What does sustainable graphic design mean for business?

The news is full of raging wildfires, dramatic floods caused by exceptional rainfall and concern over the melting polar ice-caps. The international community are exploring how to reduce emissions and committing to drastic reductions in fossil fuel use. We are all becoming acutely aware of the need to adapt our behaviour.

Such environmental and social concerns can not be ignored by any company nor industry. Designers and communications specialists must not ignore this crisis.

Global the population is expected to grow by another 2.6 billion over the next forty to fifty years. Which will certainly mean additional strain on all our natural resources. As population numbers expand, so to will the need for clean water, fresh air, sufficient safe food, housing, reliable transportation, jobs, and many other daily and economic necessities.

If we do nothing to change and we continue to follow our current methodologies the population new demands will inevitably increase building on our green spaces, deforestation forests and consequently add to the existing pollution of our air and water.

If designers fail to recognize and respond to the environmental impact of printed literature and paper distribution then we become willing participants in the problem. Packing design is turning away from plastics in favour of paper and cards. But paper mills have been identified as the third-largest polluting industry in the world and have contributed heavily to the fifty per cent reduction of our world’s forested areas.

Responsible designers need to engage with these facts and advise our customers how best to reduce the global impact of their communications. As an industry, we can not stay silent when faced with such enormous environmental issues. We should not wait for legislation but should lead by example championing a sustainable design revolution.

But what does it mean for graphic design to be sustainable?

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines sustainability as ‘allowing for current economic needs to be met while preserving biodiversities and ecosystems to maintain the same quality of life for future generations.’

To define sustainability in relation to the communication and graphic designer we must consider the tools and resources we use daily and we must collaborate with, discuss and educate our clients about the choices and options available.

As already identified, paper is a key consideration. Paper is usually made from wood pulp, which is obviously taken from trees, and the process requires large amounts of both water and energy. This paper is then often used for printing, which requires water, energy and, of course, ink – which is usually made from petroleum products and which also requires energy and water to refine and manufacture. The act of designing effective printed communications, even a simple promotional flyer, could have a profound impact on our planet’s resources.

As every company starts to consider their own environmental impact it will be the designer’s job to educate and advise their clients on how to navigate the nuances of this changing landscape of sustainable enterprise. To do that we must take the time to educate ourselves and be informed on the latest developments.

The majority of paper mills now use sustainable forests to source their wood-pulp. Advances are continually being made to reduce water and energy consumption throughout the paper-making process. but paper can be made in other ways that are not as reliant on tree-fibre – or even plant fibre at all. Bamboo and fast-growing grasses and recycled clothing fibre are fast becoming viable, cost-effective options.

We should strive to ensure that all of the materials and energy used in our project be renewable, recyclable and/or reusable. As a starting point, graphic designers should aim to limit his or her environmental footprint.

There is a number of items to consider: gallons/litres of water used/conserved in production, British Thermal Units (BTUs) of energy saved, solid waste kept from the landfills, the number of trees conserved, and the amount of carbon dioxide diverted from the atmosphere through production and shipping methods. The technology employed to measure these successes is currently available and used by a number of paper companies.

It should be our aim to significantly reduce tree-fibre paper use and advocate switching to substrates. We should aim for a net-zero carbon emissions and aim to employ vendors that use renewable energy sources and have an environmental policy. We can eliminate unnecessary packaging in designs, and can also specify inks and finishes that are organic, vegetable-based and non-toxic.

The designer must work with the client to determine if the project deserves to exist in a tangible form. Could it be communicated via another form of media? Or would an alternative presentation deliver better results – like an in-store demonstration or online video?.

Often both designers and clients fall into familiar patterns and sometimes design projects are started with poorly determined outcomes and KPI’s.

It is imperative to stop and take stock. In the briefing processes questions about sustainability, project delivery and project goals should be considered before embarking on any design route.

As the project continues, the graphic designer should work collaboratively with the client, and vendors, to create a solution that follows sustainable principles:

• Respect and care for the community
• Improve the quality of life. Conserve the Earth’s vitality and diversity
• Minimize the depletion of non-renewable resources
• Change personal attitudes and practice to keep with the planet’s carrying capacity

Each of these principles, in turn, encourage the designer to engage in more specific tasks, to:

• Choose local and sustainably harvested or recycled materials
• Select renewable energy to complete the manufacture of the object
• Educate the consumer about the life cycle of the object through messaging and marketing
• Employ vendors that have adopted socially equitable and environmentally friendly business practices.

All graphic designers working with print should be aware of the various labels and validations to help them make informed choices, such as:

• Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international organization whose mission is to promote stewardship of our world’s forests (not all FSC papers contain recycled tree fibres. Read the paper specifications carefully when choosing an FSC paper);
• Processed Chlorine Free (PCF) paper, made from post-consumer waste ‘PCW’ and bleached without chlorine, or left unbleached. Look for the ‘Processed Chlorine Free’ logo from the Chlorine Free Products Association

New advances are being made all the time. The costs associated with sustainable choices are reducing and so the arguments that some have historically made against embracing more environmentally friendly practices are consistently being undermined.


United Nations. World Population to Increase by 2.6 Billion Over Next 45 Years, with all Growth Occurring in Less Developed Regions. http://www.un.org/News/ Press/docs/2005/pop918.doc.htm [31 May 2007].
Imhoff, Daniel. 2005 . Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World. 162. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
National Resource Defense Council. http://nrdc.org/land/forests/fforestf.asp [30 July 2007].
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sustainability. http://www.epa.gov/sustainability/ [31 May 2007].
What is sustainable graphic design? by Eric Benson
McDonough, William and Braungart, Michael. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press.
Green-e. What is Green-e? http://www.green-e.org/about_whatis.shtml [30 July 2007]. Forest Stewardship Council. About FSC. http://www.fsc.org/en/about [30 July 2007].
Chlorine Free Products Association. CFPA Goals and Purpose. http:// www.chlorinefreeproducts.org/about.htm [30 July 2007].
Green Seal. About Green Seal. http://www.greenseal.org/about/index.cfm 30 July 2007].