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The issue of sustainability—in its various incarnations—has been appearing with increasing frequency wherever graphic design is discussed. Despite its relative importance, few designers have a clear understanding of what the word and its attendant concepts actually mean, while fewer still can relate it to their everyday business practice or understand the implications it holds for their future.


Leave the place in better shape than you found it. This may sound like common sense, but this deceptively simple idea is tough to apply. Before you can even really begin the discussion, you have to wrestle with the word itself. "Sustainability" has raced to the top of everyone's buzzword watch-list with record-breaking speed (in Vancouver [AIGA Power of Design Conference 2003] , I overheard a group of designers in the elevator declare that if they never heard the word again, it would be too soon). Keen noses to the wind, designers relish virtually any backlash; the sustainability backlash promises to be no different.

If we are to be taken seriously, we must first practice what we preach."

To compound the irritation found in the word itself, many people don't really understand how "sustainability" relates to (or differs from) the more widely recognized "environmentalism" (in fact, my spell-checker is telling me that there is no such word as "sustainability"). This confusion warrants some clarification. Unlike the traditional environmental movements dating from the 1960s and '70s, which are primarily driven by over-reliance on regulatory power and grass-roots activism and have traditionally stood in staunch opposition to business interests, sustainability represents a different way of conducting business, and thus is being championed from within progressive and idealistic corporations. Indeed, many of sustainability's heartiest proponents are entrepreneurs (Yvon Chouinard, founder/president/CEO of Patagonia, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's and Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop) and business consultants (William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle to Cradle). So from a business perspective, the glass-half-full approach represented by sustainability is much more palpable than environmentalism. And—like it or not—since the business community and the capitalist system in which it operates sets the pace for society at large, acceptance here is crucial for any meaningful impact.


A random examination of almost any industry vertical will reveal at least one company trying to do things the "right" way. Patagonia and American Apparel provide role models in the apparel industry. Toyota's popular Prius hybrid is leading the way in the automotive world. BP has publicly committed to moving "beyond petroleum. " The Body Shop, Aveda and the upstart Mrs. Meyers are pioneering new techniques in cosmetics and consumer products. Herman Miller and Interface have made very specific commitments in the furniture and textile industries. Organic food is becoming increasingly common in supermarkets. Indeed, many companies now have C-level executives (i.e., chief sustainability officer) in place to account for this fundamental shift in business practice. Hewlett-Packard, Nike, Starbuck's and Ford are but a few companies that have such executives, all of whom are playing a much larger role in guiding corporate strategy. One can find even more meaningful examples by looking into European business practice.

As sustainable issues become more pronounced, other companies have begun to make forays into this territory. One needs only to make a quick comparison of the current Wall Street outlook on two auto manufacturers to understand the motivation they are now experiencing: GM—with its fleet of oversized trucks and SUVs—has just recorded the single largest quarterly loss in corporate history and has seen its stock down-graded to junk bond status. Meanwhile, last year's Toyota Prius is being sold on eBay for more than this year's list price because no one can endure the waiting list necessary to obtain a new one. Additionally, many companies are realizing that sustainability represents good common sense and that using less material, treating fewer toxins and creating less waste is an economic no-brainer.

One of the principle goals of any sustainable initiative should be to get more companies to recognize the inherent value in such behavior, and to alter theirs. For all of the emphasis placed on "innovation," businesses really spend more time looking from side to side, checking out what their competition is doing. Once generally recognized industry practice changes, other companies will follow suit accordingly. With any luck, the business world will eventually undergo the radical change necessary to achieve the "natural capitalism" described by Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce.


I should use recycled paper, right? Sure, but that's just the beginning of the discussion. Currently, most designer's concerns around sustainability are centered on the physical manifestation of our own efforts, primarily printed materials. Rightfully so, as printing is a messy business, lumber resources are at a premium and paper accounts for a significant quantity of landfill. But frustration often arises from the fact that designers have no direct control over how printing plants are run, how timber is harvested or what becomes of the end-products after they are distributed. Nonetheless, as the end customers for these paper products and print services, designers do play an influential role in how those businesses conduct themselves. Designers often take for granted that as specifiers, we have a tremendous amount of power over what is available within the design and publishing marketplace; and that as trendsetters and communicators, we have the ability to affect the habits of industries outside of our own.

There are numerous resources available to designers that can provide the knowledge necessary to question supply and service partners. The AIGA Design and Business Ethics Series, Number 7: Print Design and Environmental Responsibility details many of the issues that relate to sustainable printing. Celery Design Collaborative has published an extensive list of environmentally-conscious paper choices (www.aigasf.org/ committees/environment/guide_intro.html), and a similar list was published in Communications Arts ("Eco-Preferable Papers" March/April 2003). A number of FAQs are addressed and some printing myths are debunked on Cenveo Anderson Lithograph's environmental Web site (www.andlitho.com/sustainability). In San Francisco, the bi-annual Compost-modern design conference (www.compostmodern.org) provides a forum for graphic designers to grapple with these issues firsthand. The Greening of Print (www.greeningofprint.com) is an industry sponsored study that addresses sustainable issues within the print and packaging industries. Additionally, sustainability matters are cropping up in design periodicals with increasing frequency.

Reviewing such material is perhaps most constructive when designers realize that we need to get our own house in order before we can effectively question the business practices of others. If we are to be taken seriously, we must first practice what we preach.


As important as the artifacts we produce might be, the more significant role that designers have to play involves the communications challenges surrounding sustainability, which is a complicated, multi-faceted issue that has a wide variety of implications for different industry verticals, communities and demographics—and serious consequences for the future. There is an increasing need to explain these issues to a world eager to understand them. Many companies are already addressing sustainability in a variety of print and online communications. Sustainability reports and citizenship reports have become staples in many companies' communication efforts (www.nike.com/nikebiz/nikebiz.jhtml and www.hp.com/hpinfo/globalcitizenship). Some companies—such as BP (www.bp.com)—have even restructured their principle branding efforts around sustainable concerns.

To keep track of these changes (and we hope validate their sincerity), there are numerous reporting mechanisms, voluntary governance and business conferences. Triple bottomline reporting—a "people, profits, planet" approach to determining the true "value" of a company—is becoming commonplace at the large accounting houses (i.e., PricewaterhouseCoopers) and admission into the Dow Jones Sustainability Index is a highly-coveted distinction in the investment community (www.sustainability-index.com). Organizations such as The Global Reporting Initiative (www. globalreporting.org) and SustainAbility (www.sustainability.com) supply reporting frameworks, and Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and the Coalition for Ecologically Responsible Economies (CERES) hold well-attended annual conferences to recognize companies for their sustainable efforts and provide a forum for advancing this agenda (www.bsr.org and www.ceres.org).

So whether it's booming new businesses (hybrid cars, hydrogen), or the changing nature of existing business (solar panels, corporate governance, organic foods) or entirely new demographics to address (ReadyMade magazine, Organic Living magazine), there is ample subject matter to which designers can apply their efforts.


History is littered with unfortunate examples of societies squandering, warring and expiring in the face of diminishing natural resources. Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond predicts that we will eventually fight wars for the environmental resources that we currently take for granted. On the other side of the political spectrum, recent Pentagon reports cite looming environmental and ecological threats as much larger military concerns than global terrorism. Other books and articles submit a grim vision of the future in which the world struggles to adjust to life without petroleum. So unlike other business fads and buzzword-laden prognostications, sustainability, unfortunately, promises to play an ever-increasing role in our daily lives. Even if designers had nothing more to do than prepare the world for the post-petroleum economy, the notion of "design as a vehicle for social change" is due for a workout. The increasing value that will be placed on the planet's resources ensures that the communications needs associated with their use will continue to rise.

One only need consider our current military boondoggle (and low international regard) to imagine what will happen if we do not address these issues now. In the future, international relations will be even more terse if we do not make adjustments to our current way of life and the business practices associated with it. But how can designers expect to contribute? In the increasing absence of government regulation of such matters, non-government organizations (NGOs) now supply the check on industry that government has traditionally supplied. Many of these organizations would benefit tremendously from the involvement of design professionals. A past campaign by Forest Ethics was responsible for Staples increasing the amount of post-consumer waste in its copier paper. Their current action against Victoria's Secret (www.victoriasdirtysecret.net) and Greenpeace's similar campaign directed at Kimberly-Clark (www.kleercut.net) take those companies to task for their consumption of old-growth forest in their catalogs and paper products. At their best, these organizations also work with companies to develop better solutions to their business goals.


Due to all of the implications that sustainability holds, it has been cited as one of the emerging business trends upon which designers would do well to hitch their star. At the recent AIGA GAIN Business and Design conference, Larry Keeley of the Doblin Group listed sustainability as one of his eleven emerging "convergence points" around which future business activity will revolve. Long the niche-oriented concern of environmentalists and activists, sustainability promises to become a mainstream issue. Indeed, it can already be found cropping up in general interest publications (i.e., Time magazine, www.time.com/time/2002/greencentury/enarchitecture.html) and ads touting companies' good behavior. As such, it promises much work for designers—complicated programs and initiatives will need rollout, government and regulatory issues will need to be explained, land use, development and manufacturing protocols will undergo much tighter scrutiny, and a vast array of corporate reporting will need to be performed and then evaluated. As designers continue their ongoing struggle to communicate design's inherent value, sustainability could very well prove to be the crucible in which that promise is fully realized.

A common complaint at many a design conference is that designers are not taken seriously in the business world. Designers want to sit at the adult table. Yet despite the fact that sustainability is fast becoming a top-level business priority, and that it represents a progressive issue for which many designers should be sympathetic—design community awareness currently trails existing business initiatives (and related disciplines such as architecture and industrial design). When looking for examples of "design with a capital D," sustainability holds tremendous potential. Designers like to characterize themselves as problem-solvers. If this is true, then they should have little difficulty inserting themselves in the midst of this crucial emerging business dynamic.


There are a number of steps that designers can take to further their understanding of these issues (and apply their skills accordingly):

• Develop communities of practice. Whether at a local level like Berkeley's Ecology Center, a national level like the McDonough/Braungart affiliated GreenBlue consultancy (www.greenblue.org) and its Sustainable Packaging Coalition (www.sustainablepackaging.org), or internationally through informal Web groups such as the 02 Network (www.02.org)—there are numerous opportunities to find others with whom these issues resonate.

• Engage other disciplines in dialogue on the topic. Don't restrict your time outside of the office to design conferences only; talk to the business community on their own turf. At an international level, executives from Fortune 500 companies turn out in droves for conferences and events such as Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and the Coalition for Ecologically Responsible Economies (CERES). On a more colloquial level, off-site retreats such as the Ecoshack in Joshua Tree provide low-impact settings for brainstorming (www.ecoshack.com).

• Look to analogous efforts in other industries. After much talk of sustainability in the world of architecture, that field's efforts have crystallized in a concise set of guidelines known as the LEED standards (www.usgbc.org), a certification process that has enabled architects and their suppliers to move from conjecture to implementation at an industry-wide level. In the world of manufacturing, ISO 14000 certification is playing a similar role (www.iso.org).

• Evaluate the communications materials and objectives of your own clients. Some of your own clients may have practices already in place, but are doing nothing to capitalize on their effectiveness. Other clients may be missing opportunities to implement changes in their business, and some businesses may be "greenwashing" (paying lip service to sustainable principles). Do you know where your clients stand on these issues? Can you think ofways to motivate them to change their outlook, or to capitalize on efforts they may already have in place?

• Familiarize yourself with corporate governance issues. Many of the items listed above have evaluation criteria associated with them, and triple bottom line reporting is growing in popularity. Look for opportunities to effect policy-making and advocacy (through AIGA initiatives or otherwise). Designers should recognize that while individual habits are not to be discounted, it is the policies and practices of institutions and governments that have the more profound impact.

• Prioritize your efforts. Familiarize yourself with sustainability's basic principles so that you understand which things matter and which things do not. Consumer habits do play a part, but in ways that most people do not realize. For instance, the decision to buy an energy-efficient refrigerator dwarfs any of the typical "paper vs plastic" or "cloth vs disposable" decisions that typically prey on the mind of most consumers. Hammering people on issues of little consequence leaves them too weary or indifferent to care when it really matters.

• Channel your nonprofit efforts into designer activism and socially-responsible projects. Like the aforementioned Forest Ethics campaigns, there are numerous nonprofits in need of designer assistance. There are also grants and foundations, such as Sappi's Ideas That Matter (www.sappi.com), that can be utilized to create or assist new endeavors.

• Seize the opportunity to put a new face on a hoary old movement. The hemp clad, patchouli-soaked environmentalism of my hometown Berkeley isn't going to play in Peoria. Sustainability and environmentalism are in desperate need of a makeover. Seattle's Sustainable Style Foundation (www. sustainablestyle.org/home.html) is doing their best in the world of fashion, but there is much work to be done to make sustainability attractive for the masses.

• Stick a toe in the water. Ask some questions, provide some feedback, toss out some ideas of your own. The amount of dialogue on the topic is growing; find a way to participate in it.


There is an urgency attached to sustainability. All of the world's living systems are in rapid decline while the population continues to grow at a steady clip. In fact, many would argue that the measures discussed in this article are not sufficient, that a more radical reconstruction of society is in order. On the other hand, some people feel as though designers should not be held responsible for solving these issues, that it's just too much. But if designers aren't going to play a part, then who is? Couldn't everyone beg out of this if they wanted to?

Sustainability represents nothing less than a fundamental shift in how business is conducted; designers need to recognize their potential role in this shift and seize the opportunity it presents. A recent cover of Dwell magazine (June 2005) reminds us that "good design comes from constraints." Rather than looking at sustainability as a set of restrictions or as an impediment to good ideas, designers must embrace it as a source of inspiration and a challenge to be met with gusto. ca


Bendrick, Lou. "Queer Eye for the Green Guy." Utne Reader. May-June 2005.

Brower, Michael and Warren Leon. The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. Three Rivers Press, I999.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking, 2004.

Hawken, Paul. The Ecology of Commerce. Harper Collins, I993. 

Hawken, Paul, and Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. Natural Capitalism. Little, Brown & Company, I999.

Roberts, Paul. The End of Oil. Harper Collins, 2003.

Trained as a graphic designer, Phil Hamlett has over 22 years of experience in a wide variety of design and communications roles, working for studios and clients large and small on both coasts. Currently, he is ensconced as a design educator (hence the use of words like “ensconced”) at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. As the driving force behind the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design and the founder of Compostmodern, his interest in developing sustainable business practice rounds out his time.

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