Ask Pearlfisher Anything gives brands the opportunity to connect with Pearlfisher’s experts across a range of topics including insight and innovation, brand strategy, brand design, visualization, production and sustainability.
We kicked off the series with our brilliant Head of Sustainability at Pearlfisher New York, Brandi Parker. Attended by brands including Pernod Ricard, Amazon and Biersdorf, Brandi answered questions on sustainable design for a variety of sectors including consumer electronics, healthcare, beauty and fashion; how to combat greenwashing, different sustainable approaches for challenger and iconic brands, the pitfalls of designing for recycling, the environmental considerations for digitally native brands and how to think about sustainability from a design perspective.
Here we share Brandi’s top 5 key insights from the session.
1. How do you combat greenwashing and how can brands talk about sustainability without seeming like they’re jumping on the bandwagon?
Greenwashing can happen for many reasons, both purposeful and accidental. Brandi pointed out that the most fundamental thing for brands is to ensure that solutions make sense for their brand and their product. In other words, are they approaching sustainability holistically and from the heart of their brand, as they would their name, logo, tone of voice or website experience? For example, it makes sense for a plant-based food brand to use plant-based packaging options. On the flip side, using a paper bottle for a liquid product is a pertinent example of greenwashing. It is being dressed up as a solution to a problem while actually creating new ones because, by forcing a fibrous material to hold moisture, you need to add things to it to create a protective barrier, be that a plastic layer or another composite material. Instead, if brands with liquid products truly want to create sustainable solutions, alternative ways to approach the problem would be to:
- use a more suitable material whose natural properties hold liquid (to be sustainable, materials have to be fit for purpose)
- think beyond materials (because sustainability isn’t just a materials problem) and change their supply chain to introduce a return and reuse system, or
- use different formulations to turn their product from liquid into solid.
Greenwashing puts a band-aid over a problem and band-aiding problems is what has got us to the situation we find ourselves in today. It results from looking at things in isolation. Inherently, that viewpoint means you’re not looking beyond the present and, in order to survive, brands need to be thinking about the future. They need to get a broad view; partnering with experts across various fields because the future of sustainability is multidisciplinary.
2. Are there any specific sustainable innovations in consumer electronics?
Consumer electronics as a category has suffered less from plastic-shaming than other sectors because, typically, they are products used over and over again. Brands like Fairphone – a phone you can break down into modular parts for repair or recycling – also illustrate the strides possible in this space. From a packaging standpoint, when all factors are considered for the use, transportation and consumer experience of electronic brands, paperboard is a great option and we’ve also seen innovations that replace styrofoam with materials like mushroom mycelium and other moulded fibres which can return safely to the earth.
However, a big opportunity from a sustainability perspective is to create an anti-static material that protects electronic products from dust, without harming the environment. There are some exciting technologies in development, such as those that utilize polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH) to create anti-static bags, which are going to change our reliance on flexible plastics in consumer electronics, and beyond.
3. Are there any sustainability considerations for brands entering into virtual spaces?
This is a topic we explored in our recent Futures Feed, Digital Possessions. As we gravitate more towards digital brands, there is an assumption that going digital is greener, and in lots of instances, it is. However, many people forget about the energy usage digital activity like mining Bitcoin or creating a marketplace for NFTs, requires. For example, Elon Musk’s recent large-scale transactions in proof-of-work-based Bitcoin released more carbon into the atmosphere in just a few days than the amount saved, in principle, by all the Teslas ever sold (source: www.arstechnica.com).
For the majority of brands, the key consideration will be the impact of their online presence across their website or apps. Here, the key consideration is researching who, where and how your site is being hosted, encouraging their communities to find them through green search engines like Ecosia who offset the environmental impact of search by planting trees, and designing breakthrough, sustainable online experiences. A recent great example is Volkswagen’s Canadian website, which was designed to introduce the Carbon-Neutral Net. By limiting the data embedded into the website – for example, by using less color and simple typefaces – the brand is reducing its digital carbon footprint and engaging its audiences in a more sustainable online experience.
4. When consumers have such a negative opinion of the ability of waste management companies to actually recycle waste, are companies wasting their time developing recycled products?
Sadly, and in short, yes. Recycling, especially in America and especially in regard to plastic, is broken. The market is based on demand and pricing – rather than the health of the planet or our future generations – and if it’s not worth the material recovery facility recycling or selling that material, it goes to landfill. Until we fix the infrastructure and the motivation via extended producer responsibility, for example, recycling will not save us.
5. How does an agency like Pearlfisher think about sustainability from a design perspective?
Looking at sustainability through the lens of sustainability is highly beneficial because design has the power to make fundamental changes. An agency like Pearlfisher is multidisciplinary at its core because we’re a visionary group, not just of designers, but of futurists, strategists, writers, communicators and realizers who touch all points of a brand’s lifecycle. There’s also a benefit to the role we play at the very inception of a brand or its evolution and the fact we embed sustainability holistically from the outset.
If you’d like to access the full recording of the event or find out more about Pearlfisher’s approach to sustainability, please fill out the form below.