When I started in design a long time ago, my goals were financial success and gaining esteem from my peers. Both are very nice to have, but they’re no longer my principal objectives. Now I want to produce work that will have a positive impact on the lives of future generations. This has led me to politely decline quite a few projects in recent years. Not an approach that will suit everyone, but if your curiosity is piqued and you want to know how to identify the projects and clients to plumb for, and the wasteful ones to avoid, read on.
Who I am and how I got here
I studied furniture and exhibition design in college but ended up working as an interior architect during the construction boom, predominantly in commercial interiors. When the recession of the late 2000s started to bite, I left the design world and worked in policy development for an environmental political party. I loved the problem-solving aspect of policy development but missed the visual world of design.
I was looking for a way to reconcile the glorified ‘skip-filling’ nature of commercial interiors with my new appreciation for the planet’s limits. Serendipitously the answer came from a social media post about a Masters in Product Design for the Circular Economy. I completed the Masters in 2021 and now help manufacturers and construction companies to capitalise on opportunities provided by the circular economy.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
Anyone involved in design or consultancy knows all too well that projects often go awry. On design projects, we can end up with lacklustre outcomes due to slashed budgets or shortened timeframes. With circular design consultancy, it often means worthy but ineffective outputs.
The knowledge gap: Whenever humans are faced with complex challenges, we seek simple solutions. And in the context of sustainability, that typically means switching to alternative materials or energy sources, which require little or no operational changes.
Some businesses are completely oblivious to what is required to become a truly sustainable organisation. This can lead to so many well-intentioned companies tinkering around the edges of their business with projects that only serve to make their damaging operations less bad.
All talk, no resources: If asked, most companies will say that sustainability is important, but often this doesn’t translate into action, particularly when it comes to assigning the necessary resources. They’ll have very good reasons why nothing has progressed since the last meeting, and those reasons are largely genuine, but the proof is in the pudding. You don’t get the results if you don't do the work.
Unfortunately, sustainability isn’t something that a company can outsource. Yes, an external expert can guide and advise, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s the company’s shoulder that must be put to the wheel. If your client has no free shoulders, there’ll be no progress.
Window dressing: Sometimes, the whole purpose of a sustainability project sets it up for failure from the outset. It might be a vehicle to use leftover money at the end of the fiscal year, provide content for a CSR report, or generate good PR. While none of these reasons pose an issue in and of themselves, problems can arise if they are the only motives.
Sustainability—the perfect wicked problem
It’s easy to blame clients and demand they do better, but in reality, most of us are doing just the same. We worry about the lack of change but carry on just as before. The climate crisis is a problem humans are perfectly designed not to deal with. It’s vague and nebulous, “it’s in the future”, and it involves collaboration and a change in habit.
The time for us to achieve sustainability through incremental changes has passed. As declared in a recent article by Mike Townsend, CEO of the Earthshine Group, “we’ve far too many companies talking transformation, while walking incremental change”.
Spotting the right gigs
If you want to make sure a project will genuinely shift the sustainability needle, here are some things to look out for:
At Company Level
- What has the company done to date? There is low-hanging fruit in every industry, and a committed company will have addressed them at the earliest opportunity.
- What does the company define as sustainability? Some companies’ understanding of sustainability is limited to energy efficiency and better recycling. That’s a great start but a terrible place to stop. You’ll waste so much time bringing them up to speed.
- Has a member of staff (or Team) been identified (and, more importantly, freed up) to work on sustainability issues in the company? You'll get nowhere fast if it’s just being added to someone’s already-overloaded schedule.
- Who sits on the sustainability team? All sections of the company need to be represented to have an impact. Otherwise, the project may be window dressing.
- Does the sustainability team report to a senior management team member who will champion sustainability initiatives in the boardroom? If not, you may lose the impact required to make a real difference.
- Watch out for companies with lots of certificates, labels or awards. These can sometimes signify an energetic marketing department and little else.
- Good companies operate sustainably—great companies help their customers do so too. Look for companies that go beyond the factory/office gate in their sustainability efforts.
- If you want to maximise your impact, look for companies with a business strategy linked to sustainability, rather than just focusing on making their existing business model more sustainable.
At Project Level
- Understandably, companies like the razzmatazz of a new website / promotion / product / service, but, where’s the evidence for its impact? If a company has tested their concept and verified its benefit ecologically or socially, happy days!
- Does the company have an implementation strategy? Sometimes a company is enthused about a project's ideation phase but neglects to consider how to implement the learnings. A good idea executed poorly is pointless, so it's worth seeking out companies with this foresight.
- Is the project part of a new direction for the company or just a standalone endeavour? Progressive companies will use pilot projects to test new product/service ideas.
Greening your little black book
- Educate yourself on what sustainability means in your industry. What is a low-carbon website? Which materials used in your industry have the lowest environmental impact?
- Clean up your own house. It’s hard to sell sustainability if you haven’t done the work on your own business. The best place to start is by identifying the areas you need to address and by drafting your own sustainability and ethics policy.
- Join networks of like-minded creatives. Not only will they provide moral support, but they’re also a great source of knowledge, and if the networks are multi-disciplined, they are great for referrals to potential new clients.
- Promote the sustainable option first and foremost. Clients will be swayed by what you put your energy behind, so be sure you prioritise the work you want to see realised.
- If a client is unconcerned about sustainability (or even against it), then present sustainable concepts as you would any other — but without mentioning the big 'S' word.
- On projects focused solely on developing minimum viable products (MVPs), push to have concepts vetted for unintended consequences before roll-out. This might not always seem feasible, but so much damage results from partially considered ideas.
- If the client is wavering over the price of a more sustainable concept, then consider splitting the difference with them or offering some free consultancy to help them over the line. It’ll help your portfolio and future generations.
If you want an easy way to stay up to speed on circular design, manufacturing and economy in Ireland and abroad, then sign up for my monthly newsletter. You can also find a comprehensive list of all the resources that can help a business or designer upskill themselves in circular design and making on my website, the Circular Design Institute.
I was recently introduced to Human by Design, which is brilliant.
Not strictly about sustainability, but I find the podcast Material Matters a fascinating insight into how other creatives work.
Psychology hugely influences design, so I love the show Hidden Brain, which talks about what drives our behaviour.
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Elaine Butler is a designer with a background in furniture design and interior architecture, where she worked for over 15 years before moving into the field of sustainability. Having completed a Masters in Product Design for the Circular Economy she now provides circular design consultancy via her company, the Circular Design Institute.