Leaching it of any meaning

The following is an adaptation of a speech given yesterday at The Applied Green conference by Michael Johnson.


On paper at least, I seem pretty green.

I get the Guardian twice a day (at home and at work). We recycle like crazy. I’m a vegetarian. Hey, I even own two pairs of sandals, for goodness sake.


When I think about getting my own house in order, I can see my boiler is way too old and needs to go. I’m scoping my south-facing roof to see if I can fit in the solar panels. Like most of us, when I go round with a camera, I’m appalled at quite how many energy-guzzling gadgets family Johnson owns. (But I’m not sure I’ll ever persuade my son to switch to a clockwork guitar amp).


If I was giving myself a green mark I guess I’d get D-minus. Could try harder.

As a company, johnson banks has at least dabbled in green issues. Some years ago we produced a series of images for the Design Council about sustainable issues – this one future-gazed what all those landfill nappies might look like, fossilised, in a 61st century museum case.


We’ve taken the obligatory pop at an American president. This poster suggested that the hole in the ozone layer has actually settled over the precise spot where Dubya’s brain once was.


We’ve designed eco-friendly canvas bags and air-conditioning beating fans for the Japanese market. A couple of years ago we designed this global warming symbol for a biennale in Lisbon, and now offer it as freeware for anyone who wants it (as long as they don’t use it for commercial gain).
I guess that’s a B minus?

My eco-tipping point…

It came this summer. We merrily set off to our favourite Balearic island. When we got there, we discovered that we ran a serious risk of jellyfish stings due to an infestation throughout the mediterranean.

Only about halfway through the holiday (one spent mainly on jellyfish watch) did one of the locals explain exactly why the problem was so bad. It seems that the sea has warmed up so much, the turtles that normally lunch on the jellyfish have moved to cooler climes. Or the ones that stayed couldn’t differentiate between jellyfish and plastic bags, which killed them slowly and painfully by sticking in their guts. Hence the infestation. Hence the (now inevitable) stings.


At that moment it dawned – by flying consistently to my idyll over a 15 year period, I’d pumped many tons of carbon into the atmosphere and warmed the sea. I’ve probably inadvertently created litter. In a way, I caused my daughter’s stings.

Now of course, I’m thinking hard about every flight that I’m asked to make. I’ve been asked to talk in Portugal next year. That’s a two-hour plane flight, normally a no-brainer and a nice weekend in Porto, thanks very much. But approach it a different way (and it involves seven different trains) and I can get there using 22.8% of the carbon. (Only snag is that it takes a day and a half to get there).


So what can design do?

If we’d discussed this before the summer, we would have bemoaned the fact that you could only choose from a handful of green cars. But this year’s Frankfurt motor show was crammed to the bumpers with green/eco/hybrid options, including an interesting diesel/hybrid proposal from Citroen that will have seriously low emissions. After a slow start, Volkswagen have announced hybrids across their range, and British supercar designer Gordon Murray is now devoting his time to building a super mini that can be assembled in the UK (hence cutting down on planet unfriendly shipping).


In fashion, designers are investigating how materials can be recycled, like these great shoes made from old bicycle tyres.

There are proposals in cyber space for re-using dead fluorescents as lampshades.


And this charming concept for a wind-up bedside light.


How about this wonderful beach toy that encourages children to collect the Octopus’s legs on the beach (neatly cleaning up the beach in the process)?


And Ross Lovegrove recently unveiled this amazing proposal for solar powered tree lights.


But what about graphic design?

I wish I could report that it was doing its bit. Trouble is, tap ‘œsustainable graphic design’ into Google and you get a thousand suggested links. But tap ‘œHelvetica Movie’ in, and guess what, you get fifteen thousand. So in cyberspace at least, that makes people 15 times as interested in a movie about a typeface than how to design responsibly. Great.


Some people are at least trying. Thomas Matthews and Thoughtful have stated their ethical policies publicly. Airside have gone carbon neutral and been awarded a ‘˜green mark’ accordingly. Only a few weeks ago, Design can change launched in the USA, trying to persuade the vast army of American designers to look harder at what they do, and to amend their ways accordingly.

Tour your local supermarket, and you’ll start to see some changes. You can now buy this i-count dessert that suggests that saving the planet is only a spoonful of caramel yogurt away.


On your tour, you’ll also see lovely packs like these for organic products (in fact you’ll see a lot of organic products).


Examine these packs a bit harder and you’ll realise that a serious amount of food miles have been spent getting them to your shelves. And, no, you can’t recycle the packaging either (well, at least not the ones I picked up). Makes you wonder just how green, being organic really is.


There is some help out there though. Go to the WRAP website and there’s a whole load of advice for packaging designers on how to change their ways. After studying this site for ten minutes I set about a defenceless packet of Quorn in my fridge with a pair of scissors.

Here’s what it looks like, normally.


Now, if they just had a label (and screened the mandatory on the back)’¦


‘¦I can immediately save them about 70% of their paper costs.


If I screen the info on the film, we save even more.

Trouble is, put the before and after side by side and most packaging designers (and their clients) would start screaming ‘˜where’s the appetite appeal’ at me, and they’d have a point.


In the current climate, reduced packaging equals cheaper packaging, which often equals less sales. Mies van der Rohe may have preached less is more, but I suspect too many British shoppers are closet post-modernists and would adhere more closely to Venturi’s maxim, less is a bore.

Until ‘˜less’ can be re-defined and revalued, this remains a tough one to crack. There are production line issues too, even when designers are trying to do the right thing. These clever little USB-powered re-chargeable batteries are pretty sustainable, when you think about it, but the packaging designers found that the blister pack manufacturers couldn’t use recycled board when they finalised the pack. So a sustainable product goes to market in an unsustained way. (But at least they tried).

What can branding do?

This would be an easier question to answer if it weren’t for the relentless stream of greenwash that we’re now subjected to.

The proud grand-daddies of corporate greenwash have to be British Petroleum, sorry I mean Beyond Petroleum, who still derive the vast amount of their profits from good old fashioned messy energy but hope that their green flower logo and some wind turbines on their petrol stations will make us think differently of them.

We’ve been trying to find out for weeks just how much power the turbine at my local station actually creates, but we’re yet to get a straight answer. Well, any answer at all actually.

On any day, in any British newspaper, you’re faced with superb paradoxes. You’ll be asked to choose a more efficient car, but informed about cheap flights in the same breath.


You’ll see an airline (Easyjet) attempting to take the moral high ground on green flying (now there’s a contradiction in terms if I ever heard one).


You might spot Quantas suggesting that you can fly with them, carbon neutrally. Trouble is, ring up and ask about this, and you’ll get met with abject confusion. This is a transcript of a conversation we had with a Quantas rep only last week.


The whole subject is chaotic, jumbled and confused

Look at all the people trying to stake a space in the green marketplace.


Even the language of carbon is confusing.


I can’t make head or tail of some of these ads. Who is the Energy Saving Trust? Why should I care about Lancresse Rangers?


Organisations are so keen to embrace the climate change debate that they are stumbling over themselves. One of our clients, Christian Aid, has moved from talking about tricky stuff like Trade Justice and Dropping the debt to more current issues like cutting carbon. But trade injustice hasn’t gone away, it just got less sexy.

Even the machinery to help you calculate your footprint can be misleading. This experiment by the RSA has to be applauded, but its calculator suggested to one designer in our studio (who had been on several short breaks already this year) that she still had enough credit to fly a little bit more. Er, no, not really.


And can anyone tell me what possible relevance the fact that each packet of Walkers involves 75g of carbon has to the average crisp muncher?


The classic area of misinformation, of course, is carbon offsetting. This is a rapidly growing business that suggests that rather than actually change your lifestyle, you can offset the carbon damage instead.

The glamour stock of carbon offsetting is Climate Care. After just a few calculations, having really amped up my family’s footprint to include everything I could think of, they suggest that all I really need to do is give them 93 British pounds and everything will be tickety-boo again. Guilt over.


(Oh and by the way they’d only use 56% of that on actual projects). Of course, yes, where do I sign?


I haven’t really got the space here to really unpick carbon offsetting, but as George Monbiot has suggested, the parallels to papal indulgences are pretty strong (ie ‘˜pay me dosh and we’ll forget your sins’). Interestingly it seems that the Vatican has declared itself carbon neutral (by offsetting, naturally). It seems indulgences are still with us.

It’s really hard to get the facts

We’ve spent the summer with our heads in the climate change books, and it’s only when you lift your head up that you start to realise there’s a vast amount of untold stories and disinformation out there. We thought we’d take time to illustrate some of the things we’ve found out.

For example, did you know, on average, every glass of orange juice you pour out at breakfast has required 2 glasses of diesel fuel to get there?


And just to put flying and shipping food into sharper focus’¦


We’ve found it helps us to use the analogy of the boiling kettle. So Kuala Lumpur return has the same carbon implications of leaving your kettle on for 152 days, solidly.


And whilst we’re all for the ‘˜ban plastic bags’ debate, let’s put it into perspective. On average each person uses between 60 and 200 plastic bags a year. Fly to Australia and back for Christmas and you’re making the same climate impact as 730,000 of the things. pic_49

At last, some clarity

The wading that we’ve done finally got us to something genuinely useful. These two documents, released by the IPPR, meticulously track the language of climate change.


Last year’s document makes fascinating reading – in summary it suggested that climate change language (then) was centred on ‘˜alarmism’ (as in oh my god we’re all gonna die) or ‘˜mundane small actions’ (as in turn off your phone charger and you’ll save the planet).

But the most recent, only published a few weeks ago, recognises a significant shift. It suggests that consensus has been reached. That a point has been tipped. That most people (even George Bush) now accept that climate change is real.

It concludes that to go forward, we must capitalise on the heightened awareness. We must make it easy for the public to do something, harness communities and use all possible ways do it.

So, if we were re-communicating climate change,
what would we do?

As far as I can see, there are three main questions.


Initially, the most powerful route would seem to be the alarmist one. And one of the most powerful routes within this seems to be to persuade adults now that it’s their actions that will affect their children’s future. A sort of you’re alright jack, but what about the kids approach.

It’s about persuading those touch-line dads who brag about weeks spent jetting around in business class to stop it and video-conference instead. It’s about making them feel guilty about consigning their future grandchildren to a life lived in a desert.


Or imagining what kind of will we will be writing for our children’¦


Or (taking it to a logical conclusion), every plane ticket you buy will drown someone.


(It’s worth pointing out at this point that these are communication thoughts and prompts – they’re not meant to be finalised ideas, not yet).

Maybe shocking people into action is too extreme – perhaps we should just suggest that people take a minute to think about their actions.


Certainly what Warm Words II suggests is that we should use inclusive, encouraging language. So words like we can do something, together we can fix it, join us. Words that encourage collective action, collective positive action.

If you look at what’s happening in the media, people are starting to take on board advice about a greener lifestyle. Even The Sun is running supplements on going green – now that wouldn’t have happened a year ago.


There’s a rise of collective movements like Manchester is my planet, or the town that got together to ban plastic bags altogether. Or the newly launched Green Thing.


You could argue that this kind of approach could work. An approach that could be ‘˜agit’ if you wanted to slap stickers on Hummers’¦


‘¦or encourage collective, positive action.


Perhaps you could go one step further and make everyone feel that they were helping the planet. Good old terra firma gets mended by the terrafixers, if you like.



Now some of these thoughts may be overstated, and none of them are meant to be run tomorrow. But by bashing these ideas together using the language of advertising and design, we’re just trying to show that something, at a mass communication level could be done. And it could be very powerful. People’s behaviour could be changed.


As Warm Words II notes, ‘˜Even though the mainstream media has changed the way it reports climate change, there are few signs that this has filtered through sufficiently to stimulate the public to act. And that is the challenge ahead’. In other words, whatever we do must both persuade people and get them to do something.

There’s a bigger but (from the same source).

‘˜We might be at a tipping point, where climate-friendly actions become normal and we move towards a culture of environmental responsibility. Conversely, climate change could become yesterday’s issue, with greenwash leaching it of all meaning’.

Now that’s a salutary thought. Just as the public reach the point of acceptance, all that goodwill could be shattered by over-zealous ad agencies running a bunch of ‘˜green ads’ just to hop on a bandwagon.

Please, someone, stop them,



A few words of thanks – to the johnson banks staff and Johnson family who’ve become part of this project over the last few months, and my external sounding boards who’ve helped with structure and content.

If you want us to go into this in more detail with us, please contact us. If you want to read more then start with George Monbiot’s bestseller, ‘˜Heat’.

The images for these slides were drawn from a myriad different sources – we’ve tried to link to as many as we can, but please bear with us if you feel we’ve endangered your copyright. It was for a good reason.