Why a Sustainable Design Revolution Must and Will Happen.

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| March 17, 2008

Part I: Sustainable paper and the graphic designer

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“There is no business to be done on a dead planet.” – David Brower (Sierra Club Foundation Founder)

We’ve heard a lot lately about global warming and its connected dangers posed to our civilization and current way of life. But what does this mean for the graphic designer? Do we have responsibilities beyond possibly investing in a stylish new bike or replacing a few incandescent light bulbs with some compact fluorescents (CFLs)? In this first installment of a multi-part essay, I’ll focus on why sustainability is important for the future and current success of our craft by looking at the material that the graphic designer has historically yet to be able to live without: paper.

There is hardly anything more satisfying for the graphic designer at the end of arduous project than to hold and admire the beauty of one’s final printed piece. Personally, I always take a few moments to peruse the book/poster/catalog to not only bask in my genius but also to slowly caress the paper’s supple surface and inhale its aromas. Paper, currently made from wood pulp, has been the substrate that has displayed our creativity for ages but it also clogs up one third of American landfills. Scott Ewen once said in an issue of Emigre Magazine that “[graphic] designers make the world’s most beautiful trash.” Our addiction to paper is only trumped by our need for oil. In fact, global paper consumption has tripled in the past thirty years and continues to rise as the United Nations expects the world’s population to grow by another 2.6 billion by the year 2050 . The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the world’s paper consumption will explode by another fifty percent by 2010. The unfortunate truth is that our society simply cannot sustain this rapid consumer growth without hemorrhaging our resources and further plundering our planet. Policy makers, businesses and graphic designers alike must work to create a sustainable system of manufacturing and distribution that utilizes materials that are also sustainable.

But what does it mean to be sustainable? Sustainability is a systemic term that means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It demands that society strives to reach a collective balance called the triple bottom line. This is the overlap where we intelligently mesh the economy, environment and equity for all our species. When we look at the current concept of sustainable paper, the best means to achieve this ideal is to:

Reduce our paper use
Recycle
Always use the most environmentally friendly paper available.

Reducing the use and consumption of paper is perhaps the most difficult task. Designers have grown used to a fast-paced world of deadlines and that typically means not thinking about the best design system, or whether that brochure is the right way to communicate to your audience. We must become better at rethinking the way we design. Just because your client needed a catalog last year, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best solution in general. Asking the right questions up front can lead to a better outcome in terms of minimizing paper, ink or moving towards a digital solution. In addition, this upfront understanding can help your client save some of the “other green” in the end.

In terms of recycling, the infrastructure is already in place for us to be fairly successful. According to the U.S. EPA in 2006, Americans recycled 52% of all the paper and paperboard products produced that year. However 80% of our world’s forests have already been logged so it is imperative that we look to better using our supply of recycled paper, continue to grow this market sector and -most importantly- look for other sources of making paper.

The most environmentally friendly paper at the moment is:

Made of 100% Post-Consumer Waste (which is paper that has reached an end-user, reclaimed and recycled)
Is Processed Chlorine Free (PCF)
Has Ancient Forest Friendly certification (http://www.ancientforestfriendly.com/)
Is manufactured with renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, tidal) or is green-e© certified (http://www.green-e.org/)

However, if we are to move forward towards a more sustainable form of paper, we should look at investing more capital in agricultural waste fibers like wheat and rice straw, sugar cane bagasse, bamboo, cotton, kenaf and hemp. This shouldn’t be very difficult. Historically, agricultural fibers were the main component of paper until the mid 1800s, when we began the transition to wood pulp. In many parts of China and India, up to 50% of paper products are still made from agricultural residues. Here in North America, we have 200 million tons of straw that lay unused and available for manufacture. The concept of reuse is vitally important for a sustainable and economically viable future to occur. However, I believe that a sustainable revolution is upon us, and just like the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th Century, it will re-structure society as we know it. Design will play a key role in shaping its path.

To better help you locate the best alternatives for sustainable papers, try the very user-friendly “Eco-Paper Database” organized by Markets Initiative (http://www.marketsinitiative.org/resources/paper-database) or my website www.re-nourish.com.

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