“There is no business to be done on a dead planet.”
–David Brower, Sierra Club Foundation Founder
We’ve heard a lot lately about global warming and its connected dangers posed to our civilization and current way of life. But what does this mean for the graphic designer besides possibly investing in a stylish new bike or replacing a few incandescent light bulbs with some compact fluorescents (CFLs)? In this first installment of a multi-part essay, I’ll focus on why sustainability is important for the future and current success of our craft by looking at the material that the graphic designer has historically yet to be able to live without: paper.
There is hardly anything more satisfying for the graphic designer at the end of arduous project then to hold in his/her hand and admire the beauty of one’s final printed piece. Personally, I always take a few moments to not only peruse the book/poster/catalog to bask in my genius but also to slowly caress the paper’s supple surface and inhale its aromas. Paper, currently made from wood pulp, has been the substrate that has displayed our creativity for ages but also clogs up one third of American landfills.i. Scott Ewen once said in an issue of Emigre Magazine that “(graphic) designers make the world’s most beautiful trash.” Our addiction to paper is only trumped by our need for oil. In fact, global paper consumption has tripled in the past thirty years ii. and continues to rise as the United Nations expects the world’s population to grow by another 2.6 billion by the year 2050.iii. The U.N..’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the world’s paper consumption will explode by another fifty percent by 2010.iv. The unfortunate truth is that despite the designers’ inspiring ephemera, our society simply cannot sustain this rapid consumer growth without hemorrhaging our resources and further plundering our planet. Policy makers, businesses and graphic designers alike must work to create a sustainable system of manufacturing and distribution in connection with utilizing materials that are also sustainable.
But what does it mean to be sustainable? Sustainability is a systemic term that means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”v. It demands that society strives to reach a collective balance called the triple bottom line. This is the overlap where we intelligently mesh the economy, environment and equity for all our species. When we look at the current concept of sustainable paper, the best means to achieve this ideal is to:
- Reduce our paper use
- Always use the most environmentally friendly paper available.
Reducing the use and consumption of paper is the most difficult task that sustainability asks us to do. Designers have grown used to a fast-paced world of deadlines and that typically means not thinking about the best system to design in or even if that brochure is the right solution to communicate to your audience. We must become better at rethinking the way we design. Just because last year your client needed a catalog to showcase their products, doesn’t necessarily mean that is the best solution in general. Asking the right questions up front can lead to a better outcome in terms of minimizing paper, ink or moving towards a digital solution. This upfront understanding can help your client save some of the “other green” in the end.
In terms of recycling, the infrastructure is already in place for us to be fairly successful. According to the U.S. EPA in 2006, Americans recycled 52%vi. of all the paper and paperboard products produced that year. However 80% of our world’s forests have already been loggedvii. so it is imperative that we look to better using our supply of recycled paper, continue to grow this market sector and most importantly look for other sources of making paper.
The most environmentally friendly paper at the moment is:
- Made of 100% Post-Consumer Waste (which is paper that has reached an end-user, reclaimed and recycled)
- Is Processed Chlorine Free (PCF)
- Has Ancient Forest Friendly certification
- Is manufactured with renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, tidal) or is green-e certified
However, moving forward towards a more sustainable form of paper, we should look at investing more capital in agricultural waste fibers like wheat and rice straw, sugar cane bagasse, bamboo, cotton, kenaf and hemp. This shouldn’t be very difficult as historically agricultural fibers were the main component of paper until the mid 1800s when we began the transition to wood pulp. In many parts of China and India, up to 50% of paper products are still made from agricultural residues.viii. Here in North America, we have 200 million tons of strawix. that lay unused and available for manufacture. The concept of reuse is vitally important for a sustainable and economically viable future to occur. However, I believe that, like the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th Century, a sustainable revolution is upon us and design will play a key role in shaping its path.
To better help you locate the best alternatives for sustainable papers, try the very user-friendly “Eco-Paper Database” organized by Markets Initiative or my website www.re-nourish.com.