This article is part of Response and Responsibility, a new series of stories about the ongoing climate crisis and what the creative industries can do about it.
“There are so many agencies making amazing creative work to sell people more shit they don’t need,” says Tom Tapper, when It’s Nice That meets him on a sunny day in mid-June. “The world didn’t need another one of those.”
So, just over a decade ago now, Tom made an unusual career choice, becoming one of the few people on the planet to give up being a climate scientist in favour of running a solutions-oriented creative agency. That agency, Nice and Serious, operates on a simple and admirable principle: they make nice things to help solve very serious problems.
The latest problem they’re trying to solve is one of the bigger ones in the ongoing climate crisis: How can we actively disengage ourselves as consumers from the tyranny of the incredibly harmful single-use plastics that do so much damage to the planet?
For Nice and Serious at least, the answer is simple: Look at a map.
The studio’s latest self-initiated project is Useless, which maps out London’s zero-waste stores – the shops that offer consumers a chance to make packaging-free purchases, providing everything from swanky shampoo to super-sustainable coffee beans in an attempt to encourage a disposable-free future.
Toward the end of a lunch break, surrounded by the remnants of a few meal deals, the Nice and Serious team found themselves discussing one of those aforementioned shampoo-supplying shops. A seed was planted.
Useless grew out of one of the studio’s most positive internal systems, Nice Works. As Tom puts it, “You work on the briefs you’re given by charities and brands and you do the best you can to help them raise awareness of the cause in question, amplifying their impact. But there are some big, knotty problems that just won’t have a cause or a charity or a brand behind them, because there’s no financial or fundraising interest behind it.”
With that in mind, Nice Works was born. The studio’s entire staff are given half a day a week to creatively respond to problems that haven’t yet been adopted by brands or charities. “We have a panel and anyone can pitch a creative solution to the problem and if the panel likes it we’ll give staff the time to work on it. That’s what Useless is. It came from a junior designer,” says Tom.
Like everything that emerges from Nice and Serious’ offices – they have studios in both London and New York – Useless is fundamentally rooted in looking for a beautiful solution in the face of an ugly problem.
As bright as it is bold, the website manages to impart genuinely useful knowledge in a way that strikes the user as engaging, playful and totally free of the preachy tone that can creep into things, when we’re discussing the potential death of the planet we call home.
Arriving on the website, you’re confronted by a cavalcade of disposable coffee cups, drinks bottles, and those really rather flimsy plastic bags you fill with wonky courgettes and flown-in strawberries at Asda on a Saturday morning. This, Tom tells us, “builds up the fact that single-use plastics are an ugly idea and that they clutter up the world.”
Useless’ centrepiece is the map itself. To find your local zero-waste store, all you’ve got to do is tap on your postcode. Well, if you live in London at least. Nice and Serious plans to roll out the scheme across the country over the next year or so, creating a national database of shops that prioritise the reusable and the recyclable.
Having found your nearest suitable shop, you’re taken to a page which gives you the basic information about the store in question, presented alongside an illustration of it. These charming drawings are crucial to Useless as both a resource and as an aesthetic project.
“We made a conscious choice to illustrate each and every storefront and that might seem laborious – we could have just taken a photo and put a colour treatment on it – but we wanted it to feel human, a little bit premium, and like something that lets the design really come through,” Tom says. “A lot of these stores are run by individuals who put a lot of time and energy into making these stores beautiful. Let’s do them the justice of a nice illustration. Think of it as a kind of digital wrapper.”
For Tom and the Nice and Serious team, Useless isn’t intended to be a complete solution to the truly global problem that is a reliance on single-use plastics. “There is a risk that people think that by using a paper straw or carrying a tote bag with them they’re solving massive problems. If we think that, we’re lying to ourselves,” Tom says, reminding us that in order to keep global temperature levels under the 1.5-per-cent increase, shifts in consumer behaviour have be mirrored by massive policy change at a government level across the globe.
“But,” he adds, “if we can get more people through the doors of zero-waste stores, that’s a fucking great start.”