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The new frontier: designing for ethically & socially conscious businesses

Indoor plant

I decided recently to focus my business on working with ethically and socially conscious businesses with good environmental credentials. This was because these businesses share my own personal ethos. I want to "do good" in the world, and I want to help others who want to do the same.

Since exploring this passion and niche, I’ve had people ask me: is designing for this new wave of businesses really any different to their profit-focussed predecessors?

Well…yes and no.

There are several aspects to the design process, some of which will never change for practical reasons (why re-invent the wheel!) and some of which are influenced by considerations that are very specific to these types of businesses.

Design development considerations

While the theoretical process doesn’t change (strategy, mood board, refining concepts etc), and designing for a specific target market is still the goal, values and consumer consciousness play a much more powerful role than for other businesses.

Price is no longer king when it comes to consumer choice. With climate change and human rights high on the social media agenda and front of people’s minds, consumers are beginning to shun mass retailers for businesses who offer ethically sourced and produced products with a low environmental impact.

They’re no longer making their decisions based on convenience and cost. Purchasing decisions take longer, involve more research, and the list of criteria that need to be met is much longer. Terms such as non-toxic, bio-degradable, recycled, responsibly sourced, carbon neutral, fair trade, fair working conditions and organic are high on their radar.

But that doesn’t mean using every shade and tone of green available, splashing key words around and collecting as many certification stamps as possible. People want to be assured that the higher price point really is worth it. Consumers want to know that the brand is honest and transparent – and that all comes down to visually communicating the businesses specific values. To prove the point, a study released by HP and Planet Ark has confirmed that consumers are willing to spend more money if a brand is environmentally sustainable.

When designing for ethically and socially conscious businesses, particularly given how many businesses are entering the sphere, authenticity and originality in design are crucial in what is becoming a very crowded marketplace. Brands need to “walk the walk” both visually and in operational terms.

Printing and packaging considerations

Traditionally, little thought was given to paper sources, ink ingredients and printing processes – businesses made decisions about printing their marketing collateral and packaging purely on the basis of cost, appearance and speed.

However, with wide-spread awareness of de-forestation, unsustainable forestry practices in the paper industry, water wastage and pollution, I’m seeing that many businesses and their consumers asking for more environmentally safe and sustainable options first and considering price and speed second.

This is particularly true for the types of ethically and socially conscious businesses I work with. In fact, I have had some clients who have been very specific about which printers they want to work with to ensure environmental safety.

There are now many options for recycled and sustainably sourced paper products, vegetable-based inks and low chemical processes that don’t compromise quality, which I’ll go into in a future post.

This does mean that when it comes to the printing and production side of the design process, it does differ in that I source quotes from different suppliers and weigh up options on the basis of environmental safety and quality, not just price or speed. My designs also need to work when printed with different types of inks and on different types of paper products e.g. colours render differently on unbleached, recycled card than on new, white stock.

That said, consumers in general often now expect businesses to be using ethical and sustainable practices, beyond printing and packaging. On a personal level I try to buy from businesses (not just printers, but groceries and products I use daily) whose ethics I agree with and who have a demonstrated record of sustainable practices.

A business' visual brand is the perfect opportunity to show its authenticity and how it is genuinely different from its competitors. This does present an awful lot of challenges in the design process – from communicating messages and values clearly and originally through to choosing the right inks and paper stock. But they’re challenges that designers like me are grabbing with both hands.

Side note: As a socially and ethically conscious consumer and business owner, I'm donating $25 to OzHarvest for every branding project I book. OzHarvest collects unused food (‘rescued food’) from grocery retailers and food outlets and re-directs it to more than 1300 charities in need across Australia.


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