How to build a sustainable design practice

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Graphic designers produce things, often en masse, so critical thinking as it pertains to sustainability and conservation is something that we all benefit from.

Don’t make things that no one needs

Reducing the amount of physical material that we produce is a pretty logical place to start. One of the people that put the idea of sustainable graphic design on my radar was Eugene Lee, the owner of Rolling Press in Brooklyn. Long before we were having a national dialogue about climate change, he was asking every new client if their project was absolutely necessary. This might seem like a counter-productive business practice, but it hasn’t stopped Rolling Press from thrashing the margins since 1998.

Choose eco-friendly print options

Conventional inks release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which pollute the air and are often not safe to recycle. Traditional printmaking processes also use can use an enormous amount of energy and water. Seek out printers that use waterless printing techniques, which can eliminate VOC and conserves massive amounts of water. Almost every major online print site has recycled paper options, and Overnight Prints uses waterless print methods as well as sustainably grown trees for their non-recycled paper.

Use green web hosting

Data centers, aka the places where all of your datas physically live (less of a cloud, more of a warehouse), take up an enormous amount of energy. A US government study (https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/data-center-efficiency-assessment-IB.pdf) showed that US data centers consumed 91 billion kilowatt-hours in 2013, roughly 3% of the US’s total energy consumption. That’s expected to increase substantially.

Of the mega-hosts, DreamHost has the most robust explanation of their focus on sustainability. They’re using highly efficient cooling systems that consume significantly less energy than older equipment, make use of energy buy-back programs, and they’re working out of LEED and EnergyStar rated corporate headquarters. They also do a lot of little things, like placing recycling bins throughout their offices, and replacing disposable cups with ceramic mugs.

There are also dedicated green hosts, like GreenGeeks. GreenGeeks claims to actually be “300% renewable”. For every kilowatt they pull from the grid, they’re investing 3x as much back into renewable energy.

Practice sustainability every day

It’s always good to reevaluate your personal habits too. If you own a house, solar panels aren’t as expensive as you might think (energysage.com is a really good resource). It’s a decent long-term investment, and doesn’t require constant sun (7% of German energy is produced by solar). If you’re a renter, you can still ask your energy company to use your money to purchase from renewable sources. This will usually cost you 30% more, but it will genuinely force your utility company to buy from wind and solar farms.

If you recycle, don’t forget the other two “R’s” — reduce and reuse. You can also buy used stuff whenever possible, cars, clothes, dishes, etc. When California started charging 10¢ for bags, we all started remembering to bring our reusable bags to the supermarket. I also picked up some reusable storage bags that I use to load up on dry beans from the bulk bins at our local shop. Here’s some other cool reusable stuff to check out.

Plastic is still virtually unavoidable, but thankfully a lot of American supermarkets have bins for recycling the plastic we usually throw away like bags and plastic wrap. How2recycle.info is a dodgy looking URL / very useful resource that is the gold standard for finding local curb-side restrictions and drop-off spots near you.

My personal favorite thing is community supported agriculture (CSA, or ‘box scheme’ if you’re in the UK). It’s a great way to cut out transit, ditch packaging, enjoy the freshest in-season food available in your area and get to know your local farmers (https://www.localharvest.org/search.jsp).

Be good to yourself

Life is hard enough, so do what you can, allow yourself to make mistakes and keep going. I’ll keep this post updated, so if you have any suggestions, feel free to drop a line!

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Not rocket science, folks.

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