Start the Sustainability Conversation

by Sheri Koetting

Designers aspire to make both their own practices and their client work green, but we have to acknowledge that 100% sustainability is still an aspiration. Our design processes haven’t yet reached that point yet. And our clients often balk, fearing the costs and complexities of green design solutions. But that shouldn’t deter us from getting started; small moves add up.

In a panel discussion hosted by Spark Design Professionals and AIGA/NY, Don Carli, senior research fellow with the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Communication, Cheryl Heller, CEO of Heller Communication Design, and Hugh Hough, a global-warming ambassador for Al Gore’s The Climate Project and founder of the ad agency Green Team, shared what we and our clients should consider now as we strive to make our work more sustainable:

Buck the false sentiment that clients and consumers have to choose between cost savings and sustainability. Green efforts don’t need to cost more. In fact, they often can save a company money by reducing waste, shipping costs, and unnecessary expenditures.

Make claims that are truthful and accurate. Social media has empowered consumers to speak their minds, and they’ll call out brands whose green positioning isn’t transparent or honest. Also be sure to check your entire supply chain, so you’re fully aware of what is green and not-so-green behind the scenes.

Consider the entire system of communication materials and understand the necessity of whatever you create. In the panel, Cheryl Heller said that her firm no longer makes stuff, but focuses on creating communication system plans for clients.

Evaluate the medium, and don’t assume that delivering a message digitally is a greener solution than print. Don Carli noted that some research challenges the notion that digital media is inherently more eco-friendly that print. Carli pointed out that the electricity required to power the servers, computers and technology used for digital media must come from somewhere, and currently much of that is coal powered. Research shows that we are currently consuming more electricity through our use of digital media than ever before.

Recognize green design’s emotional value, not just its business benefits. When reviewing several product offerings that are considered equal, consumers generally want to do the right thing. Mintel released a report this year that 35% of consumers are willing to pay more for green products. And while not everyone’s sole concern is the environment, providing end-benefits to consumers (i.e., healthier product options) has been shown to consistently increase brand value.

Sheri L Koetting is the co-founder of MSLK.


In calculating the “green” nature of a design project, we often overlook the environmental cost of the electricity and hardware required to deliver a message digitally. Green doesn’t always mean digital.

Quick Tips


The language of business is the language of risk. When you identify for a client the costs of not greening their materials, product offering and/or systems, you’re bringing greater value to the work that you do for them. Offer guidance not just about green initiatives, but also about strategic initiatives.

When dealing with a client who has an ordinary product offering and isn’t thinking of “going green,” it’s important to reach the client in a place that they understand. Hugh Hough suggests that you have to give every client your best work, answering their business objectives first. Then along the way be sure to point out that extra special thing they think is so cool, just so happens to be green.

Stay on top of consumer attitudes toward green brands and products, even if your clients are in service or B2B industries. Buyers don’t leave their personal preferences at the door just because they’re buying insurance, not breakfast cereal. Bolster your own knowledge of social and consumer trends related to green products, and use that to guide conversations about sustainability with your clients.

Dig Deeper!


1. The Living Principles for Design is a new online resource and community, initially started in conjunction with AIGA, that aims to help designers take meaningful action toward sustainability.

2. ReNourish offers tools for designers to help green their work, including a project calculator, green paper finder and printing guide.

3. Research organizations like Trendwatching and GfK Roper capture consumer attitudes and trends.

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