How will sustainability bear up during the increasingly severe credit crunch? To the Greens, this is a no-brainer. Travelling distances to buy unnecessary, over-packaged stuff in over-designed environments is just so unsustainable it’s not true. If consumers are forced to do less of that, so much the better.
At a Royal Society of Arts event this autumn, called ‘Why is there such resistance to public re-examination of the values we live by?’, RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor put it like this, ‘The crisis of capitalism will have a bigger impact on emissions than the action groups [ever will].’
It doesn’t matter to the planet, the Greens would say, if an object is created out of reused or recycled materials. It still takes energy to reconstitute something old made of plastic into something new made of plastic. Similarly with paper products, and things become even more energy heavy when products are formed from a number of materials which need to be separated.
Three-dimensional environments face the same sort of dilemmas. Timberland’s interiors may boast some vintage (that is to say second-hand) fixtures and fittings, but in terms of environmental impact, a new store is a new store.
So, where does all this leave designers, who are hoping to push more environmentally friendly solutions at their big, conventional clients? Market research group RDSI counts among its clients Unilever, Norwich Union and EMI Records. Its head of quantitative research, Ben Langleben, laughed when I asked him recently if companies ever brought up their sustainability credentials.
The implication is that major brands only bother about that sort of thing if they can turn it into something that consumers will pay for. So, just as packaging goes minimal or Green if it’s likely to appeal to the consumer, store interiors and products themselves may also get the Green treatment, if customers suggest they would welcome such changes.
But even those consumers who count themselves as eco-friendly are slippery fish for brand-owners. Taylor admitted at the RSA that sustainability could slide off the agenda. ‘People have other things to think about. They’ll be asking “Is it cheaper?”, rather than “Is it Greener?”, ’ he said.
RDSI’s recent research into the over-50s market demonstrates the fragility of some people’s new-found sentiments. The company’s report ‘LSD to HRT’ highlighted one particular shopper, who now had to resort to buying cheaper brands and no longer bought fair trade and organic products, which she thought was a shame as she used to get satisfaction supporting workers from the developing world. She still bought free-range eggs, though, as she thought battery farming was cruel.
Oh, the dilemma – should you help lift workers and their families in developing countries out of abject poverty, or better the lot of a few chickens? As the financial crisis deepens next year, the attitude of this woman and others may give brands an excuse to stick to their unsustainable knitting.
Few design groups are in a position to really make a difference to the sustainability issue, as they, too, are set up to exploit and promote conspicuous consumption. Sure, you may hear an eminent product design consultancy talking about its latest high-earning brief as ‘another landfill job for Procter & Gamble’, but those sentiments can’t be allowed out in the open.
Perhaps the real inroads into a sustainable lifestyle are being made by smaller, less formal (and less cost-driven) outfits than P&G. Catherine Conway, owner of the Unpackaged grocery store in London, says that more than 80 per cent of her shoppers now turn up with their own bottles or resealable bags. Meanwhile, The Freecycle Network, which started in Tucson, Arizona, in 2003, claims that it is ‘keeping 500 tonnes a day out of landfills’.There are now local Freecycle groups in more than 85 countries, where people give away unwanted goods to neighbours via e-mail.
Similarly, the 500 or so farmers’ markets around the UK are all about local suppliers selling direct, and often with minimal packaging, from trestle tables in car parks. Not much scope for packaging or retail design there. And clothes swaps are starting to take off in bars and pubs, eschewing the whole ‘must-have the latest’ philosophy of high street fashion brands. Of course, these movements barely register on the mainstream consumer landscape. Or at least that’s how it stands for the moment. But if the recession does combine with sustainability concerns, their appeal could broaden.
Although this may not have been what Interbrand chief executive Rita Clifton meant when she said at the RSA event, ‘We should try to persuade people to consume differently, before we try to persuade them to consume less,’ because such movements don’t have much need for design as we know it. But then sustainability was never going to just about getting a client to switch to natural inks on its brochures.