Over a decade ago, Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson reported in their study of consumer attitudes that approximately a quarter of U.S. adults fit into a segment they tagged “Cultural Creatives” — a vocal group who use sustainability ethics to guide their shopping as well as voting behavior. More recently, a 2004 study by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), researching strategies of top executives, noted that the respondents were concerned that not participating in sustainability efforts would have an adverse affect on their brand and market share. Fast forward a few more years: In MIT-Sloan Management Review, along with The Boston Consulting Group’s 2010 report “Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize Advantage,” the authors note:
“Across the board, nearly 60 percent of companies revealed that despite the recession, sustainability investments actually grew in 2010.”
Fair Trade champions Peace Coffee import coffee beans from Fair Trade suppliers to roast for their local market, and distribute by bicycle and biofuel van. Their motto: “Roast beans, not fossil fuel.”
In the best of all worlds, according to general sustainability models, goods would be produced and consumed locally. In the real world of course, that’s not how it works. We live in a global economy, and not all communities are able to produce all the goods they need. But the fact that we’re transporting goods outside the reach of our own laws doesn’t mean manufacturers can, or should want to, produce products and waste with reckless abandon. Study after study shows there are sound bottom-line arguments to be made for aligning profitability and positive image with sustainable business practices.
Everything we purchase, produce, deliver, and sell makes a statement about how we feel about the environment and the consumers and clients we serve. What is your work saying about you?
Checklist for Positive Change:
Learn about sustainable business practice and systems thinking before you start to specify materials and processes.
Having a list of “good” materials is only a small piece of the story. Many very eco/sustainable materials, when used in the wrong application, could be worse overall than the “bad” material they are intended to replace. Doing things sustainably means understanding it’s a system—not a menu.
Create products/packaging that use recycled and sustainably renewable materials first.
People are looking for manufacturers who are good corporate citizens. A great start is to use tree-free and recycled paper products. Supporting the market for recycled paper encourages the shift toward a more sustainable pulp cycle. Touting “Tree-Free” on your work can be easier to understand than the often-confusing disclosures of recycled content—but don’t use “tree-free” as an “easy button.” Have a good reason for choosing these materials, backed-up with a solid Life Cycle Assessment study.
Choose materials recycled in your target market, plus look for those that close the loop.
Stay familiar with the recycling rules for your markets’ curbside recycling programs. Not all areas take all materials. People want to feel good about their choices—make it easy for them.
Use common sense.
Concentrates use less transport energy than their ready-to-use counterparts. Prepared foods in aseptic packages use less energy to stay fresh than frozen or refrigerated. If the package is plastic, is it adding a positive user feature, like shampoo in a shatter-proof bottle for safety? If it looks wasteful to you, it looks wasteful to the consumer. Oversized packaging or print pieces to catch the viewer’s eye are dangerous traps. People consistently complain about apparently wasteful practices and have little sympathy for your shelf-space battles. Clever sells better than bigger.
Become an eco activist.
Everyone wants to feel good about what they do. Offer information about your efforts on your website, and refer to your efforts on the pieces themselves. Make a big deal out of what you’re doing to encourage people to participate in change. Don’t just leverage positive perception, make sustainability part of the systems thinking behind your competitive advantage.
Become a sustainable designer.
Become an effective change agent. Learn how to design the products, packages, and services that we consume. Learn more about MCAD’s Sustainable Design Program and course offerings.
Portions of this article first appeared in Package Design Magazine November 2006, and in Packaging Sustainability: Tools, Systems (Wiley Publishing 2008) and Strategies for Innovative Package Design and Sustainable Graphic Design: Tools, Systems and Strategies for Innovative Print Design (Wiley Publishing 2009).