Cometh the hour, cometh the speaking engagements.
As one of the team behind environmental non-profit Do The Green Thing, I’ve spent the last few months pitching up at any conference or studio that will have me, talking about the climate crisis that is clearly upon us, and discussing how the creative industry can respond.
I try to make these talks a little confrontational, but mostly hopeful.
I suggest that, as creative professionals, we have the power of persuasion in our hands, and with that power comes a responsibility. By regularly persuading people to buy into unsustainable products and ideas, we are complicit – either knowingly or unknowingly – in the climate emergency. But by persuading people to buy into sustainable products and ideas, we can become an important part of a much-needed climate response.
But maybe my talks aren’t hopeful enough, because every time I speak I am asked a similar question, from someone who is clearly upset or distressed. “What on earth can I do?”
Within the question is a huge scoop of despair. Despair at being just one designer in a big wide world. At being just one writer in a big agency with a P&L that doesn’t align with the planet’s. At being just one creative in an industry whose number one client is an idea called overconsumption. At being a single mind facing the highly complex, multifaceted subject of climate change itself – what philosopher Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject”.
So it’s a fair question, and I’d like to answer it more clearly than I have managed in recent talks. What on earth can you do? What on earth can any of us do?
First of all, we can change our working culture. Now I appreciate this may seem crushingly unambitious for creatives who are trained to have widespread influence and reach a disproportionately large audience. But consider the credibility and influence that comes from:
- Resisting the Uber-pull, because public transport is nearly always faster
- Cycling to work, aided by showers, racks and schemes
- Suggesting to clients that bright-eyed Hangouts beat jet-lagged meetings, and offsetting any flights that you do have to make
- Favouring natural light (more subtle and beautiful than electric lightbulbs)
- Leasing and fixing things rather than buying and replacing things
- Recycling, not just with bins, but with proper recycling knowledge
- Using both sides of a piece of paper, and every bit of every pen and pencil
- Making coffee less plastic-based
- Making lunch less meat-based
- Forgoing junky Secret Santa gifts in favour of fun experiences
By doing these relatively small things in our own ways, we are not only reducing our impact; we are finding imaginative and hopeful alternatives for the way things are done – which I would argue is the definition of the creative process.
And we are becoming what IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad once called the “good example”: cleaning up our acts thoroughly and imaginatively, inspiring other colleagues to do the same, giving ourselves a firm moral and behavioural basis to do more.
Which takes us on to the second thing. With our working culture changed, we can change the clients we work for. This one is both simple and wickedly complicated.
It’s simple, because many of the products and services that we create our designs and campaigns for have an irrefutably negative effect on the environment. Promoting them this century is like promoting cigarettes in the last.
When our skills bring commercial success to organisations in the business of selling fast fashion, petrol-engined anything, technology that becomes obsolete faster than you can say the word “Alexa”, air travel, imported food, packaged food and drink, all things plastic, single-use anything, anything with meat and anything with micro beads, it comes at a societal cost. Which gives us a simple choice: we can choose or refuse to promote these products.
But it’s also a complex choice, because of money. Choosing whether to work or not to work for, say, a fast-fashion brand may be the difference between paying ourselves and not paying ourselves this month. Between paying our employee’s salary and having to let them go. Between pleasing our boss and angering them. Between pleasing our shareholders and causing them to ask awkward questions about our salary or bonus.
In which case, we can do this. We can rightly ask ourselves or our small studio or our large conglomerate: If not now, when? And we can draw up our policy for the future (creative people love a manifesto). Because no one can defend the opposite position as a long-term strategy, and once the conversation has started and a transition schedule is agreed and a date is set for change, the change has begun.
Then, with our working culture changed and our client position set, we can do the third thing, which is to lend our skills to the cause.
We are a strange sub-species of humanity called creative people and we will always find capacity beyond our contracted or commissioned work for pro-bono or hobby-horse projects that top up our idealism, sharpen our creative skills, and keep our profile warm. Let’s say it’s 5 per cent of all the work we do.
What if we put that 5 per cent towards the climate cause? We could make great placards for climate marches. We could make and stick feisty stickers on the windows of every diesel car we see.
We could start campaigns for the brilliance of thrift-shop vinyl. The beauty of second-hand books. The wisdom of resourceful grandmothers. The cleverness of hands. The versatility of feet. The infinite storytelling potential of the great outdoors – far more interesting than screens indoors.
We could use our channels to post ideas and observations about reuse, resourcefulness, walking, cycling, meatless deliciousness. We could resolve to adopt a new planet-friendly behaviour every January, and blog, post and tell stories about it across the year (for example, I’m six months into a year of not buying anything new).
We could offer our writing, design, directing, art-directing, programming, illustration and animation skills to chief protesters like Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion, or to wide-scale mobilisers like Voice For The Planet (our team is working with two, and talking to all three). We can start our own zine or online publication, or volunteer for one, like the brilliant It’s Freezing in LA or, erm, Do The Green Thing.
And if these things feel random, that’s not quite the truth.
Tackling the hyperobject is a hyper-plan. An unauthored, common-sense plan to deconstruct the values, frameworks, ideas and actions that make our world unsustainable, and to construct the alternative values, frameworks, ideas and actions that can power a sustainable future.
Whether we’re improving our workplace culture or boycotting companies that put their profit before our planet or lending our spare time to the cause – whether we’re exemplifying, protesting, exposing, advocating, simplifying, imagining, connecting or persuading – we’re helping right across the plan.
The plan is not neat or co-ordinated, or authored by a single campaign or brand, or spearheaded by a single creative person or organisation, or completed in a single burst or schedule. It can’t be. It’s as wide-scale and messy and vibrant and imaginative and ongoing as life is.
But at its heart, it asks creative people to do what we do best: make problems vivid and make answers desirable. And it’s a reason not to despair, but to be hopeful.
Naresh Ramchandani is a Pentagram partner and the founder, along with Andy Hobsbawm, of environmental charity Do The Green Thing.
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.