Brand reaction to Green fatigue

If 2007 was the year the public finally ‘got’ climate change, 2008 looks like it might be the year of the ethical backlash. Indeed, a term has already been coined to describe growing public cynicism and boredom with all things eco: ‘Green fatigue’.

The issue is, unsurprisingly, filtering down into design briefs. When Ico Design, the consultancy behind the Science Museum’s current exhibition The Science of Survival, won the original pitch it was firmly cautioned to avoid Green fatigue – even though the exhibition focuses on how humanity will adapt to climate change. The brief followed extensive research, carried out by the commercial wing of the Science Museum, to evaluate children’s reactions to different climate change messaging.

‘If you ram Green issues down the majority of people’s throats, they will reject them,’ says exhibition director Craig Hatto. ‘This exhibition has to be a blockbuster – people have to want to pay to see it. The majority of the public is bombarded every day with negative climate change stories in the news and Green fatigue is becoming a serious issue.’

The Science Museum chose to deal with this by making the exhibition futuristic and giving it the feel of a computer game which, instead of encouraging people to recycle and change their light bulbs, asks them to consider adaptive designs – such as a drinking straw which removes pollutants from water – and then create their own.

Building materials for the exhibition were ethically sourced using, for example, formaldehyde-free MDF, and there is an emphasis on using LED lighting. But the museum won’t be making any noise about this. ‘It’s only of interest to us,’ says Hatto. ‘If people ask about it, we’ll explain, but to pontificate about our Green virtues would be cynical.’

In reality, suggests John Thackara, programme director of the 2007 Designs of the Time festival, it’s not Green fatigue which is the problem but Green confusion – or rather the lack of it.

‘People are becoming expert at working out if a product has actually changed. The era of Greenwash is coming to an end,’ says Thackara. ‘Among designers, there was the “lets-make-a-poster-about-it [a brand’s eco-credentials]” school of thought, but that is now giving way to a new group of people, sustainable designers, who are interested in re-engineering processes for the future.’

This is being driven by consumers’ desire not to have to put their ethical hat on when they go shopping, and to go back to making choices about brands on the basis of efficacy or taste, says KMI managing director Andy Hill.

His company, best known for its King of Shaves toiletries range, has just hit the market with a range of eco-friendly anti-bacterial handwashes which, though they are preservative-free and made from recycled plastic packaging, come in distinctly non-eco-style bottles.

Shaped to look like test tubes and filled with violently-hued gels, Patently Obvious products look more like something you’d find on a lab shelf than in a health food store. ‘It was deliberate,’ says Hill. ‘Too much that is Green asks for compromise on quality. Fatigue is an issue because so many eco products don’t work – but Green doesn’t mean lowering the bar. We wanted “bath-edge brilliance” for our bottles – something people want to show off. The first principle in product design should be functionality – not making it look like recycled flip-flops.’

Does this mean the days of design which shouts ‘eco’ is numbered? Ico creative director Ben Tomlinson thinks so. ‘Recycled paper used to look recycled, but now it’s not so in your face,’ he says. ‘Brands don’t have to shout, because they should be doing it anyway – products should actually be Green, not just look Green.’

Dragon branding consultant Luke Vincent agrees. ‘Brands lacking sustainability are just going to be left behind. Green benefits should be embedded, so the issue of sustainability disappears and effectively becomes the norm. Supermarkets, in particular, have a major role to play as “choice editors” for their customers.’

Fortunately then – especially for forward-thinking brands, such as Marks & Spencer, which have made multi-million pound investments in making their businesses more sustainable – Green fatigue turns out to be more like ‘Greenwash fatigue’.

‘The Green agenda is something we are wholly committed to and we have absolutely no plans to change,’ says an M&S spokeswoman.

The future of branding is still Green, then, but just a deeper and more subtle shade than before.


Environmental ennui

• ‘Green fatigue’ was first mentioned in the UK media in an Independent article in September 2007. The journalist described going to Burger King in an act of frustrated rebellion against constant eco-messaging

• A poll from Ipsos Mori shows that nine out of ten people are concerned about climate change – but they’re so confused they don’t want to do anything significant to halt it

• The UK has the largest market for Fairtrade products in Europe, worth £395m

• At the International Design Conference in Japan later this month, 124 members will sign a ‘Kyoto Design Declaration’ to highlight their commitment to sustainable design

Latest articles