Are designers responsible for greenwashing, the deliberate, false branding of companies to appear more benevolent? Do we subscribe to a code of higher ethics, or are we truly commercial artists?
In the latest issue of Communication Arts (Advertising Annual 45), Ellen Shapiro has published a small and unassuming article entitled “Greenwashing!” My schizophrenic reading habits almost passed this one by, but thank goodness I started reading because it was by far the most rewarding piece I have seen in any design magazine for a long time.
“Greenwashing” is the term given to organizations or persons who deliberately conceal their true nature or reputation by clever branding and marketing. The author’s examples are unsettling because they involve companies we interact with every day: Nike, BP, Starbucks, Kraft and pretty much the entire automobile industry. She pointedly raises questions to designers, brand managers and other creatives who contribute to greenwashing:
Do we “brand” what a company is, or what it promises to become? Does our work in logo, packaging and advertising design sometimes make us guilty of helping conceal a client’s past record and true intentions?
Ms. Shapiro does not answer these questions, and readily admits they are “thorny” issues. She does go on to cite specific case studies, such as BP’s recent rebranding by Landor to create a more “green” appearance, yet the fundamental business of the company remains the same—drilling for oil. Another key example is Philip Morris changing its name to Altria and rebranding itself to de-emphasize its less politically correct (but still immensely profitable and controversial) tobacco business.
The question remains: are designers partly responsible? Do you as a designer serve yourself through monetary gain and a new portfolio piece, or do you serve a higher code of ethics? Does it even matter since there will always be another designer willing to take a project you might find ethically questionable?
And is that other designer wrong? After all, we do market ourselves as commercial artists, and almost any commercial endeavor requires some compromise for the bottom line.
Designers have to eat. We have overhead. I have several past projects I am not proud of, which were questionable at best in their representation of products. Do I feel bad about this? Yes. Did I need to pay my mortgage at the time? Yes. As I become more “successful,” I have become more discriminating in what projects I take on, and have turned down several well-paying jobs because I just didn’t feel right about the project. Unfortunately, this is not a luxury I always enjoyed—or one I expect anyone else to follow.
It would take a seismic paradigm shift in corporate thinking to even reduce greenwashing, much less eliminate it—but I think it starts with our industry. We create the public face of the greater machine. We design the tip of the iceberg while the bulk remains comfortably obfuscated from the public. We are responsible for the perception.