When I attended the third annual “101 Things Designers Can Do to Save the Earth” workshop, I thought I’d hear about choosing sustainable materials, reducing packaging, and maybe witness a soapbox tirade about eliminating printing altogether. But as Larry Asher of the School of Visual Concepts kicked things off, we were clearly leaving that discussion back in 2008. This year, the presentation focused on being practical while still trying to do the right thing.

Only 5% of people are truly altruistic

It’s expensive (and even sometimes wasteful) to create new designs. 95% of people and businesses are not altruistic, and will not “go green” simply for the sake of saving the environment. But when businesses can cut costs and keep their products high-quality and desirable, they will make better packaging and design decisions with regard to the environment.

For example, REI is able to reduce packaging as part of a new product category launch and overall rebranding. By changing their philosophy about marketing and displaying their products, they are able to embrace more responsible standards for packaging design. Several presenters and attendees chimed in that slicing off a ¼” on a hangtag wouldn’t necessarily happen as its own initiative based on the expense of redesign and production, but investing in better design practices as part of a larger cost-saving strategy pays off.

Prefabricated trash used to sell a product

The ideal environmental solution would be to eliminate packaging altogether. Unfortunately, consumer culture won’t allow it.

The difficulty is some products can be damaged or stolen if not packaged properly. There is also a perceived value of a product based on its package. Buyers require additional product information and demand a certain buying experience. Mike Peck of Starbucks also made the point that part of the failure of the electric car was that it was just ugly. Brilliant ideas in ugly or scanty packages simply won’t sell. As of now, designers are required to make what Eric Abraham of REI called “prefabricated trash to sell a product.”

Fortunately, there are groups dedicated to benchmarking best practices when it comes to the environmental impact of package design. One such group is the Outdoor Industry Eco Workgroup (their main website requires a login), a collaboration between product and package designers in the outdoor products industry to define best practices in terms of materials, dimensions, water consumption, weight, inks, finishes, and so on.

Baby steps

The overarching message of the workshop was that what we’re doing can’t necessarily save the earth, but we can harm it less. While we watch buying behavior and technology evolve, we can implement smarter practices to reduce our environmental impact. But only when it makes financial sense to do so.

–Jennifer Pritchard

Corbet Curfman – AIGA

Chris Mahan, senior designer (packaging and product design) & Eric Abraham, head of packaging – REI

Marty McDonald, founder and creative director – egg

Brian Boram, principal – RMB Vivid

Mike Peck, branding design manager for Starbucks – Shared Planet

Jana Nishi Yuen & Mary Hermes – Hornall Anderson

Do you want cheese with your Garamond Ultra?Do you care where it’s made?