Glowing Gone: Pantone’s Colour of the Year and Greenwashed Conservation
Pantone released their 2019 Colour of the year, admittedly almost a year ago, but the colour, dubbed “Living Coral”, has frustrated me ever since release. It’s only now, in the light of the UN and Adobe recognized Glowing Glowing Gone campaign that I’m compiling my thoughts properly on my frustration with the ignorance of Pantone and the continued greenwashing of corporate “philanthropy” and “conservation” efforts.
An Insensitive Name
Pantone named 2019’s Colour of the Year “Living Coral”, plastering the internet and the artistic scene with images of vibrant corals and marine ecosystems. This is the first Pantone colour of the year that has been directly tied to an animal and environmental aspect. Scrolling through their press releases, it became clear that there was no interest in any kind of conservation effort on Pantone’s part, to protect endangered and threatened coral around the world. It was simply a way of profitting off the beauty and inspiration that nature can provide to creatives and all of humanity. Unfortunately, we’re in an environmental and ecological crisis and the beginning of a mass extinction event. It’s no longer acceptable for large corporations to financially profit off of the aesthetics of our planet while simultaneously participating in its destruction.
Although Pantone’s team focuses on providing an “intuitive”, “top-down” look at trends across the planet when it picks its colour, naming a colour “Living Coral” one year after coral reefs were revealed to be dying off at rapid rates due to climate crisis and rising ocean temperatures can’t come across as anything but tone-deaf.
Their press release states that the colour is designed to ”embrace us with warmth and nourishment to provide comfort and buoyancy in our continually shifting environment…” going on to say that “Living Coral emits the desired, familiar, and energizing aspects of color found in nature. In its glorious, yet unfortunately more elusive, display beneath the sea, this vivifying and effervescent color mesmerizes the eye and mind. Lying at the center of our naturally vivid and chromatic ecosystem, PANTONE Living Coral is evocative of how coral reefs provide shelter to a diverse kaleidoscope of color.” (Pantone 2018).
Pantone’s debut of this colour name came on the heels of the publication of the IPCC report in the fall of 2018 and the airing of Chasing Coral in 2017, a documentary that demonstrated the how fragile coral reef ecosystems are due to human impact. One would think that perhaps there was a partnership with an environmental organization where-in a portion of Living Coral merchandise would go to the protection of the reefs? Absolutely not. In fact, the opposite happened: for the first time, a corporate sponsor was part of Pantone’s Colour of the Year launch.
The Irony of Overtourism
Teaming up with Tribute Portfolio, a branch of luxury independent hotels under the Marriott franchise, Pantone worked with their sponsor to create travelling pop-up displays and advertising campaigns to promote tourism and and a “re-imagined hotel experience”.
Tribute Portfolio has locations internationally, including tourist destinations that prominently feature coral reefs as an attraction, including Columbia, Miami, and Indonesia. Globally, coral reefs are worth over $36 billion dollars in economic value per year (OceanWealth). They support over 70 million tourism trips annually, and are essential to both the ecosystems they belong in and the tourism industry. These reefs provide livelihoods for close to 100 million people. They are natural breakwaters and help to regulate CO2 in our atmosphere, and the pH in our oceans.
The irony? Overtourism is a factor in damaging coral reefs in more ways than one.    Air travel is one of the highest offending emitters of CO2, and cruise ships are responsible for dumping waste directly into the ocean. The rising CO2 in our atmosphere is being absorbed by our oceans and the rising water temperatures are causing the coral to become unstable and fluoresce bright colours and bleach itself as it dies off. Additionally, boat and human traffic in the vicinity of the reefs has caused great harm to corals in Australia, Belize, Mexico, and Thailand. Not all tourism and hotels offer the same information about environmental conservation, and most hotel chains do not have sustainable operations in place. As a result, many countries, such as Australia, are considering putting limits on the number of tourists that can visit the Great Barrier Reef in order to protect it in its already fragile state.
Tourism also causes sedimentation to block light from the corals. Due to an influx of industrial actions such as dredging, logging, and agriculture triggered from tourism, the corals are unable to get enough sunlight and the corals die.
The Marriott chains themselves have a bare minimum of an environmental policy, only offering to reduce their water usage by 15% and their carbon “intensity” by 30% by 2025. They also want to achieve a “30% renewable energy use” by 2025. Unfortunately, these goals are incredibly minimal and don’t come anywhere near the level of carbon reduction needed by 2030 to meet the IPCC guidelines.
The Marriott’s update on their progress towards sustainability in 2018 reported a 0.32% drop in water use and a 4.67% drop in CO2 use. Since 2016, they’ve barely managed to touch a fraction of their carbon footprint. Not good news.
On an ocean front, they are committed to sourcing 95% of their seafood responsibly by 2025, however in 2018, only 17.8% of their seafood was certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.
Effectively, Pantone not only debuted an insensitive name for their colour of the year, but they partnered with a hotel chain that is doing little to protect the precious ecosystems it relies on.
What is the Glowing Glowing Gone Campaign?
Glowing Glowing Gone is a campaign created by Richard Vevers, the ex-advertising executive who created the nonprofit “The Ocean Agency” that was behind the documentary “Chasing Coral”. This blog is not to critique the important work discovered in “Chasing Coral”, however. Merely, the creation of a campaign after the fact that I will argue is another example of corporate greenwashing that ultimately looks flashy and raises Vevers media presence, while contributing little to conservation efforts on the ground.
The campaign started off as an art challenge for designers that encouraged creatives around the world to use a selection of Pantone’s that reflected the bright fluorescent colours that corals flush when they’re dying off in order to raise awareness about the cause. Artists and designers in every discipline created art, and sometimes physical products (for sale, of course), with these colours: a select few artists were even featured in Times Square advertising (yes, that’s right).
What the campaign failed to offer though, was any explanation why the corals were dying and how an individual could help beyond posting a vibrant piece of art with the hashtag #glowinggone. Since its launch, the team has added a singular page stating that “climate change is largely an ocean issue” and that the planet is on the verge of “losing global-scale ecosystems”. The page fails to take note however that the earth has passed 1C of warming, and is fast approaching exceeding 1.5C degrees of warming by 2030, which is a tipping point for our planet, one of which we can’t come back from. After 1.5C degrees of warming, feedback loops start kicking in to planetary systems and we will be incapable of decreasing increasing ice melt and temperature rise. The website still lacks any form of educating interested parties about activism beyond the art challenge – there is no information about the recent studies indicating chemical-based sunscreens increase coral bleaching, information about how to lower one’s carbon footprint, or the kinds of policy changes that must happen in order to save the coral.
Awareness can only go so far when there are no concrete measures and recommendations put forward in terms of how you can create real impact and change – they are not even soliciting donations for reputable ocean charities committed to coral restoration and conservation.
At a recent talk at Adobe MAX 2019, Richard Vevers discussed the impacts of his campaign and why he believes art alone is successful. This speech was really the kickoff for this post. In his speech, Vevers mentioned the effectiveness of advertising: how (RED) campaigns and Pride movements adopted by corporations are successful examples of activism and change. He also elaborates on the merits of celebrity endorsement and the Adidas ocean plastic shoe, and boldly states that “environmentalists are making it too difficult for brands to get involved”. Sorry to break it to you Vevers, but none of those campaigns you talked about are ethical or effective.
Why Corporate Philanthropy is a Lie
Next, a very complex subject: why it’s so easy to get bought in when large corporations create or participate in philanthropic or social justice campaigns. Vevers himself talks highly about how effective and engaging it is that “corporate brands [can] change behaviour”, and “show support for action”. As examples, he pulls up Pride Week Campaigns from major brands, the infamous (RED) campaigns put on by Apple and various other companies, and Adidas’s shoe made out of ocean plastics.
Unfortunately for Vevers, when you step outside of a corporate circle of philanthropic engagements that seem well-meaning and begin to deconstruct the campaigns, run the numbers, and listen to the viewpoints of the LBGTQ2+ community about “Rainbow Capitalism” a very different picture is painted: one of ineffective campaigns and a new way of marginalizing the community in question while profiting.
Kimberly Clark, a drag queen, discusses exploitation, corporate donations, and purchases that include a percentage to charity in this video here. Kimberly speaks about how corporations profit from great PR by supporting Pride week by producing rainbow pride merchandise, it’s encouraging consumers to purchase more product, that likely is unethically made, and ultimately only results in corporate benefit. Where, in the states, it’s still legal to fire workers for being openly LGBTQ2+. Even “large” corporate donations of $100,000 don’t affect the company’s bottom line, often only ringing in donations of 0.03-0.06% of their gross revenue per year. Of course, don’t forget that most of the cheap pride merchandise is unethically produced, likely made of cheap materials like plastics, and has a large carbon and waste footprint that is definitely destroying our environment.
Ok, so what about the (RED) campaign? Starbucks participated by donating 0.05 cents from every (RED) beverage sold during a certain period of time. Apple, with their (RED) product iPhones do not disclose the percentage of sales, merely stating they’ve donated over $160 million dollars to (RED) in their history. Apple’s yearly revenue is over $250 billion dollars and is valued at over $1 trillion. Due to the lack of transparency of funds donated per purchase, campaigns like these are for the publicity image of the corporation – direct donations from corporations and campaigns are much more effective at fundraising. The further consumption of goods begins to act as a substitute for social activism, especially in the case of iPhones, where many heavy metals are still mined by children for their creation, throws a wrench in the ethics and true philanthropy of the corporation. As Kimberly Clark eloquently states, “Why do they need you to purchase a product to give to charity?”
While promoting “ethical consumerism”, they themselves do not have ethical consumption of materials. The (RED) campaign has also been directly criticized for funding pharmaceutical research that ends up locked behind expensive proprietary patents, never to be released to the general public. Another criticism is the lack of transparency around the nonprofit’s financials: is more money spent helping HIV/AIDS in Africa or in advertising?
And our final example: What Adidas Didn’t Tell You About Their Ocean Plastic Shoe. While Vevers is eager to state that “people do not want to be involved in climate marches” (try telling that to the 7.5 million people who stormed the streets under Greta’s leadership this September, Vevers – perhaps you’re only speaking for yourself here), and that conservation is a “branding” issue, I think we need to be incredibly critical of branding movements from corporations that are “environmentally-responsible”. Are these companies considering their carbon footprint under our remaining carbon budget left before 2030 according to the IPCC report? Are they focused on natural-climate solutions, and reducing their footprint to become carbon-neutral? Or is it a “powerful” campaign designed to sell more product and increase revenue quarters to impress stakeholders? Vevers says he thinks “environmentalists make it too hard for brands to get involved in conservation” but perhaps there is a reason. How many brands are following the science, the IPCC report, and true sustainability? Not very many, when their corporate structures demand profitable quarters for their shareholders.
So, this shoe. The shoe is made from retrieved fishing nets, which, in Adidas’s favour, is the leading cause of ocean plastic pollution. However, Adidas’s production model falls into the category of fast fashion: they are constantly producing new collections of shoes to remain “on trend”. Collectively, synthetic materials (all of Adidas’ shoes, recycled or not), have the highest carbon footprint because they’re made from plastics – pure crude oil. Fast fashion’s carbon footprint is higher than that of the airline industry, ringing it at around 1.3 billion tons of CO2 annually, and this doesn’t even begin to factor in the environmental damages of the clothes ending up in landfill. The shoes have a limited lifespan and are marketed to an audience that demands the next best sneaker every quarter. Making recycled plastics “cool” for one shoe, one season doesn’t make up for the extensive carbon footprint used to create the shoe, and its likelihood of ending up back in a landfill or the ocean due to inadequate recycling systems in place for textiles. Again, the ‘positive environmental’ impact of the item is outweighed by the actual consequences of the process of creation and carbon use and becomes a cool flashy advertising campaign that wins Adidas branding cred and an assumed opinion from consumers that it is an “environmentally-responsible” company.
And so we finally find ourselves back at the discussion of Pantone’s involvement with the Corals dying campaign. This campaign has been getting international attention from even the United Nations blog about its efforts in conservation, so it’s time to take a closer look at the the pieces of the Glowing Gone campaign, the Pantone colours, and the campaign’s environmental impact.
Pantone’s Florescent Shades: A Poisonous Palette
Pantone has chosen three vibrant shades of blue, yellow and purple for creatives to use in print and web design in order to attract attention and to properly convey the “intention”. Unfortunately for Pantone, Glowing Gone, and Earth, florescent Pantone colours contain heavy metals in their creation. So the very act of putting these colours into print design results in active contamination of our recycling streams, and possibly groundwater and ocean systems. Mercury and cadmium are commonly used to create vibrant reds, zinc and lead for yellows, and cobalt for blue. According to this paper on the Effects of Colorants on the Content of Heavy Metals in Recycled Corrugated Board Paper, Pantone colorants, spot colours, and pigments are the leading source of heavy metal contamination in the paper.
Usually, companies are not forthcoming in revealing formulas for their spot colours: there is no way to know the exact content of heavy metal concentration in each formula, however the legal limits for lead in formulations are 90 mg/kg in Canada (it is to be noted that there is no safe levels of lead). To have florescent colours really pop, they must be applied to a coated paper which is difficult to recycle and has a high percentage chance of ending up in landfill. The paper and coating are unable to contain these heavy metals in the pigment effectively, and the metals are subject to leeching out of the paper.
From a design perspective, heavy ink coverage and items designed with full bleeds also create more waste due to the trimming and printing process itself producing more volatile organic compounds (air pollution). Most pieces created for this campaign were focused on brilliant, full-bleed designs, without a consideration of the method of design. We as designers must be careful to understand how we create pieces for print design and take more than a fun colour labelled as an “activist” movement into consideration when designing for the planet. The Pantone representative at Vevers keynote said herself that “ [Pantone] tries to be so careful to not come across as environmentalist.” This shows they’re not interested in holding any kind of moral ground for conservation or their corporation’s impact on the planet. They’re along for the excellent brand image of being part of a conservation movement and the positive press that brings.
The Footprint of Times Square Advertising
Another milestone in the Glowing Gone campaign was to feature a sampling of artists on the Times Square billboard in New York. Yes, that’s right. They either bought or were given advertising space in Times Square. So how much did that cost them (alternatively, how much was the tax break for the owners of Times Square)? Likely several hundred grande. Times Square’s largest billboard can cost $1,000,000 per day in advertising costs. Going back to our previous discussion about corporate philanthropy, I’m willing to bet that the cost of donated or purchased auspice would have been better served going directly to an ocean conservation nonprofit doing work on the ground to rehabilitate and protect the coral instead of a flashy ad spot in the middle of the day that flashed some art pieces with little context. There’s no tangible way a passerby would understand the purpose of the campaign and be equipped after witnessing it to contribute or participate in the conservation properly. Especially surrounded by the garage of other advertising screens around it.
And, because we like to talk about carbon over here, let’s talk about the insane amount of energy it takes to the run the Times Square bulletin. Around 50 of the 230+ screens in Times Square today are LED displays. The lights stay on 24 hours a day and only last about 10 years before they have to be replaced. It takes 161 megawatts at any given time to power the square – which is enough energy to run 161,000 American homes. In terms of environmental pledges – Jamestown (manager of Times Square), has pledged to reduce the CO2 footprint of the bulletins by 20% before 2020. Minimal, and very short-reaching. Most of New York’s energy source is from natural gas, with hydro, wind, and solar only making up about 23% of its power grid.
According to this map that shows New York’s greenhouse gas emissions per square foot, you can see that Times Square features the highest amount of pollution. In 2014, the buildings in this sector average a pollution rate of about 15,000 metric tons of CO2 (MtCO2e).
Capitalism Trumps Conservation Every Time
Basically, my grief with this campaign is that at its heart it’s a flashy piece of slacktivism that has the huge potential to contribute more harm than good. Vevers speaks highly of the impact that colour can have, however he has no tangible results from his campaign yet, no proof what he has been doing over the past couple of years has benefitted coral or the environment in any way. Perhaps there is awareness, but where is the activism and policy component needed to give the campaign a backbone and real tangible results? To really create change for our planet and save the corals we need to understand carbon footprints, resource use, and understanding how to vote and lobby for the appropriate science-based political change.
Vevers ended his talk by stating that he wants to keep that narrative about climate change positive, not negative. While I understand the appeal to keep things bright and happy, climate crisis isn’t happy. It’s not positive. It’s not a turning point for innovation and technology advancement. It’s the next iteration of apartheid. It’s the imminent death and suffering of many people across the planet, but specifically in the global south – those who have contributed least to this catastrophe will suffer the most. We need to understand the facts that we’re on the brink of ecological collapse, but that there is still time to fix it, and we need to arm as many people as possible with the facts and the real steps forward in conservation and crisis mitigation. That’s how a Green New Deal is going to transform our economy, our policy, and our planets. Vevers and many in power don’t like the discourse being negative because it makes them uncomfortable. Good. It’s time we all should be uncomfortable about our own actions, participation, and naivety about climate crisis issues: it’s time to educate ourselves and those around us and fight for the revolution that has to happen to divest from oil and gas. We need to make government and industry as uncomfortable as we are. It’s time to call out Exxon, BP, Shell, and all big oil for the mass extinction they’re knowingly causing, it’s time to hold those in power accountable for their actions. None of that is happy or bright. If we can succeed in divesting away from their power, and disentangling oil and gas from political spheres of influence, then we will get to a point that’s positive. Hopefully. With only 10 years left to stop the brunt of disaster and to avoid setting off chain reactions we can’t return from, we need to be angry and fight for the preservation of all life on the planet, including coral. It’s time for bold action, not quiet conservation that fears treading on industry toes. We’ve been doing quiet conservation for decades now, and it’s not worked.
What you can actually do to help Coral
Ok, so we’ve done a lot of critiquing. Time to find out what you can actually do to help coral.
- Reduce your personal carbon footprint (limit air travel, meat consumption, and overconsumption of fast fashion/cheap products) where possible.
- Use non-toxic cleaners and household products: many of these are washed directly into the ocean.
- Avoid micro plastics in your cosmetics and personal care products (check for polyethene or similar compounds in ingredients lists).
- Choose sustainable seafood (and reduce consumption).
- Conserve water when possible.
- Volunteer with local beach clean ups or ocean conservation initiatives.
- Don’t buy or take coral from vacation destinations.
- Don’t touch coral on vacation destinations.
- Watch “Chasing Coral”, while Vevers isn’t a scientist, the documentary relies on scientists to bring the project together, and it really is well done.
- Use a mineral-based sunscreen (zinc oxide + titanium), many common sunscreens are a mineral-chemical mixture. Any active UV blocking agent that isn’t zinc oxide or titanium has been proven to cause coral bleaching.
- Recycle appropriately.
- Save energy as much as possible with Energy Star-certified appliances in your home or office.
- Don’t buy tropical aquarium fish and living coral for your aquarium.
- Contact your representatives and let them know you care about climate crisis as a leading concern for the next 10 years and that it’s imperative this is on the top of their priority list as well.
- VOTE! In the US, primaries are coming up in 2020, and it’s important you vote for candidates with proven track records for progressive voting on policies and understand science-based climate action. (Spoiler, Bernie Sanders is the only candidate with a strong enough climate action plan. Sorry, Elizabeth Warren – greening the military and investing in unknown technology and experimentation won’t get us to the propositions set in place by the IPCC report).   
- Donate to reliable ocean conservation agencies such as Mission Blue and the Coral Reef Alliance.
- Talk about the issues and science with your friends and family. The more people that know about the problems we are facing the better.
To end this, the point of this article isn’t to say that raising awareness is bad, simply that it lacks substance in isolation. I want Glowing Gone to get some grit in their policy and really stand up wholeheartedly for the issue and offer real tangible ways people can get involved with the conservation efforts past submitting a graphic, poster, or illustration. It’s important to take the campaign past a fun art project and into the real world where we can advocate and vote for change. The real world where we MUST do that in order to protect our futures, the coral, and all ecosystems on Earth.