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Design for people, not just the planet

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For every person who will take durable jars to refill, there’s thousands who won’t.

In the race to reach sustainability and be regarded as the greenest brand in the biz, consumers are often overlooked. This is not to mean that their needs are not catered for – rather and more precisely, that the inner laziness of us all isn't taken into consideration.

Certainly recyclable cartonboard packaging is great and nifty, but one can hardly believe that the climate crisis can be unhinged by a few recyclable bottles here and there. According to Andrew Capper, Co-Founder and Creative Director of brand design agency Echo, brands need to appeal to our inner sloths if we can hope to save the planet for good.

And because you know we love strongly voiced opinions, we reached out to Andrew to learn more about the topic.

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How to make real sustainable developments? Start designing for people, not just the planet

There is no silver bullet when it comes to sustainable design. To achieve it, designers and innovators must manage the 'conflicting' with the 'contradictory' - from recycling to refillables, light-weighting to alternative material choices.

But what about the consumer? As the single most powerful weapon that brands have in their arsenal to reduce their carbon footprint, consumers are often overlooked. It’s time for brands to pay more attention to the most underused and misunderstood tool at their disposal and start truly designing for the people that can make a difference. 

‘Under-the-bonnet’ Sustainability

Most brands are still on a journey with what could be termed ‘under-the-bonnet’ sustainability. Changes like moving to recycled materials and a reduction in carbon footprint are supremely vital and ask little of the consumer in their day-to-day life. But do we genuinely believe that we can head off this existential threat to the planet whilst carrying on as normal? Whilst this ‘business as usual’ approach may well be attractive for many, it is actually laying down significant issues for the future.

As most changes that companies make to become more sustainable are actually invisible to the consumer, these changes are often communicated through a brand campaign. But this only contributes to the ‘green noise’ as each brand competes to promote its own sustainable initiative. In this cacophony, without the  desire to dig deeper, it is difficult for consumers to understand what exactly are the better choices. There are lots of marketing campaigns where relatively modest sustainable actions are designed to create a halo effect for the rest of the brand portfolio that hasn’t improved.

In the scramble for brands to have sustainable and ethical ‘purpose’, are we losing sight of the actual need to change behaviours day to day?

Once brands have made these ‘under-the-bonnet’ changes, have we created any real depth of understanding and facilitated genuine changes of behaviour?

Unilever is one company making a genuine effort to design for what people really want. The conglomerate has moved beyond top level changes, such as adopting 100% rPET bottles, to more broadly encouraging a shift in consumer behaviour. Last October, Unilever UK launched an in-store refill trial in partnership with Asda and Beauty Kitchen. Leading brands including Persil, PG Tips and Radox are trialling a range of refill formats, from machines that dispense liquids into refillable bottles, to self-serve containers and refill at-home products. Rather than simply dealing with plastic overconsumption, Unilever have tackled the root of what drives much of human behaviour: convenience. 

The only way to make sustainable products attractive is to appeal to our inherent laziness. Take Wild as another example - a sustainable deodorant with compostable refills made out of 100% biodegradable bamboo pulp. Besides the use of post-consumer recycled plastic and anodised aluminium, the products sell because they are easy. Slim enough to fit through your letterbox and delivered in packs of three to reduce packaging, they are designed for the conscious consumer who still wants to shop with the ultimate convenience.  

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The Intention/Action Gap

The “Attenborough Effect” has resulted in a war on plastic and a social movement to tackle it. Since Blue Planet II, 53% of people surveyed in the UK and US have reduced their single use plastic over the last 12 months. (GlobalWebIndex).

But over a similar period, the use of ‘plastic bags for life’ have increased, showing some habits are ingrained and other needs, like convenience, outweigh sustainability. 

Through our own research, we’ve found there’s almost always an action gap between what consumers tell us and what they do. Cost, ingrained brand loyalties and simply  being overwhelmed by choice all play their part. We’ve seen through COVID that hygiene has become the top priority, but subsequently the use of single-use plastic went through the roof.

Although it will take time to learn precisely how much additional plastic waste has been generated during the crisis, preliminary data is staggering. In China, hospitals in Wuhan produced, in excess, an estimated 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the outbreak compared with 40 tons during normal times. Based on this data, the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that the United States could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months because of COVID-19.

For every person who will take durable jars to refill, there’s thousands who won’t. We need to make it easier for consumers to do better, whilst simultaneously making the customer journey more exciting and compelling. 

For every person who will take durable jars to refill, there’s thousands who won’t.

Unilever’s refill vending machines, for example, allow shoppers in Chile to now top up their OMO and Quix cleaning and laundry bottles with the swipe of a screen. Through an app, consumers can order refills,delivered to their door by electric tricycles. They simply dispense the amount they need into reusable containers and make a cash-free payment for their customised order. The model has thrived during the pandemic, as eCommerce shopping rates have increased. 

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Likewise, Cup Club offers a returnable cup ecosystem to replace the 100 billion single-use cups and lids used every year. The reusable cup service, in which hot and cold drinks can be collected, cleaned and returned, includes smart RFID chipped cups that can be individually tracked. Not only do consumers barely have to lift a finger, there are also user rewards available just for being part of the system. 

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To really engage consumers, change needs to be more obvious and tangible. This can only really come through the experience and the system, and not from what it says in a little green flash on the label.  

Risk of Change

Where niche, start-up brands have shown the way, we now need mainstream products and the everyday consumer to follow. So why don’t big brands do more?

For global companies, devising entirely new systems, packaging, infrastructure and production lines all come with vast price tags. We need to be able to demonstrate a high probability of success if we want these kinds of investments to be greenlighted.  

To maximise our chances, we must ‘design out’ the challenges right from the very beginning and  create a totally new experience. This means observing and understanding how people behave and interact with their products. It means considering every user and interaction, not just from the consumer side, but through the whole supply chain. It means quick and dirty prototyping to craft the functionality and the experiences that will become ingrained rituals. 

Looking Ahead

Today, we’re in the second age of sustainable packaging. In this ‘early mass’ stage, as the established big brands tentatively dabble in sustainability , we’ve seen new brands trailblaze in this respect, pioneering great sustainable design..We must use their innovations as a launch pad and, whilst tuning today’s systems, start designing the future.

This needs more than just invisible material changes. It requires the design of better experiences based on an understanding of human behaviours and needs that will create wider adoption and sustainability wins on the scale needed to make a real impact.

If brands design products and services that offer a reason to change, over and above sustainability, consumers will become the single biggest advocate for a large scale ‘nudge’ in behaviour.

Andrew Capper is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of brand design agency Echo. Header image: Lee Stuart Shepherd.

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