Sustainable design techniques look to lessen materials uses, to re-use them and to use materials more effectively – to name but some aspects.
These traits have now been adopted in various genres that use materials and design – such as architecture, 3D product design and our own study area of sustainable packaging design.
As with many other genres, we now have communities, organisations (and crucially) more businesses starting to think and act more sustainably. One of the main drivers is that they want to minimise the impacts from the twin challenges of climate change and the slow demise of the old ‘oil economy’. Mix that in with a continued growth in environmental awareness since the likes of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ book and Victor Papenek’s ground-breaking ‘Design for the Real World’ in the 60’s and early 70’s and you also have a design community that is slowly changing and adapting their practices alongside other sectors.
Using what’s available and to hand and using only as much as you need have been our preferred ways of working since time in memorium.
So is this careful use of resources a new idea? No not really, re-using materials, using what’s available and to hand and using only as much as you need have been our preferred ways of working since time in memorium. One of the examples I always cite to sustainable design students is the area of traditional Japanese packaging. There were two distinct sub genres within this, but for this article we’ll look at the agricultural angle. Essentially it relates to traditional Japanese farming practises – where there was the need by farmers to both easily transport, protect and then display their spare produce for market. In his classic book ‘How to Wrap Five Eggs’, Hideyuki Oka shows us that (up to the 70’s) many designs haven’t changed for 100’s of years. Eggs wrapped in platted rice straw ‘containers’ from straw left over from a nearby rice harvest and rice wrapped in small ‘cups’ made from nearby leaves. Clever and wholly appropriate thinking that evolved out of simple needs and timeless logic which is by default ‘light’ on materials use.
It’s here (sustainable packaging) where I believe that individuals (such as out students) who’ve been taught about sustainability and how to apply it in a design context are a step ahead.
Some of the larger corporates are now ‘greening’ their business practices now too. This has brought about ‘Corporate Responsibility Charters’ (CRC) – of the like that Marks and Spencer now promote, as do Heinz UK and many others. To many of them it’s actually seen as a selling point though as they see the slow but sure rise of the educated ‘ethical consumer’ market having greater influence on the purchasing of their sub brands and stock in shops. Marks and Spencer have really promoted this area with their high profile ‘Plan A’ in 2007, which tied-in the company to 100 sustainable working commitments. As their scope broadens, so do their commitments and they now aim to have 180 of these by 2015 – with the ultimate aim of being the world’s ‘most sustainable retailer’. It’s often the growing evidence of a financial case for greening businesses that slowly sees the larger organisations begin to change their use of materials. One of the other follow-on effects of corporates greening their business strategy is the requirement to make their print and packaging design as sustainable as possible too. This is a relatively new area and many of the creative agencies who supply larger organisations often don’t have first hand experiences of reacting to these new requirements. It’s here where I believe that individuals (such as out students) who’ve been taught about sustainability and how to apply it in a design context are a step ahead.
Corporate responsibility charters, greenwash and spin
Many businesses now feature these corporate responsibility charters – but can they all be trusted? Isn’t some just ‘greenwash’ put out publicly to make it seem like they’re becoming more thoughtful about the environment. One I always wrestle with personally is McDonalds. On one side they have a prominent corporate responsibility charter which has apparently delivered some genuine ‘gains’ – such as their fleet of delivery trucks running on their own used fryer oils. They’ve also made progress with packaging too, limiting them where possible to simpler, recyclable cardboards as opposed to foams and plastics.. But scratch below the surface and you’ll find discontent about McDonalds practices. Opponents in the US cite as ‘greenwash’ the company’s high profile corporate identity change from red to green in recent years. Also mentioned are McDonalds’ TV adverts, which emphasize the company being supplied by ‘local’ farmers. The claim (under examination) it appears the company often doesn’t actually deal with the individuals in the adverts and that it’s often ‘spin’.
Good Practice with Puma and their excellent ‘clever little bag’
Some manufacturers really do practise what they preach in terms of their commitment to sustainability issues. For example sports shoe manufacturer Puma with their excellent ‘clever little bag’ packaging. This method of displaying and packaging sports shoes both lessens traditional materials use, lessens power used in production and leaves the user with a serviceable bag once the shoes have been delivered..
Sustainable designers leaving the University of Worcester
It’s bearing in mind all the references (and more) above that the sustainable designers leaving the University of Worcester have started to focus on developments in the ‘eco packaging’ genre. We do this with help too from one of Europe’s largest Eco Centres – the Centre for Alternate Technology in Machynlleth in mid Wales. Students visit the centre each time the Green Design module runs to see for themselves sustainable practices in action and to hear a talk from their sustainability experts on materials use and re-uses.
For a number of years now we’ve been working with well-known regional manufacturers. Our aim is to help them arrive at new and innovative packaging design concepts that help lessen materials use, provide a clear secondary use or concepts around refill instead of buying new containers. We’ve scored some notable successes including developing concepts that have been taken further by Westons Organic Cider and The Wye Valley Brewery. The latest collaboration was the largest undertaken to date with Lea & Perrins in Worcester (Heinz UK). Lea & Perrins’ desire to evolve their iconic Worcestershire Sauce packaging was driven largely by the Heinz CSC. This committed them to lessening materials use, examining creative re-uses of their products and lessening water and chemical use in production. All of these student projects produced some excellent and well thought-through working concepts from these successful collaborations. Overall, it’s a great experience for the students – who get to work to a ‘real’ set of requirements from a genuine client. It’s a symbiotic relationship and also great for the various companies involved too – who get to focus on their packaging and materials challenges further from a fresh, more sustainable perspective.
It’s examples of lateral thinking like the mushroom-packaging, that will bring many further future advances in the sector.
Sustainable design is evolving swiftly with new treatments and methods becoming available on an almost weekly basis. To help illustrate this, Newscientist Magazine recently produced an article called ‘Mushrooms are the New Styrofoam’. In the article they talk to Eben Bayer, a packaging designer whose company makes packaging from agricultural waste via mushrooms! It’s a fascinating development in which waste local biomass materials – i.e. corn husks etc can be put into moulds/formers and then injected with mushroom spores. These spores then grow throughout the mould to consolidate the material until it eventually sets solid. This becomes a ‘biomaterial’, a natural material that is sustainable, non-polluting and one that requires very little energy in it’s production. It’s examples of lateral thinking like the mushroom-packaging, that will bring many further future advances in the sector.
While not a cure-all solution, I hope the various proactive solutions already put forwards by our design students in the last few years is a start and one that can be built on and debated further.
In summary, each genre within ‘design’ will need to do something to lessen it’s present materials uses and improve it’s existing design and production practices as we know now that our resources are finite. In some cases key resources are already running out (particularly in the case of oil and it’s derivatives) and this will have profound consequences on the way the economy changes and the manner in which we need to evolve our thinking and methods. We also know that we can’t carry on using raw materials in the ways much of the design and manufacturing sectors presently doing so, it’s completely unsustainable in the medium to long term. We need to be more flexible in our thinking – like Eden Bayer or Japanese architect Shiguru Ban, who designs and builds housing and other buildings entirely from cardboard tube and sheets. We also need to adapt too if we’re to help slow climate change and reduce our own industry’s outputting of carbons. While not a cure-all solution, I hope the various proactive solutions already put forwards by my design students in the last few years is a start and one that can be built on and debated further.
Andrew Stevenson is Senior Lecturer in Design and teaches on the Graphic Design and Multimedia Degree Course at the University of Worcester and has now undertaken various successful ‘semi live’ student projects in the area of eco packaging while collaborating with companies such as Lea & Perrins (Heinz UK), The Wye Valley Brewery and Weston’s Organic Cider. He’s also helped forge links between the Graphic Design and Multimedia course and the University’s sustainability course as well as the Bulmer Foundation in Hereford, whose focus is also around building sustainability into the daily life of communities.