How My Low-Waste Journey Transformed My Graphic Design Business

I’ve always loved the ocean. Lucky enough to grow up on the west coast of Canada, many days in my childhood were spent at the beach with my mom, carefully lifting rocks at low tide and flicking through a seaweed-stained guide to the marine life of the area eager to identify every little thing. Careful not to disturb anything, the rock was then carefully placed back, and the process repeated.  It’s funny how living by the ocean gives you a front-row seat to the damage we’re doing to our environment. The sand dollars I loved to find at Tofino disappeared. The purple urchins at Botanical Beach vanished to leave empty holes bored into the sandstone.

I romanticized notions of taking a Marine Biology degree and writing a thesis on the reasons that went into the loss of biodiversity in either of those areas but my math marks weren’t strong and I didn’t believe I was smart enough; I ended up doing an English Literature degree and not really thinking about the environment for years. In my last semester, I started my graphic design and branding company and didn’t think about the impact of my business was having as I ordered my first set of business cards from Vistaprint.

Cue the onset of panic in 2016/2017 where all of a sudden a flurry of distressing articles and studies were released about the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and the impending destruction of our planet. I started being hyper-aware about the number of plastics I was throwing out (especially through purchasing fresh produce), and researching ways I could make small changes to my lifestyle to be more environmentally-responsible and reduce my impact. I found some incredible zero-waste/low-waste YouTubers and started learning more about how they reduced their ways. Mesh produce bags were one of the first adjustments I made and was absolutely thrilled with how much of an impact on my soft-plastics recycling it had. Determined to do more, I watched with thrill as the Zero Waste Emporium (the first zero-waste grocery store in Victoria, BC) opened up downtown and started to shop as much in bulk as possible, recycle as much as I could, and took an interest in supporting local as much as I could through my purchases.

More research came out as the year progressed about global timelines and emissions goals and the true destruction single-use plastics cause. I was loving running my design business, but the idea that I could be doing more for the environment started to eat away at me. But what was I to do? I’m just one woman in a small city. I did a Google Search for green graphic design. A few sites came up from a decade ago, with a few books (1) (2) and some basic information. I read the books and realized that while well-intentioned and ground-breaking for their time, the information was now a bit outdated, too conservative in parts, and ultimately needing a refresh. I searched on the Graphic Designers Association of Canada for sustainability in design and confirmed a trend. Sustainable/ Green design didn’t mean designing for the environment. Sustainable Design meant designing for human social good. (Also it was not to be confused with “Environmental” design which meant wayfinding and designing for the urban infrastructure around us.) Not only was the environment barely mentioned, but there was little information about how to proceed as a green graphic designer.

The big turning point for me was when I went to the Adobe Conference in LA in 2018. Excited about being in an environment with 14,000 creatives including the top names in the industry, surely ONE person would be talking about environmental impact. Unfortunately, that was too high of an expectation and I was left disappointed and confused why the industry had blindfolds on. Was the creative community really so conservative? At the Adobe Conference, I had the opportunity to Meet Chris Do from the Futur (an incredible youtube channel about the business of design). I respect him and his work with his agency Blind a lot and the Futur channel has helped me level up my design business an untold amount. This stands. Since we had the opportunity to ask a question, I asked him his thoughts on what responsibilities creatives have in their industries, especially graphic design, to reduce our impact on the environment. A true businessman, he shuffled off the question a bit, and advised it wasn’t worth fighting and that I focus on myself before I focus on any large problems, and as a acquiesce to the question suggested I just make my business as financially-profitable as possible so I could hypothetically just donate money in the future.

Well, I’m not someone who particularly likes being told “No.” to something, especially something that to me is the essence of “Worth Fighting For” – the protection of our planet and society as a whole. So I started researching the recycling process and reading every piece of information about forestry, paper production, and graphic design I could get my hands on. Granted, there’s not a lot specifically pertaining to graphic design. This is what I hope to accomplish with this blog over time, to document my research and have it be a resource for others. I started talking to printers about what I was trying to do and ask about printing processes, coatings, foils, what can / can’t be recycled what is/isn’t made with plastics, etc. The results were super revealing and a bit distressing for knowing how much impact I’d unknowingly had on creating paper design pieces that weren’t actually recyclable (ie. soft-touch matte coatings and foils). Every design we print or send to printers is able to be created because of the forestry industry. Some sides of it are incredibly ethical and protect the people, the ecosystems, the forests, and the planet together such as the Forest Stewardship Council certification program. But not every forestry site is licensed and there is little regulation for crown land in Canada to protect endangered species and third-generation old-growth forests.

As a designer, I act as the liaison between client and printer regularly, and I believe it is my responsibility as a producer and consumer of print materials that I am educated in my choices of paper, understand forestry supply chains and understand my impact on the environment. I want to educate my clients about their best options for responsible print marketing and encourage them to think about what exactly their business needs to avoid waste. We’re destroying our planet and incurring the next mass extinction event through deforestation and fossil-fuel extraction. Every small choice will make a difference, especially if there is consumer pressure on paper production companies to regulate their supply chains and ensure higher ethical standards for all of their products. Corporations will change only by kicking and screaming their way to their grave or a change, but we can pressure them to make changes, as long as the demand for change is there. I recognize that businesses still need to print business cards, rack cards, and other pieces of promotional material. Print isn’t dead. I want to guide them to make the most responsible, sustainable choices for their business and for the environment.

I rebranded my company and nervously niched myself down to only printing on the most ethical paper methods I knew how to, and refused to work with clients who weren’t on-board with my mission and goals to reduce my impact as a graphic designer. I turned down greenwashing a political campaign that supported the pipeline. It will never be my intention to be an aid for larger organizations to cover up their crimes against the planet with a cute greenwashing recycling campaign like Coca-Cola that puts the honos of environmental ethics upon the consumer and ignores the fundamental infrastructure problems our recycling system has. I want to work with businesses who are seeing the news about the climate crisis and want to reform their business models and budgets around investing responsibly and sustainability in more green methods of marketing and doing business for the long-term.

It’s 2019 and still the design conferences across Canada and the USA do not speak about the environment. The RGD conference that just happened in Vancouver barely whispered a mention of environmental ethics in design unless it was for a particular case study for a particular client. It’s my goal to change this. This first post was intended just to break down my story, my motivations, and my goals for this space. The follow-ing posts will get right into the heart of my content and goals and break down valuable topics like what is FSC certification, what are VOCs, and what all designers can do right now to run a green business or agency.

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