Despite the global pandemic in our immediate path, Earth Day showed us that people still want to affect change on our planet for the better… maybe even more so, since many of us have been forced to slow down and take in the seemingly louder sounds and more vibrant sights of nature.
Who knows the shape of things to come but, given what we’ve witnessed over recent weeks, there are definite learnings to support a more sustainable future for people, our planet and the brands around us.
Sustainability has long suffered from being seen as someone else’s problem – at home, in the workplace, and in our communities. And carbon? A grey and abstract notion, too heavy for people to get their heads around.
The ripple effect model we’re now all familiar with, as a result of being asked to socially distance, shows how various actions and behaviours impact on me, my world and the world. Visual metaphors and tools that help contextualise and incentivise individuals to take up and maintain even small actions or behaviours can be hugely helpful in shifting to more sustainable habits.
It’s clear that social distancing works because it is enforced and we’re all doing it. Brands can’t force people to behave in certain ways, but they can inspire in engaging and meaningful ways, encouraging individuals to embed more sustainable actions or behaviours. Brands also take on social currency, triggering others to question their usual habits and test new ones that bring greater reward.
Innovative, data-driven apps that help measure lifestyle impacts and present that data in an elegant and meaningful way through engaging user interfaces and experiences could gain traction when we know the pay-off for everyone playing their part. Data might provide the evidence that behavioural change is needed, but how the data is visualised is what will determine if it lands with citizens and jumpstarts them into action.
Collaboration and open-source innovation amongst organisations, supply partners and third-party influencers is making for timely, rounded solutions and systemic change rather than isolated or limited actions during this time.
In an altruistic move, Mercedes / Formula 1’s ‘Project Pitlane’ quickly developed an innovative breathing aid to support Healthcare Professionals working on the frontline. The significance lies in making the designs freely available, thereby allowing speedy uptake and wider implementation. Meanwhile Oxford University partnered with Astra-Zeneca right from the outset of a project so that they can build in scalability from the get-go, rather than this element having to be added on at the end and protracting timelines.
This pooling of knowledge and expertise to get to a common goal is exactly what is needed to tackle climate change, too. The challenge is massive. It’s facing us all and the timescales are not shifting. Having creative mindsets within this mix can help accelerate innovation – problem-solving, benefit-led solutions and looking cross-category to identify opportunities are inherent to their make-up.
With a mind-boggling amount of food wasted in developed countries, and fast-fashion still evident in mainstream culture, lockdown limitations have challenged these trends and shown us to be a resourceful lot; some have been passing on knowledge, tips and ideas, others have been quickly learning. We’ve spent more time in and close to home – and we’ve had to get comfortable with that. People have proved to themselves that they can do more with less; they can make do and mend; they can just ‘be’ rather than thinking about where they have to be next.
Brands that offer better quality, better understanding and better experiences will have found it easier to adapt to the current challenges and will continue to evolve and support us on the other side.
For example, Hellmann’s ‘Stay-In(spired)’ social media campaign was born from its established fight against food waste. “We’re on the side of food” gives Hellmann’s permission to up a dialogue with people in lockdown who are keen to get the most out of limited kitchen supplies. Similarly Channel 4’s ‘Stay At Home Academy’, with its diverse choice of content and personalities, shifts them from a broadcaster to community ‘hub’ that champions resourcefulness. And while UK-based fast food chain Leon is on pause, it has built a temporary ‘Feed Britain’ online box delivery scheme: an opportunity for farmers, food producers and wholesalers that helps get food to people who are self-isolating, whilst at the same time diverting food that otherwise would have gone to waste due to the previously established channels being closed for the time being.
Earth Day brought news of Nike’s sustainability initiative to promote transparency and circularity in design. Their ‘sunburst’ icon – a design asset recycled from the Nike archive – will be used to denote more sustainable processes such as 50%+ recycled materials. It will be on garments and explained on digital channels so that people can feel informed on the life-cycle of potential purchases.
Opening this dialogue and showing the environmental benefits of more circular design thinking is brave and invites trust. Nike is committed to moving towards closing the loop, and as this is part of a suite of initiatives under the ‘Move to Zero’ banner, people are more likely to support the brand’s progress.
As some countries and cities begin to come out of lockdown, Italy’s busy fashion and design capital Milan is set for even more disruption – but in a good way. Town planners are taking the opportunity to implement a whole new traffic management system to reduce pollution and overcrowding, allowing pedestrians, cyclists and traditional café and shop culture to breathe (literally).
Rather than going ‘back to normal’ and gradually phasing in works, they are rapidly bringing forward future plans and aiming to reset the city now so they can be confident that they are adapted and ready for the new normal: one that puts people, communities and the environment (for a change) first.
Covid-19 has forced us all in many ways to act with more urgency and agility, but at the same time be more considered – focussing on the things at the heart of society that really matter. Could this tension be something we take forward to the climate crisis as well – rapid action and inventiveness, but with a mindful foundation?
At a recent conference, speaker Jeremy Mathieu quoted climate scientist Dr Kate Marvel: “We need courage, not hope to face climate change.”
Society has proven in recent times that it can show courage, along with compassion and gratitude. We have to maintain this in order to rise to the challenge of climate change: to face it head on, rather than skirt around it. To support us, we need courageous brands that use big, progressive thinking and strong creative assets that truly connect and help get us to better outcomes.
With these learnings in hand, what are we waiting for? The blue-sky thinking space, the ‘what if’ moment, the tipping point, they’re right here and now. No more talk of getting ‘back to normal’ or even a ‘new normal’. Let’s harness this moment in time as the opportunity to reset and create a world of change for the better.
Written by Helen Hughes, Sustainability Director at Design Bridge London.
lead image by Photo Boards on Unsplash.