I have considered myself a life-long environmentalist. Yet calling oneself an environmentalist in this capitalist American society is a tricky thing. Hasty judgements are made that may or may not apply. For some people the label conjures the image of a tree-hugging trouble-maker. For others, it's someone who recycles and composts. For me, it just means I care deeply about the other living things that surround our world and the impact we humans have on them.
I've definitely hugged a tree or two; and years ago, before it was acceptable to ask these things, I questioned the recyclable content of a particular paper during a manufacturer's presentation. (I was shushed quickly and, as someone who doesn't like unnecessary confrontation, rarely spoke out again in professional settings about such things for years after.) Before it was commonplace, I recycled and carried reusable shopping bags and bottles when it embarrassed friends for me to do so. Those little actions didn't made a huge impact but they somehow made me feel good. I persisted.
But let's face it: few of us can really embrace the environmentalist movement fully no matter how badly we'd like to except through the small steps we continue to make each day, year after year.
Fortunately, there are people and stories out in the world who encourage us all to keep trying.
Many years ago, I attended the lecture of architect and author William McDonough at Vanderbilt University. He co-wrote a book with chemist Michael Braungart called Cradle to Cradle. Their premise was that the three "Rs" (Reduce. Reuse. Recycle."), while important, are still a "cradle to grave" approach that over time, still generates large amounts of waste. After visiting one of my local recycle facilities, I've learned why.
Much of what people are putting in their recyclable bins may never get recycled. There is still a capitalist element at play with recyclables so if, say the plastic recycleables' market is saturated or the country that our waste is being exported to is not currently accepting those materials, the "recyclables" become landfill. Or if someone throws contaminated materials into the mix (wax-lined cardboard like pizza boxes or coffee cups or even just a plastic bag), the whole sample of materials it is mixed in with may suddenly become landfill instead of recyclable.
The aforementioned visionaries McDonough and Braungart promoted the "cradle to cradle" approach in their book and their work: using nature itself "as a model for making things...a tree produces thousands of blossoms in order to create another tree, yet we consider its abundance not wasteful but safe, beautiful and highly effective." It was the first time I'd heard this concept and it blew my mind.
How to implement this approach is another puzzle to work out. But I knew if an architect could do it, certainly there must be a way for a graphic designer to begin do so as well.
As a print designer, it is rarely lost on me that many of the projects I work on have an impact on our world. The chemicals, the paper, the waste that comes from printing is hard to ignore. However, there are a few ways that I try to keep these things in mind and to a minimum. Some projects are more inclined to have success in this effort than others.
Much of the client work I've been fortunate enough to have been involved with has aspired to be longer-lasting (books; signage that is designed to be used year after year; bookmarked and hyperlinked PDFs of marketing materials posted to web sites rather than being printed because the audience is easier to reach online; removing what isn't necessary in marketing and design that needs to be printed; on-demand printing; working with printers that implement more refined environmental practices whenever possible, etc.). Admittedly not all of these are options available for every project but the hopes and intentions are there whenever possible. More can certainly be done and with other methods implemented.
Enter another modern-day hero: Turnip Green Creative Reuse was started by a friend (Kelly Tipler) years ago. This non-profit is quickly becoming a model for other reuse organizations across the country. When I was asked to help TGCR rebrand, I didn't hesitate to take the project on. It was just one more tiny step for me to take personally and professionally on this path lightening the load we humans place on our planet. Through their efforts, they have diverted over 165 tons of reusable materials from the landfill by accepting donations of materials that might otherwise be tossed without a second thought—everything from paper to office furniture.
TGCR's mission is to foster creativity and sustainability through reuse. TGCR has 4 areas of service: a retail donate what you wish ($) store, education/outreach, artist support, and a green gallery. It provides a welcoming and neutral place for artists, educators, and any creative person to connect. They hold a high priority to serve the art community as well as work with children in our community, bringing them ways to create from what they see going in the trash everyday.
Yes, I'm fully aware there's more to be done and that there are many contradictions in my practices but I will keep adding to my small steps taken. And I'm grateful that I'm no longer shushed when the three Rs are brought into conversation professionally. We can make an impact in our corner of the world with every small action we take but we have to love what we do in order for it to make real impact. I'm lucky in that regard.