionals put their ethics aside when they’re at work, and then pick them up when they walk out the door. That didn’t work for me and my company.”
For David Gibson, founding partner of Two Twelve in New York, which designs information graphics including signage and wayfinding, environmental awareness grew from the younger people in his work and personal life. Designers on staff started bringing up sustainability concerns. Then his domestic partner began pestering him. “It was a personal journey,” Gibson says. “My partner terrorized me if I went to the supermarket without canvas bags. We bought a hybrid car. We bought an old house in Jersey City and started to renovate it using greener materials and recycled and salvaged stuff. The dialogue at the office led me not only to design projects, but also back to my personal life.”
Words Into Action
For these designers and many others, finding a way to be more sustainable in work and life has become an ongoing passion. For Elliott, it’s a matter of ethics. “The first thing was to recognize that designers have a lot of power and the potential to change behaviors,” she explains. “We realized that we needed to go to our clients with a process. So we created an ethics policy for our company, and before we meet with a client we send that to them, and together we agree to work within this framework.”
Two Twelve has tried to integrate sustainable practices at several levels. Sarah Haun, director of marketing, describes the process. “We’ve always looked at it as a three-prong approach: things you can do in personal life, in the office and on projects. The first two we can achieve ourselves; on the third, we have to be more formal.” This formality takes the form of a Green Checklist that helps keep sustainable design choices front and center as a project progresses. In the office, a Green Team works to keep environmental issues top of mind.
“The Green Team’s job is to keep it fun,” Haun says. “It’s on the agenda at every staff meeting. We have announcements and discussions, as well as a Listserv we call Greenspace. We’ve changed office product suppliers; we’re rabid about recycling or reusing everything from computer equipment to take-out containers. We’ve had events to bring up the consciousness level in the office, like showing An Inconvenient Truth after-hours and encouraging people to bring organic food and seasonal produce from the local greenmarket to our potluck lunches.” In fact, the efforts have been so influential that a few staff members have left the firm to pursue full-time careers in the sustainability field.
Elliott also tries to give her business a smaller environmental footprint. “We ensure our business is within the city so our dollars stay here. We all like the most modern computers, but we let ours get a little older and replace them every three years instead of one-and-a-half, which is more typical. We purchased a meter that measures phantom power used. Because we still use natural gas heating in our office, we offset it. We also offset the carbon used by our vehicles and the ferry that ships our printing. We do video conferencing and Skype and travel less.
“Believe it or not,” says Elliott “one of the most difficult changes for me was switching from a paper day planner to an online version. But even uncomfortable changes, step by step, can be done.”
Under Any Circumstance
Of course, if you’re a designer working for a firm whose green interests are restricted to dollars, it’s harder to implement these types of initiatives. But there’s still plenty you can do. Like most self-improvement programs, it just takes a certain amount of diligence to make the kinds of small changes that add up to big effects. “I go from having great ideals to losing them the minute I see new shoes I really like,” admits Eric Karjaluoto of smashLAB, a two-person interactive agency in Vancouver, B.C. But he is also careful not to delude himself. “Sometimes I see things that are like eating a McDonald’s burger and then justifying it by having a diet soda,” he notes, describing his intolerance for greenwashing. “I saw one firm put in their sustainability policies that they had plants in the office to purify the air, and I thought, you know, ‘F you. Who are you trying to kid?’”
For Karjaluoto, one of the best places to start is by embracing his own green guilt. “I like fast food, and I drive a minivan,” he says, “So I’m kind of the sustainability anti-Christ, but I really try to do what I can. We bought iPhones and felt huge guilt about it, but then said we weren’t going to buy new phones again for a very long time. We don’t just recycle. We are more critical of the decisions we make, and the more we do that, the easier it becomes.”
Built to Last
Which brings us to another important point about sustainability: It’s not about wearing ugly shoes, eating twigs or using rough toilet paper. “Designers are a different type of consumer,” notes Sherin. “They’re more discerning than the average consumer. For some designers, it’s not about the act of buying, it’s about ownership of this fantastically designed thing that’s a pleasure in and of itself, and is going to be around for 30 or more years.”
Karjaluoto agrees. For him, sustainability has a positive impact on his personal, as well as the planet’s, life. “So many of these things end up becoming elegant changes,” he points out. “I buy fewer and better things that last for life, so I have less shit to clean.”
Whatever you do, the most important thing is to do something. “For 99 percent of us to make small changes is better than a few people doing tons,” Karjaluoto notes. So here’s a list of steps you can start with today. And then add to tomorrow. And keep up with next week. And the week after … .