How can designers take climate action in the workplace? (And how to conduct an environmental audit of your company for climate action week) 

Recently, I had the misfortune of stumbling upon an article by Naresh Ramchandani of Pentagram written on “The climate crisis is daunting, but as a creative professional, there’s much you can do”. The article attempted to speak on what creative professionals can do to minimize their impact but ended up a shallow, under-researched attempt at writing on a hot-button topic to generate buzz. As such, this blog is a bit of a response to his work, detailing some actually important and meaningful ways you can contribute to fighting ClimateCrisis.

Ramchandani describes climate crisis as a “hyperobject” – and that his clients all represent the beast that is overconsumption. In my opinion, this is a strange abstraction and distraction from the real issue. The issue is incredible simple, and not some weird moralistic theory we have to tackle through intellect. While overconsumption is a huge problem, the problem is plain and simple. In the words of Greta Thunberg “we must stop our use of fossil fuels”. Climate Crisis is an issue of tackling big oil’s power hold on our political and environmental landscapes. Overconsumption bleeds into this, and it is an important concept to reckon with and reduce, however, I believe in order to contribute meaningfully to the Climate Crisis conversation, we must consider everything through the lens of CO2 output. It is through this lens that one can consider overconsumption and find ways of reducing it.

Designers inherently promote businesses and concepts that create waste but, beyond picking and choosing clients, there are a variety of ways in which we can easily reduce our carbon footprint, and the carbon footprint of our clients. Easy changes. Budget-friendly changes.

We can start by understanding that much of what we rely on to create physical creations for our clients (whether or not you print in-house or outsource to printers around you) comes from unethical resource extraction. Old-growth forests are logged for paper and lumber products, our inks are petroleum-based, and many of the fancy coatings we specify for our clients business cards, etc. reduce the cards to nothing more than a single-use unrecyclable plastic. 40% of the demand from the forestry industry is for paper products, and it only continues to grow. Forests are CRUCIAL carbon sinks in the fight for our planet and it is of maximum importance we preserve what is remaining and demand for verified, sustainably produced lumber and pulp.

Ramchandani cutely suggests that one can “resist Uber”, “use both sides of a piece of paper”, and “favour natural lighting” as powerful impact that designers can do in their in-house agencies. Unfortunately, these things won’t do and have very little impact. In his defense, a few suggestions such as “reducing meat”,  “cycling to work”, and “fixing things instead of buying them” are fairly progressive and definitely at the top of any “Top Things You Can Personally Do For the Planet” article. But we’re not talking personally – let’s talk tangible things you can do in the workplace.

  • Switch your lighting over to LEDs and appliances that are approved to EnergyStar status.
  • Do more digital proofing instead of physical proofs.
  • Opt to print on 100% recycled paper for clients’ business cards / disposable marketing materials (and as much as possible).
  • Use paper that has a verified forestry supply chain like FSC, AFA, or the Rainforest Alliance.
  • Avoid designing for coatings, laminate, soft-touch matte, foils, metallics, and UV spot glass.
  • Change out your office paper for Sugar Sheet PaperConsider item lifecycle when designing packaging or any physical product: will it end in landfill? How can that be prevented or mitigated?
  • Design without bleeds to reduce waste.
  • Design for low-ink coverage.
  • Avoid bleached / chlorine-treated papers.
  • Talk to your printer about sustainable options such as low VOC-inks to reduce pollution and plant-based inks as alternatives to petroleum-based inks.
  • Print on digital presses instead of offset (digital has lower VOC outputs)
  • Avoid designing for plastics or other unsustainable options. Always prioritize researching another option.
  • Become carbon-neutral and offset your agency’s carbon footprint by funding reforestation and carbon sequestering projects.
  • Create an environmental policy to guide your company towards green values and actions.
  • Create an environmental clause in your contracts specifying that clients must work with you to print responsibly on 100% recycled paper or approved alternatives if they are to work with your company.

Another thing you can do professional is conduct an environmental audit of your company. To do this, there are some crucial things to take into consideration.

I. Your values

What kind of values does your company or agency currently hold? Do they align with your goals for the company? Do they align with any environmental policies or goals? It’s important to consider the direction you want your company to go in and to form value statements that will guide the company towards those goals and those clients that align with these values.

II. Your clients.

Who are your past, current, and any booked-in future clients? Are there any trends in industries you tend to work with? Do these clients have any environmental policies themselves? Do they work in industries that have harmful direct effects to the environment (pollution, packaging/plastic waste, or resource extraction)? Are the kinds of clients you have right now the demographic you’re looking to target in the future? If not, what kinds of clients are you looking to attract in the future, is sustainability important to them?

III. Your process.

Do you currently have any kind of process for incorporation green design practices into your company? Would you like to? Do you have any clients right now that you could change the process for after explaining to them the direction you’re moving towards? Are there any clients in the past that would have been receptive to the idea of environmental material use? What is a realistic timeframe for incorporating these processes?

IV. Your waste.

How much paper or plastic waste does your studio or company accrue on a daily, weekly, monthly basis? Are there systems in place for that waste to be recycled? For your own company, how are your marketing materials produced? Are there sustainable options like recycled paper that you could shift to? Are employees looking for more options in sustainability in the workplace, and have suggestions you could incorporate?

V. Your printers / partners.

What companies do you work with regularly? Talk to them about their environmental outlook, policies, or mandate (if any). For your printer, you should find out if they have low-VOC inks, vegetable or soy-based inks, any stocks made out of renewable energy, any verified forestry supply chain paper stocks, and any 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper stocks. Find out the prices of these options so you can introduce these concepts to clients from an educated perspective, knowing exactly how much it will cost them (or save them.) Clients will always ask “how much will it cost” first. Knowing the answer right away (and especially when the answer for recycled paper is usually ‘no extra money’” will make the option look all that more appealing to the client. If your printer / partner organizations don’t have any environmental options or ethics, ask if they can possibly obtain some recycled paper stocks or other environmentally-friendly options for you to use.

VI. Your company.

What other practices can you implement in your company to reduce your environmental impact? Can you calculate your carbon footprint and offset your carbon emissions to be carbon neutral? This is where it’s time to get creative!

(Scroll down for free 12-page worksheet download to audit your company today!).

Ramchandani continues his article by saying that sustainability is both a question of money. As it turns out, this is a false dichotomy. It’s been proven that consumers will pay more for an ethical product. But it’s also pretty funny, having a partner at one of the biggest design studios in the world saying that money is an issue because it could be “may be the difference between paying ourselves and not paying ourselves this month”. As if he could ever be in that situation. Pentagram has a huge opportunity for change and being a transformative power in the field of design. But it might damage their bottom-line or reputation a small bit to do so. How sad. Recycled paper costs the same or less as virgin paper. Even switching over their baseline policy to have all disposable marketing printed on 100% recycled paper would have a huge impact on a global scale. Recycled paper uses just 1/4 of the energy, carbon, and water that it takes to create virgin paper and comes at the cost of trees. The real differences we can make in our industry come from the choices we make about our materials and what we specify printers to use. It comes from talking with printers to understand our options for minimal environmental impact and educating ourselves on resource extraction methods that we profit from. Being a green graphic designer means being comfortable with talking about carbon footprints and educating our clients on their impact and why they are going to choose the sustainable option over the usual one. And yes, it won’t be a choice. They’re working with you because you’re the expert – they’re going to listen to you, and if they don’t, ensure your contracts have clauses to ensure they have to.

Big agencies love to brag about their sustainable case studies. The one common thread between them all? The ask for sustainability came from the client. It’s time to reverse that. If you work with a graphic designer starting in 2020, you work with sustainable materials and methods to ensure everyone is doing their part to mitigate climate crisis. Make sustainability and green design the RULE not the exception.

It’s time for everyone to understand their place in our planet that is desperately crying for help.  It’s time to call for great change, and powerful ethics in our industries. It’s time to paying attention to your carbon footprint while calling for large-scale political action to divest from fossil fuels. It’s time to stop killing our planet and our future.

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