Designers as Guardians of Sustainability - The Long and Short Blog
With sustainability a priority for forward thinking organizations, they are faced with needing to integrate strategies that will keep them competitive.
sustainability, design, graphic design, long, short, Siying Wei, Damian Salter, Siying, Damian, digital, communication, The Long and Short, blog, Blog
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Designers as Guardians of Sustainability.


ith sustainability becoming a priority for any forward thinking organization, they are faced with needing to integrate strategies that will keep them competitive as the world turns to address the climate crisis and looks to new and inventive ways to help align their business models with corporate responsibility. And increasingly, it is designers that will help them facilitate their objectives in this area.

The world seems to be caught up with and drowning in consumerism. Quite literally. Sea levels are rising because of global warming, which has been spurned on by societies insatiable appetite for stuff. At every turn, it seems we are being sold something, on our phones, through email and on TV (if you are one of the ones that haven’t unhooked your cable, that is). There is no escape, even within the walls of your own home. Especially within the walls of your own home. And while personal responsibility, of course, should play a very big part in how this kind of obsession is looked at, the designer often, rightly or wrongly, is made the pariah as the great facilitator of runaway consumerism.

But this is not some alarmist piece about the evils of consumerism, capitalism and the imminent end of the world as we know it. In fact far from it. Instead, we’re are going to explore the notion that since designers are players in the process that can have positive or negative outcomes, that they can exert their influence as change makers for good. There are plenty of designers out there that already live this ethos both in and out of their professional life.

Of course, this article is within the context of being in a global environmental crisis, and the discourse here will be our typical direct style. There is just no getting around this elephant in the room when talking about sustainability, design and best business practices.

“If design, branding and marketing can be used nefariously, it also stands to reason that it can also be used for the greater good.”

Bottled water is the standard bearer for unsustainability.

Of course, the designers that are in it up to their necks for such industries as (let’s avoid the obvious culprits, such as big oil and coal), bottle water, for example, must for sure be going to some form of special designer hell. An industry whose entire premise is based on a branding lie. Persuading entire populations that have access to perfectly good (in many cases better) water, to buy bottled branded product, that they don’t need. Product that is packaged in toxic plastic bottles, that have gone through a process of manufacturing, that is totally at odds with the clean, healthy brand they are selling. In some cases, these toxins (when bottles are left in the sun for example) leach into the beverage. And when used, are discarded, adding to the plastic mounds that break down and contaminate the waterways of the world. This entire process is irony personified. If we drink much more bottled water, there won’t be any none contaminated springs to pluck the water from in the first place. So it is no wonder that in this scenario designers and marketers, must be seen as the great evil enablers of our time. Shame on us, shame.

If design, branding, and marketing can be used nefariously, it also stands to reason that it can also be used for the greater good. Just as in any line of work, there are good players and bad players, and generally it’s safe to say that many (we’d like to say most) designers strive to provide a balance, where they engage in projects for none profits, NGO’s, charities and community organizations as well as the corporate world. And many will, within the corporate world only work with organizations that have a great CSR record.

Personal responsibility is part of the answer.

As far a personal consumerism goes, designers are far more likely to appreciate quality and longevity of a product, and because of their exposure and intricate knowledge of the workings of the industry, are way less likely to get suckered into a marketing selling pitch for the hot new trend. Over the years we have met a lot of designers and, they generally seem to be the most frugal people we know, driven by need and function. Things really have to prove themselves objectively as well as aesthetically to fit into the typically minimalistic lifestyle of order, that most designers crave. Of course, we are talking in broad strokes here, but you get the idea. When it comes to personal responsibility as an individual consumer, most designers already reject trend based consumerism.

And beyond that, designers can have way more impact, than what they can as one person’s resolve to cut consumer habits. There are many companies that have already started to utilize designers and design to embrace the future.

“Learning to cherish functional and authentic well-designed quality will leave you less likely to be disappointed with the purchase.”

Old news – Current consumer trends are unsustainable.

The bottled water industry is just one example. More generally, with the modern fluid society, global economy and decentralized family unit, many individials gain a feeling of personal validation and value through the things that they have and purchase. And of course, companies are lining up to help them fill their void, environment be damned. You only have to go into the nearest dollar store or ‘seconds’ household goods store (one that rhymes with nonsense springs to mind), to see the plethora of complete mindless, ‘disposable’, low quality crap that has just been produced and marketed, en mass, with little to no discernable design process. Consumers, likely add these purchases onto the worlds garbage heap within the first annum of the products life. So world wide temperatures continue rising, along with the sea levels. And the consumers still haven’t managed to kick that empty nagging feeling.

Nowadays, materialism is the trend of modern society, and some within the design industry now seems to have become corporate tools (pun intended), helping to prey on exacerbating peoples feeling of inadequacy. Something that came out fresh today, will instantly turn “old” tomorrow. Everybody wants to have “better” things, and they can, since everything is now cheap, accessible and mass produced. The perception of value or more importantly, valuing something, has been eroded and distorted by the obsession with cost and availability. It’s not what we need, and often it’s not even about what we think we need, just what we want. It’s an ugly game driven by temptation and unabated want, that if not modified will eventually bring us down an irretrievable path.

And so we get back to personal responsibility of the consumer. People need to start looking into their own impact and which organizations they support. Do you really need those 50 pairs of shoes? Choose quality over quantity, and choose actual quality over brand saturated merchandise. It will bring you much more joy. Learning to cherish functional and authentic well-designed quality will leave you less likely to be disappointed with the purchase, as it will likely have more longevity in style and durability. You’ll spend less time cluttering your life with stuff and have more time and mental space for things that are important like making actual social and personal connections. Making memories with friends and family members, instead of being distracted by the next trend. And of course, less consumed, means less waste, and less of a negative impact on the environment. But this is not breaking news.

Sustainable design must be emotionally durable.

Part of the issue that needs to be addressed is the elimination of planned and perceived obsolescence, in the product cycle. The consumer has paradoxically got used to and at the same time tired of this phenomenon. Consumers still consume on mass, but have become jaded about brand authenticity, as the products they buy, become redundant in ever decreasing timelines. Corporate greed is pretty thinly veiled these days. This will have to change.

Brands will have to adapt to models that create meaningful long lasting relationships between their products and their customers. Designers will need to work to develop and market products that hold the loyalty of the consumer for longer periods so that the cycle and waste of product replacement is delayed.

Durability and putting less emphasis on style trends will help facilitate a transition to a more sustainable consumer model. Designers will need to think about the condition of products after use. What will they look like when they get old, and can they endure with time? Old things that, are functionally resilient and durable have a much higher chance of bringing the consumer joy and appreciation time after time, and so stand a much higher chance of being cherished not replaced. Preferring new things is now human nature, but there is an opportunity for designers to make the products sustainable, to not only consider the “look”, but more importantly, the usability, durability of the product and present it in a way that will have a long lasting emotional appeal.

“There needs to be a broader acceptable spectrum of usable technology and programs that brands stand behind, so that product can be useful for the duration of its natural life.”

Breaking news – the digital world needs to do much better.

Let’s move onto the digital world for a bit. Since digital platforms became ubiquitous in our lives, people might be under the illusion that digital products are more sustainable. Sadly both hardware, software, and developers are some of the biggest culprits. The digital industry still creates a massive and unnecessary carbon footprint due to inefficiencies in manufacturing, the consumption of electricity and hardline marketing. Brands such as Apple who have an impeccably crafted social responsibility marketing and branding strategy are pretty damn craven about employing what can only be described as one of the most cannibalistic designed obsolescent programs in the world.

When thinking about the running systems and the upgrades needed. Of course we understand that the need for improvements are endless, but there is no need to design obsolescence into the mix. We have a seven year old Mac, it looks great and runs like a dream. So credit due, where it’s due. Apple are pros at producing products that fulfill the emotionally durable requirement for sustainability. But then they go and make it all worthless, literally, by refusing to provide system updates for that model of computer, even though it is capable. After a while suddenly third party programs such as Google Chrome have compatibility problems, and can’t be updated on the ‘outdated’ running system, and at a certain point Chrome stops working altogether. So a computer that can still very happily run multiple design programs at once and does complex tasks in lightning speed, suddenly isn’t compatible with a simple browser, and has been made good for the landfill, just so Apple can get you (us) to go out and buy a new product. It’s enough to make even the most ardent brand fan rather jaded. Not to mention letting the brands sustainability credentials down.

Of course it’s not just Apple, the whole industry has played it to the extreme. As the world moves to revere and expect sustainable accountability, to put it bluntly, when you release your new products, you are also responsible for your old ones. Prematurely abandoning them as part of a marketing and revenue strategy shows disrespect for your customers who bought them and disrespect to the environment we all share. Moving forward designers in this industry have a responsibility to eliminate designed obsolescence. Making products more adaptable, not less. There needs to be a broader acceptable spectrum of usable technology and programs that brands stand behind, so that product can be useful for the duration of it’s natural life.

In that vein, tech companies need to do much more to take responsibility to recycle the product once they have made it obsolete. In Ontario, Canada, they have a 99% return rate for glass alcohol beverage bottles, through a massive Province wide infrastructure program. For example, Apple is the largest company in the world, and has been a leader and innovator for many product initiatives, and has the infrastructure to easily implement such a buy back program. A 99% return rate is certainly something to strive for, would make a massive ecological difference, and have an incredibly positive impact on their brand image.

Designers have a real opportunity and responsibility to help organizations rise to the challenges of our age, and embrace innovation in sustainability.

Sustainable design needs to be broadly aesthetically pleasing.

Design and designers have had some influence over the perception of Eco design as that of a niche market. Products, cars and architecture have been designed in a way to give out geeky brand cues as to their primary function of being Eco or sustainable. Of course while this may have served as a foundation for Eco brands, in general it was a folly.

A good example comes from Toyota. The Prius, was initially designed to attract hippy west coasters and smug lefties to embrace the Eco lifestyle. In the beginning their awkward, down right ugly and uninspiring aesthetic value set them apart from regular transport and let the owners gloat in their ethical superiority. Of course the cars were so damn ugly and lacked any covetable quality, that their only selling feature was their environmental credentials, and them not needing any gas, of course.

Then came along a guy named Elon Musk, who fundamentally understood, that to make the masses consider such a broad change of habit, it would take something completely enticing, something with a personality that would appeal past the base of the Eco minded, something truly functional and universally aesthetically appealing in such a way, that they would covet it in spite of it’s Eco credentials. And the Tesla was born. A car that helped huge swaths of consumers around the world reimagine what it meant to be green.

With the success of the Tesla, the regular manufacturers moved more seriously into the hybrid and electric markets, with cars that regular folk would actually want to be seen in. And with a more general cultural acceptance of the inevitability of electric cars, years later this lead the way for governments around the world to commit to the abolition of the combustion engine. Something certainly not remotely conceivable before the advent of Tesla.

“The business world is a forever evolving place, where Darwinistic tendencies rule. And those that don’t innovate run the risk of making themselves irrelevant.”

Sustainability is no obstacle to manufacturing viability.

There is an ‘old boys club’ train of thought, that sustainability considerations will effect their bottom line and make their business endeavours uncompetitive. But these attitudes are those of the inflexible, nonadaptive and lazy. They are staring into the abyss of the new eco economy, paralyzed, stuck in the inertia of their own lack of imagination, unable to make their offering relevant. The business world is a forever evolving place, where Darwinistic tendencies rule. And those that don’t innovate run the risk of making themselves irrelevant.

This innovation applies not just to marketing and branding, but also to product development, manufacturing and distribution systems. And the reason why we know that embracing this kind of sustainable innovation across all aspects of business is completely compatible with a viable model for business, is that there are already a number of very successful companies, who have embraced this ethos. One of which is IKEA, one of the largest and most profitable companies on the planet.

IKEA understands both the emotional durability and aesthetic enticement components of building a sustainable business model. They embrace the concept of democratic design, creating massive value, selling their product at affordable prices, making quality, well designed and sustainable products accessible. Their offering may by cheap in cost, but the massive brand loyalty comes from the ingenuity in design and the appeal of the kewl simple modern aesthetic, and crucially, impeccable consistency in quality and presentation. Their offering is familiar and has been part of most people’s homes. There probably aren’t many people in the western world that haven’t assembled at least one IKEA product. So even without knowing it, consumers have been normalized into supporting sustainability as a central ethos for living.

But they take it much further, becoming leaders in function and eco product design innovation. Their strategy includes everything in the chain, from working towards energy independence and manufacturing their product from recycled and renewable content to streamlining shipping and distribution, by mastering flat pack furniture.

Product designers have a real opportunity to innovate in a way that makes their offering compatible with sustainability. Put bluntly if a massive operation like IKEA can embrace sustainability with such a cheap price point, it should be a reasonable expectation across all other higher tier manufactured offerings. And as sustainability and corporate social responsibility become a prerequisite for company engagement moving forward, designers will be on hand to bring solutions.

Sustainability brings value for the long term.

As the new economy emerges, any organization not putting corporate social responsibility at the core of their business model will struggle. One of the main reasons for this is that following a fully responsible ethos, leaves the organization much less open to scandal, surrounding employment rights or ecological impact, and therefore less exposed to unforeseen risk, from both a brand marketing and investor relations perspective.

The reputation of a brand is now becoming directly entwined with how it treats it’s employees, or impacts the environment. In a market place where there is a choice, consumers will always opt for the organization that seems trustworthy, and that feels like a better fit for their values. Being ecologically conscious is no longer a fringe ideology, it has fully made it into the mainstream. Companies that are respected in these areas also have the benefit of being, more attractive to a broader pool of quality employees, who are more likely to be brand and company loyal. They are also more likely to stick around for a longer period, which decreases turnover, training and hiring costs. And happy loyal employees are the best company and brand advocates, especially in this day and age of social media. They become bonus ambassadors.

Recycling and reusing materials or using sustainable materials can save money and in many industries generate income, as organizations diversify their operations. The beverage industry is a great example. Vodka maker Absolute during its distilling process, creates a mountain of organic byproduct, that now gets turned into animal feed for livestock. They get to recoup some of their cost back through this second tier of product, and they get to mitigate some of the environmental impacts of rearing cattle by offsetting the farmers need to produce feed.

Even today, organizations that embrace an ethos that puts social and ecological responsibility at the core of their business model, outperform those that don’t in most industries, over the long term. Which of course means from an investment point of view, higher profit margins, more competitive dividends and better performing share prices.

The Short

There are many eco activists that assert that capitalism is incompatible with a truly sustainable economy. And on the other side there are plenty of business leaders that are happy to make the same claim, but with the twist of their own perspective, that mandated sustainability will make them uncompetitive and cripple the economy. Of course, the reality is that there needs to be a functioning economy in order to address and ecological challenges and fund the solutions of the future. And business needs a functioning society in which to operate and prosper. So the goals in sustainability are actually mutually beneficial.

Many government agencies have already taken massive strides forward to making the building blocks of society more sustainable, with architecture or transport infrastructure. Forward thinking organizations already include quantitive social and ecological responsibility into their business models. Sustainability as part of a viable consumer model, these days, is nothing new. It is here to stay. And any business looking to develop a long term model will need to incorporate sustainability into its strategy. And as the economy moves forward, it is design innovation that will help organizations embrace sustainability as part of a usual and expected business discourse. There is an amazing opportunity for companies to set themselves apart and embrace company and brand defining ideas.

Real design is not about superficially beautifying the form for temptation, but about embracing the wisdom that helps humanity solve its problems, and not just survive, but to flourish. Designers have the ability to guide, influence and improve what people really want. Though it can be utilized to those ends, designs purpose is not to create things for consumerism. It is the solution that makes the world more reasonable and harmonic. From automotive design, to architecture, modernizing manufacturing techniques, supply chain efficiencies, embracing recyclable and renewable materials, to products that add value, ethical marketing, and authentic brand development, at every level across every discipline, designers have a real opportunity and responsibility to help organizations rise to the challenges of our age, making their endeavours viable, making them the innovative change makers of our time, and the guardians of sustainability.

This has been The Long and Short on ‘Designers as the Guardians of Sustainability’. We hope you have found it to be at least a little informative. For more chat on design topics in the future, be sure to check back in with us.

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