“We need to make designer-makers misunderstand sustainability”

The fear of being called out for “greenwashing” paralyzes designers into doing nothing about the climate crisis. It’s time to let them make mistakes, writes Katie Treggiden.

“Carbonwashing is the new greenwashing”; H&M called for “greenwashing” in its Conscious fashion collection; “Greenwashing won’t wash”: all Dezeen headlines from the past few years. In fact, the last one was mine. And it’s important that we highlight greenwashing – the practice of making false environmental claims to sell products, services or policies.

With 66 percent of all shoppers — rising to 75 percent among millennials — saying they consider sustainability when making a purchase, the payoff is clear. But it takes time, money and effort to make products and services truly environmentally friendly, and the road to get there is full of nuances, compromises and compromises – none of which lead to easy profits or simple advertising slogans, so companies lie, exaggerate and bend the truth to to bring in those sales.

It is important that we declare greenwashing

Advertising and sales are hardly known as bastions of fairness, but the harms of greenwashing go beyond simply misleading consumers into buying something they don’t want. All the time, money and effort invested in these practices is not spent on actual sustainability, and companies are left alone. Meanwhile, the deceived customers are not investing their money in the companies that are genuinely trying to do better.

“Greenwashing perpetuates the status quo because it leads specifiers, end-users and everyone in the chain to believe they are doing better than they actually are from a sustainability perspective,” said Hattrick content marketing agency founder Malin Cunningham. “Similarly, the companies doing the greenwashing have no incentive to improve.”

However, all these “greenwashing” headlines terrify the hearts of designers, makers, interior designers and architects who want to do the right thing but haven’t quite got it yet. In a poll of my community of designers and makers, 100 percent said the fear of being wrong had stalled the progress of sustainability-focused projects.

Cancellation culture and call-out culture are especially prevalent on social media, which often lack the nuance for genuine discussions of environmentalism, yet these are the very spaces in which small creative businesses promote their products and services.

All these “greenwashing” headlines are terrifying to the hearts of designers

The importance of failure in creativity is well documented. There are the 5,126 failed prototypes that James Dyson went through before finally cracking the technology behind his eponymous vacuum cleaner, Thomas Edison’s quote “I failed 700 times. I succeeded in proving those 700 ways won’t work”, and the fact that Walt Disney’s first movie company went bankrupt before he turned 21. But maybe we’ve heard stories like this so often that we’ve forgotten what they mean.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear gives the example of a cohort of film photography students at the University of Florida. Their professor divided them into two groups. One would only be judged by how many shots they took – the more shots, the higher the grade, no matter how good they were. The second group only needs to submit one photo, but it will be judged on quality – to get an A, it must be close to perfect.

The result? The better photos came from the first group, which was judged on quantity alone. The moral of the story here is that creative people should only be allowed to fail if they want to succeed. In other words, holding them to a standard of near perfection does not create the conditions for success.

“The only way we can tackle the huge challenges facing humanity is through trial and error,” Cunningham said. “Small independent businesses are very well placed to help find these solutions and it’s essential that they can experiment without being pushed around.”

It is important that we encourage imperfect progress, that we recognize honest intentions

The difficulty is that the main difference between greenwashing and fair but imperfect progress is intent, and that can be difficult to discern. For designers and makers, Cunningham recommends transparency in communication.

“It’s about being clear about the environmental impact you’re making as a business and what your goals are — and then being transparent about where you stand on your journey to reach those goals,” she said. “It means taking action first and then communicating.”

And what about those of us who write those headlines? It is of course critical that journalists “speak truth to power” and continue to address companies that knowingly make exaggerated or outright false environmental claims.

But it’s also important that we encourage imperfect progress, that we recognize honest intentions, and that we ask the right questions to make sure we can tell the difference. In our coverage of sustainable design, we should celebrate both the journey and the destination.

We need to get designer-makers to misjudge sustainability so they can get it right. All our future depends on it.

Katie Treggiden is an author, journalist, podcaster and keynote speaker who advocates for a circular approach to design. She is the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a member community for designer-makers who want to become more sustainable.

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