OK. Because Lebowski sort of asked me and just because - here at Noisy Decent Graphics we are going to run a little seriesette of posts about Sustainability In Design.
Here's the first problem. Since last year I've been collecting stuff for the first sustainability post. Links, images, quotes etc. But I've now got too much.
When I write, I often save a number of random thoughts in the drafts folder until one day something happens that pulls all those strands together and then I unleash that post.
I've been doing that with Sustainability but I've got so much stuff there's no way it will ever form one post. So instead, I'm just going to fire all these random thoughts at you, at random. Some will be like half-posts, some will be like two-posts-in-one. You'll get the hang of it.
Here's problem number two. Normally a post (or an article or a story or an argument) has a beginning, a middle and an end. If you've ever tried writing about sustainability you'll quickly find that there is no end. There are no answers. I can't complain about over zealous packaging and then come to a neat conclusion. There are no conclusions. Some of the greatest minds of our time are trying to find answers, so I wouldn't worry too much, just expect a few posts that don't wrap up quite so neatly.
Problem number three. Please note that sustainability does not mean painting everything green and walking to work on your hands humming Tubular Bells. Sustainability means, well, being sustainable. Taking and giving in equal measure.
Now we've cleared all that up, here's rambling answerless half-post number one.
Ladies and Gentlemen meet Lightning McQueen.
Lightning (as you may already know) is a branded, co-promoted child's toy. The picture above is what he looks like in the box. He looks good doesn't he? And that's the point.
You see the primary function of packaging these days is as a sales channel. Here's Will Awdry, CD at Ogilvy, talking in the new book about Innocent Drinks, "Innocent has shown that the heavy lifting of marketing communication can be carried out in hand-to-hand combat in the chiller cabinet". No one would dispute that. He goes on to say that Innocent sell through the packaging first and the TV last. We won't debate that here, but you get the point. Packaging is important.
That box has too look great. It has to catch the eye in zero seconds and shift units.
Here's Lightning out of the box. Looks good, goes like a dream. I especially recommend using it on a shiny floor.
Recently the Independent have been running a campaign to reduce packaging. I support the campaign and it's great to see a national newspaper taking this up.
Isn't that example fucking ridiculous? It also answers Lebowski's question perfectly. No, there is no better packing than that which nature devised herself. As so often, nature wins.
But nature won't packaging Lightning for us, and swedes don't really have complicated messages that need to be communicated across several territories. Below is all the packaging for Lightning laid out on the floor.
And here's the same photo but with the actual product in the shot.
Doesn't the car look very small compared to the packaging?
The Independent have asked readers to send in examples of unnecessary packaging and they promised they would take the complaints to the retailers, mainly supermarkets. As you'd expect they were inundated with examples. And then, about a week into the campaign, they received this letter from Craig who runs a Garden Centre in Nottingham. Here's some highlights.
"I run a garden centre in Nottingham and the demands from customers for packaging are enormous. People request boxes for items which do not even come in boxes. Any even slightly damaged packaging will render a product unsaleable. Customers are frequently affronted when my staff ask them if they require bags, as if we are trying to save a few pennies at their expense. And unless products come in glossy boxes with pretty pictures on them, they are fundamentally useless to the retailer because they have no chance of selling.
One only has to look at the success of supermarket "Finest" or "Taste the Difference" ranges to understand that customers are demanding more, better and more sophisticated packaging. Manufacturers have to make products that sell, and customers are forcing the issue by overwhelmingly choosing to buy those products which have excessive packaging."
Hmmm, he's got a valid point hasn't he? Is it a little naive to just expect manufacturers, retails and designers to reduce the packaging? I'll buy a swede in it's natural skin, but would I have bought Lightning in "even slightly damaged packaging" or is the product rendered "unsaleable"?
So what can we do? Well yes, certainly designers have a responsibility to promote solutions that use less packaging. We should all be actively doing that. People need to be cleverer about all that. Much cleverer.
Recycling will help, definitely. Below is a picture of one of two bags of cardboard from a recent kids birthday party. Isn't it a little odd that the packaging is twice as big as the person whose birthday we were celebrating?
I took that bag to our local tip to be recycled.
Can't write this without mentioning the Innocent corn bottle which is a brilliant innovation. Product of the year and package of the year awards must surely follow. What I've always like about Innocent's packaging is that they used to say, 'this bottle is 25% recyclable, we're working on the rest' and then it was 50% and now they've cracked 100%. I doubt that many companies would be that dedicated. The 'we're working on it' bit is really important.
The other morning I was listening to Radio 4, very early. They interviewed some waste expert who basically said that Britain wasn't well equiped for recycling. The council waste facilities weren't designed for recycling (obviously) and the public didn't really know what they could and couldn't recycle. It doesn't help that it varies from council to council. Here's our friend from the garden centre again.
"Even more important is to tackle the appalling record on recycling of our councils. I live in Nottingham city and get one general waste wheelie bin. When, as a business, we tried to look at ways of separating our waste and recycling things like plastic carry trays etc, we discovered that we did not generate large enough quantities to interest any commercial companies. By far and away the most cost-effective way to dispose of everything is to chuck it all into one big general-purpose skip"
Does that sound familiar?
The interviewer on Radio 4 said surely kids understood the importance of recycling and that eventually everyone will do it naturally. The waste guy said that kids were brilliant at recycling until they became 14 then they totally lost interest. He also said that he got plenty of "Guardian readers" recycling but the general public were really confused.
And somethings we can't recycle. But it's not just about recycling, it's about using less stuff in the first place. How long have you had your kettle at home? And your toaster? I bet you can count the years on the fingers of one hand. There was a brilliant discussion on Radio 2 the other day about how we don't repair anything anymore. When was the last time you had anything repaired?
And there's a fantastic article in The Guardian about how our Grandparents kept stuff for ages and ages and ages. They reused because they had to, not because it was trendy. One toaster would last them a lifetime.
"Yet what best exemplified this habit of do-it-yourself recycling (a term that didn't exist in those days) was what my father-in-law did with old shoes. When at last they reached the stage where he had to accept that further repairs were impossible, he would carefully clip out the tongues, and store them in the appropriate place in the garage. These tongues were made of strong leather, and that, he liked to explain, would come in useful one day for making hinges"
Please read the article, it sums up a lot about how I feel about waste. It's not just the obvious things like packaging, it's everything.
" 'Well, at least he enjoys his food. There's never anything left on his plate.' But that too was part of the culture. To leave food that someone had grown and someone else had prepared, and which in wartime might have been brought to Britain by sailors risking their lives to deliver it, was unthinkable."
Surely we all know that it's better to Reduce, Reuse and then Recycle.
Reusing the delivery box from Able & Cole. You see, that's dead easy isn't it?
We recycle a lot in our house. Paper, cardboard, plastic, tin, batteries, glass and we've even got a compost thing. The picture above is Lightning's box in the cardboard skip at the tip, where it will soon be taken away for recycling.
What have we learnt? We need packaging. There is too much packaging, way too much. Designers can help reduce packaging. We should all recycle, but recycling is hard.
So that's the end of the first Sustainability In Design post. No answers, even more questions. I hope that at least sets the scene for this series.