The eco evangelist

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Jim Davies is a convert to all things organic, ethical and sustainable, from tree-hugging to peace petrol. Mock ye not. The Green and pleasant land is at hand

Generally, I’m a bit sniffy about bandwagons. When everyone’s zigging, I’m zagging. But there are some movements too momentous to counter, particularly when they are fundamental to the well-being of everyone from Tiverton to Timbuktu. Yes, I’m on about ‘environmental sustainability’, in the tardy realisation that there’s only so much to go round, and unless we radically change our ways, there will be bugger all left.

As a consequence, everyone’s going Green. A Mintel report featured recently in Design Week predicted ‘simpler, purer, more natural’ consumer packaged goods as the major trend for 2008. It foresees a revival of ancient grains on supermarket shelves, more health-enhancing ‘superfruits’ and a renaissance in humble l’eau de tap. And just across the double-page spread there was another news story about a major hotel group proudly opening the ‘Greenest’ five-star establishments in New York.

Even the big nasty super-markets are in on the act, bunching carrots with bio-degradable rubber bands, assuring us of our roast chicken’s once happy, fulfilling life, and advising us to eat plenty of organic mung beans. Whether they’re bowing to customer pressure or have simply spotted a lucrative niche, hats off to them – the small fish may have led the way, but the big whales are now swimming in the right direction.

From a branding perspective, all this laudable behaviour poses a question. Just how many shades of Green are there to go around? Organic, ethically sourced, natural, wild, preservative-free, clear, fresh, environmentally friendly – these common descriptors are so over-used that they are starting to lose their meaning.

Visually, the nature imagery associated with Green products is already tired – verdant meadows, proud trees, doomed polar bears scrabbling for the last berth on the ice flow. And as for colours – green, blue and brown just aren’t sustainable. Pretty, elaborate packaging is anathema; nowadays you need just enough space to print the reams of legally required warnings and ingredients.

And what of the pioneers like The Body Shop, Howies, Green & Black’s, Yeo Valley and Ecover. How do they feel now that Tom, Dick and Harry Corp have seen the light? Vindicated? Smug? Relieved? Or secretly a bit miffed that their territory is being invaded by competitors with more clout? Are they established enough to handle the influx? It would be an irony indeed if they were suddenly threatened with extinction.

One thing’s for sure, the momentum mustn’t be lost. ‘Green’ is too important an issue to become a victim of fashion or backlash. It’s up to designers and branding groups to find new ways of expressing ‘Greenness’; to keep it fresh, exciting and invigorating so that people don’t feel tired and turned off by the same messages and lazy visual shorthand.

In an ideal world, every company would be as environmentally concerned as the next one, so touting your Green credentials would be as irrelevant as boasting that your employees wear clothes to work. With a level playing field, they’d be free to explore other avenues of expression. Until that far-distant day, expect many, many more brands to play the Green card, but cut them some slack – they’re only trying to do the right thing.

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