Thursday, 12:00am
1 November 2007

The price of juice

It looked dodgy on paper, but Applied Green was more than mere greenwash

By Rick Poynor

Written exclusively for

The Applied Green conference at the British Library in October looked a bit dodgy on paper. The title conjured queasy visions of marketing gurus with a severe lack of scruples jumping on the climate change bandwagon and exchanging tips about the latest trends in greenwashing. It was alarmingly expensive, too. Only companies with deep pockets could afford the £549 (plus VAT) ticket – £649 if you booked late – and without a press pass I would never have been there.

Frankly, I was wrong. Applied Green turned out to be a thoughtfully programmed, stimulating and inspiring set of presentations from some excellent speakers. They did not necessarily agree with each other, but they delivered plenty to think about and did not waste time wrangling about whether climate change is happening or whether man’s activities are to blame. On both fronts, this was taken for granted, reflecting the findings of a BBC World Service survey of international opinion published in September. If the public could embrace the need to change its habits with the optimism and commitment shown by the best presenters, we would have real reasons to be hopeful.

Jonathon Porritt, founder and director of the Forum for the Future, began the day with a notorious quotation from American retail analyst Victor Lebow in 1955. ‘We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate,’ he declared. We are all children of Lebow, Porritt sternly advised, still carrying on in essentially the same way. 1950 to 2010 represents a golden age of plenty in human history and politicians dearly wish the next 60 years could be the same. ‘Unfortunately,’ Porritt said, ‘that’s not going to happen.’

It is good to hear that some companies are taking climate change seriously because without a three-cornered effort from the public, government and business little can happen. Organisations such as Marks & Spencer with its ‘Plan A’ policy, and Eurostar with its ‘Tread Lightly’ commitment, are putting themselves on the line and they will be held to account if they don’t deliver. The priority now for all businesses, Porritt concluded, should be to offer truly sustainable products and services, talk to consumers honestly, support the supply chain (this has to be an integrated approach) and make sure that as marketing consultants – or designers – we practise what we preach. In the course of the day, we heard how Ecover, Howies, BskyB and The Guardian, which holds itself to a fiercely exacting set of standards, are going about it.

As several of the speakers freely acknowledged, there is no way that we are going to shop our way out of the problem. John Grant, author of The Green Marketing Manifesto, noted that merely ‘greening’ a brand, as the latest trend, won’t cut it, and he admitted that buying green products is less significant than other green initiatives. Russell Davies, formerly of Wieden + Kennedy and Nike, suggested that instead of constantly dreaming up new brands (green or otherwise) creative people should put their energies behind worthwhile enterprises that already exist and need support – the more you think about it, the more radical this kind of conservation begins to seem.

Some of the most useful discussion centred on the most effective ways of building on public awareness. Jon Gisby, formerly of Yahoo!, suggested that the language and imagery we use in communication campaigns needs to have more emotional power. He recalled PETA’s famous skinned fox anti-fur ad. Could people be made to feel similarly uncomfortable about their Chelsea tractors, tungsten lightbulbs and frequent flyer gold cards?

There is a danger, noted Howies founder David Hieatt, that, ‘If we get too serious we switch people off.’ Naresh Ramchandani developed this theme in a presentation about his playful new Green Thing website. The light touch tipped over into triviality sometimes. After some trenchant analysis from Porritt, Gisby and Philip Gould, a former strategic adviser to Tony Blair, graphic designer Ben Terrett’s rambling talk was as light as a bag of feathers. He had lost me by the time he pleaded ‘I’m a designer. Use me better.’ Graphic designers will need to come across as much better informed and more incisive thinkers to be taken seriously. Michael Johnson’s presentation, delivered in an unenviable lunchtime slot when the morning ran late, offered many well chosen examples of environmentally focused images. It takes two full glasses of diesel, he showed in a memorable picture, to put one glass of fresh orange juice on your table.

It would be good to see a conference with this level of ambition aimed directly at designers. But don’t forget to invite the activists, politicians and marketing people. If communication design is to play a role – and it must – designers need to catch up fast.