If It Ain’t Broke…

Once upon a time, not so long ago, people bought their fruit and vegetables according to what was in season, saw them “packaged” in brown paper bags and carried them home in wicker baskets and shopping bags that were used again and again. Milk arrived on their doorsteps in glass bottles that were washed and reused umpteen times.

Now often tasteless and supremely expensive “seasonal” fruit and vegetables are flown in from the four corners of the earth year round; packed, repacked and pre-packed for retailers’ and shoppers’ convenience, and transported home in plastic bags that take eons to biodegrade.

Although I know that this will make me sound like a grumpy old man, in some instances the old fashioned ways of doing things were better. I know we cannot turn back the tide of so-called progress. I am not a Luddite. I am a designer who cares deeply about the affect our actions have on this glorious planet. And I believe that everyone involved with selling consumer goods has a responsibility to make things better.

The whole sustainability thing messes with my head. It is a huge issue with as many approaches as there are people and no consistent thought leadership. And it is confusing as much for me as a consumer as it is for me as designer.

Photo Credit: www.dailymail.co.uk: Carrefour apple branded with laser technology

The other day I bought a back light for my bike. It was packed in formed papier-mâché, which made me feel like the manufacturers were doing their bit – or at least trying to – but it still had a clear plastic cover and was held in place with sticky tape, which felt cheap and not very eco-friendly. A few days later I bought the matching front light online. It arrived in the old packaging: a clear, rigid clam pack, which was minimal, smarter and probably more environmentally friendly.

The moral of that story for me is that the old way was better. Make changes only when those changes represent a step forward. Being seen to do the right thing while achieving nothing isn’t just pointless it feels wrong – as if design is trying to hoodwink consumers and that is a dangerous game. The consumer has never been more switched on or more cynical.

To go back to fruit and veg, ever doodled on a banana with a ballpoint? Try it; it will soon become a guilty pleasure. It might also have been the inspiration for laser labelling. Spanish technology firm Laser Food has developed a method of tattooing produce with prices, sell-by dates and logos. Imagine fresh produce that is branded in the original sense of the word brand. Fantastic. Albeit a small step in the right direction – doing away with stickers will not save the planet – every small step is welcome.

Not all are sexy. Improving supply chain and manufacturing efficiencies is unlikely to win you a D&AD. Packaging reduction won’t make you famous. But everyone in the design community has a duty to try to lessen the environmental impact of our activities.

About the Author

Chris Hart is Creative Director at Blue Marlin, Bath. His favourite projects span global spirits brands and small-scale artisan products, from Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker to Hiho and Pukka Pies.