With the world facing the reality of climate change and other environmental threats, it's time to take stock and ask - What can designers do to help?
Climate change, the destruction of natural habitats and dwindling natural resources are among the biggest challenges facing the world in the 21st century. The threat of climate change above all shows that our present culture of consumption is unsustainable. From the cars we drive and the electricity that powers our homes and offices, to the food we eat every day, everything we consume has a 'carbon footprint', a measure of emissions that are heating up the atmosphere.
According to the recent UK government-commissioned Stern Review, if current carbon emissions remain unchecked, "Climate change will affect the basic elements of life for people around the world - access to water, food production, health and the environment. Hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the world warms."
In addition to the obvious moral obligation to tackle climate change, there are also practical fiscal issues at stake. The Stern Review also states that "the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least five per cent of global GDP each year, now and forever".
Our businesses will suffer if we don't play an active part in curbing global emissions. These are issues that need to be tackled and, while there are still questions to be asked about the actual impact of climate change, and possible economic solutions to the problem, it is clear designers as individuals and professionals must look at the effect they are having on the environment.
So how does the creative design community fit into this equation? Our responsibilities are twofold. We're both consumers and contributors to the economy through our creative work. Illustrators, designers and animators all have the potential to make a difference, not only through changing our own habits, but also by using our role as communicators to put across ideas and influence other individuals.
Although the world is waking up to the scale of the challenge we face, there are mixed messages about exactly how we can help. According to John Sauven, UK director of Greenpeace, one of the biggest problems is that the issue is being muddied by too much political and commercial spin. "There's a huge amount said about climate change, every company and government is falling over itself talking about how much it's doing," he says. "But there's still a need for us to cut through the 'Green wash' and spin and get to the heart of what we actually need to do to solve climate change."
As designers, we can play a part in fostering a new greener culture by promoting environmentally sustainable solutions. "Four-wheel drives, for example, have been advertised as being sexy and desirable in the past," says Sauven. "Things could have been different - you could make it seem that if you had one of those you deserved an ASBO - and you were the equivalent of a vandal. The way we project and sell these things has a massive impact."
But it's not just design's role as a mouthpiece for the cause that is significant. We should also lead by example. Design is a commercial industry. In the UK alone the industry employs 65,000 people and contributes £4.3bn to the UK economy. Designers have significant buying power and can make an impact through both ethical and environmental decisions, but what are we doing to help? Not enough. According to a recent British Design Innovation (BDI) survey, only 13 per cent of design businesses surveyed had a sustainability policy in place. Clearly we need to be doing more.
Thankfully there are individuals who are leading by example. John Morse-Brown established his studio Morse-Brown Design ten years ago. Having originally trained as an engineer working on alternative technologies, including wind and solar power, he was interested in running his company in an environmentally sustainable way.
"In terms of what we do as a company, it's all quite small scale, but it's an underpinning of the company ethos if you like," he says. "We get our electricity from a green tariff. We cycle and or use public transport for all work meetings. We can specify environmentally-friendly printers using vegetable-based inks and carbon offsetting - one of the printers we use claims to be the world's first carbon neutral printers - and we make sure we consume just Fair Trade drinks and snacks. It's all fairly low key, but it's amazing the reaction you get when you turn up to a meeting on a bike, especially for corporate meetings."
At a time when few other companies are making the same kind of efforts, Morse Brown recognises the benefits of wearing his Green credentials on his sleeve: "I think it differentiates me, which is a good thing, and we have access to companies who wouldn't normally talk to us," he says.
The move towards more sustainable lifestyles has lead architects and urban planners to consider the potential carbon footprint of our homes and places of work. This growth in Green building has lead to opportunities for designers promoting these projects.
Nottingham-based design studio TwelveTen recently started work on branding for OZONE, an urban regeneration project that aims to redevelop the Meadows region of Nottingham into 'the world's first zero carbon community'. "Most of our clientele were in the music industry," explains Steve Busuttil, TwelveTen's senior designer, "but now we're trying to move over to more government and architectural projects. There's plenty of opportunity in that area and design agencies are trying to keep up with Green ideas that have been in architecture and planning for years."
Sauven believes designers are keen to work with big environmental brands such as Greenpeace because of the kudos attached. "Big agencies like to work with us because they want to win awards," he says. "They also have more creative possibilities working with an organisation like Greenpeace than they might have with a more narrow brand. Greenpeace runs lots of campaigns, so it allows for more creative possibilities."
While a large organisation like Greenpeace would ordinarily specify a rigid brief for a designer, it found it had to bend to the will of one notorious creative. "When Banksy worked on a campaign, he dictated to us what he was going to do," says Sauven. "If we went back to him for some slight change he could have told us to fuck off. We have more control over most designers," he admits. "After all, we're not dealing with Picasso every day of the week."
For John McFaul, director of design studio McFaul, the issue is an ethical and moral minefield; designers must practice what they preach. "People are only just becoming aware of the issues," he says. "It's difficult because we're all trying to make money at the same time. We have to fly to America to visit clients to secure business, but we can at least offset the emissions."
The biggest challenge with making an effort to go Green is keeping that essential competitive edge. The design industry is full of small companies competing for a limited amount of business and sometimes environmentally-friendly choices are more expensive. Morse-Brown concedes that despite his best efforts, some choices don't make good business sense. "I'm loathe to quote prices for using vegetable-based inks," he says. "In my experience they're up to 50 per cent higher. It's sad, but as it gets rolled out across the industry prices will fall."
For McFaul, there are also benefits to working alongside environmentally aware companies and promoting the Green cause vicariously. "We try and do our bit whenever we can," he says, "but it's also worth celebrating other companies who are doing their bit. We try to recommend them and we're doing our own bit in that way."
"An active concern for the environment should be part of the ethos of every company," Morse- Brown concludes. "Someone said to me the other day, 'You're not going to change the world just by cycling to work.' But actually you could - it makes an enormous difference if everyone does a little."