With the last polar bear standing on a solitary ice cube, and once-turquoise tropical waters turned grungy grey, of course we all need to do our bit to save our rapidly wilting planet. Design has taken up the challenge with both hands, urgently looking for ways to keep things clean and sustainable, to devise ingenious energy-saving ploys, to conceive wholesome products and services devoid of any dastardly side effects.
And this is as it should be – the very best design grasps the concerns and imperatives of the age, weaving them into the fabric of form and function. Like the admirable work of the wartime Utility Furniture Committee, set up in 1942 by the Board of Trade to make the most of scarce manufacturing resources. They developed a range of 30 pieces of approved austerity furniture, which used as little material as possible, destined for newlyweds or people who’d been bombed out of their homes. For very different reasons, the committee grappled with a similar conundrum to the one designers face today – how to create the same with less.
Of course, times have moved on and motives have changed. Today, companies and brands like to be seen to be Green, to wear their eco-credentials on their sleeves like a Scout’s badge of honour. It’s not enough to simply do the right thing, you have to ram the message home with paper stock that appears to have been hand-knitted in a yurt, and bandy illustrations by a three-year-old let loose with a crayon. Eco writing is shot through with a knowing, sanctimonious tone, and every last speck, grain and droplet has its provenance cited, so we can be absolutely certain of our sponsors’ concern for the wellbeing of plants and critters great and small. Joe Public is hectored and lectured, scolded and cajoled, as competing brands each lay claim to a deeper shade of Green.
Being ecologically right-on has become commoditised, an obvious sub-genre of design. It’s evolved into a sales tactic, just like celebrity endorsement or discounting. The ploy is used at various levels for all manner of cereals and teas, fruit drinks and T-shirts, lotions and potions, vitamins and furniture. The irony is that it can take more time, effort and resources to achieve the grainy, faux-naif eco-look than it would to perfect an elegant, grown-up solution. Because don’t be fooled, the seemingly scrawled-on-a bit-of-old-weathered-cardboard style is every bit as contrived as a Hollywood glamour photo.
The thing is, being Green isn’t a fad or a competition, it’s a responsibility. We should be at the stage now where we can take it as read that companies are behaving themselves, that the goods we buy aren’t in any way tainted. Our moral compass should be firmly set and we should be resolutely sailing in the same direction. What we don’t want or need is more hair-shirted self-righteousness, or the predictable ’buy me or the lesser-spotted lumpfish gets it’ guilt trip. Chomping on our healthy, organic, additive-free morning muesli, the finger-wagging coming from the box is about as unwelcome as a fly pretending it’s a raisin. Time to move on.
We can have the best of both worlds. The technology’s out there to achieve craft and slickness without leaving a great carbon footprint on the Earth. As we navigate this gritty, grimy world, how we’d welcome some harmless glitz and escapism. Some things don’t change/ hailed as a design classic now, utility furniture went down like a lead Zeppelin when it was introduced. People clamoured for a more romantic, decorative style – it reminded them of better days.
Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio Total Content