Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Does That Look Green to You?

Essay, 2009.

Last week, I had to buy some laundry detergent. I confess that I didn’t apply any rigorous thought to this routine task. I just stood in front of the shelf and grabbed what spoke to me: Ultra Tide Pure Essentials with Baking Soda. Why that one and not something else? Because it looked green to me.

Ultra Tide Pure Essentials comes in a cream-colored plastic jug. It’s made from the same material as the bright orange bottles used for Tide’s other products (No. 2 HDPE plastic), but the soft ivory color makes it look…greener. And the lid actually is green—a pale, soothing tint of sage. Tide’s familiar logo (jaunty blue letters leaping out from a toxic tornado) is positioned rather small on the front of the bottle, but the rest of the design speaks of a kinder, gentler world. The product contains baking soda—a household chemical that you can actually eat. The detergent is also “pure,” “essential,” and smells like “white lilac.” (White lilac is surely cleaner, more invisible and ethereal, than purple lilac, no?)

The one thing that actually makes this product greener than what my mother used to buy is its concentrated form. A more potent product is cheaper to ship, package, and store than a diluted one—yet many people dump more detergent than they need into their laundry, canceling out the environmental benefit. Liquid detergents are less green than powders because they are heavier to ship.

The Tide Pure Essentials bottle is a classic example of green washing. Graphic designers and branding experts choose colors, language, imagery, and materials that speak to the emotions of a certain class of consumers. “Green” is a cultural vocabulary that talks about nature and purity and ecology but may have nothing to do with how products actually affect the world.

Here’s another piece of packaging: a returnable glass milk bottle. Once a week, Cold Mountain Creamery delivers fresh dairy products to my house. The milkman picks up the empty bottles and takes them back to be washed and reused. Screenprinted on the front of the bottle is the date “2003”—the bottle has been circulating for six years. The package is owned by the dairy and merely leased by the customer (I pay a $2 deposit for the privilege of using it). What I am purchasing each week is access to a well-designed system. The milk I buy is a service, not a product.

This milk bottle suggests a more exciting approach to green packaging than the detergent jug—and yet it represents an old business model that was made obsolete by strip malls and parking lots in the 1960s, when the modern housewife learned to pick up her own milk in her own car, embracing a more private and isolated lifestyle. Today, new ecological priorities along with the online networks are making systems like this one convenient and attractive once again. Designers are starting to work with industries to imagine and implement new systems for getting things done.

A Barbie doll box—with its shiny plastic window and its twisted wire attachments—only serves to sell the product in the store. It’s 100% marketing, with no value added for the user. Some packaging, however, is actually useful to consumers. If milk didn’t come in a carton, how could I pour it on my cereal or store it in my fridge? Packaging has other useful functions as well. It also helps make manufacturers accountable for their goods and encourages consistency, promoting relationships between consumers and brands. It protects goods in transit and keeps them clean in the store and in your house. Packaging can explain how products work or how to use them, and it can disclose important data such as ingredients, warnings, and sell-by dates. And then there’s the beauty factor—elegant, intelligent packaging can stimulate desire for beneficial products. Greener design strategies seek to maintain benefits like these while reducing—or eliminating—waste.

Here are some basic green design principles and how they work:

Recycle. This is the old-school approach to green design. People think that by putting their stuff out on the curb for recycling, they are solving the problem. But recycling consumes a lot of energy, and typically, recycled goods can’t be turned back into the same products they started as. Soda bottles get turned into plastic lumber, an ugly material with limited uses. William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle and one of the world’s leading sustainability advocates, prefers the term “downcycling” to “recycling,” because the process yields lower-quality substances and does nothing to upset the need for more virgin materials at the front end of the process.

Repurpose. The D.I.Y. approach is to make adorable objects out of old containers. Although this can become an engaging hobby, it’s not a solution to our bigger problems. If I were to use a year’s worth of plastic milk jugs to make bracelets, flower pots, and lamp shades, I would fill my house with over 200 dubious crafts projects. And that’s not even getting started with the beer bottles and soda cans.

Reduce materials. Laundry detergent would be hard to carry home without a package. But what if detergent took a different form, such as a pill or a sheet that doesn’t need a container? Or what if it were packaged for single use, and the container dissolved in the washing machine? Or how about an appliance that gets filled just once a year with detergent? In the UK, the cleaning products manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser N.V. has filed a patent for a cartridge-based system that would automatically dispense detergent as needed. Ideally, when the cartridge is empty, it could be returned to the manufacturer for refilling, just as we now do with ink cartridges.

Rent, don’t own. As John Thackara points out in his influential book In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, many businesses lease cars, trucks, photocopiers, and office spaces. Likewise, consumers are accustomed to renting a hotel room or a seat on an airplane—we don’t need to own these things in order to enjoy their benefits. Couldn’t packaging be rented as well? What if everything from breakfast cereal to dish detergent came in a beautiful, high-value package designed to be refilled rather than thrown away? What if all household products were delivered to people’s homes instead of getting picked up at the store? This would mean less driving, smaller parking lots, and warehouses designed for optimum efficiency rather than for putting goods on display. Think of the open refrigerators in a typical American grocery store. An enormous amount of energy is wasted just to make it easy for shoppers to grab a carton of yogurt or a brick of cheese from an open dairy case.

Create new behaviors. In Europe, shoppers have always brought their own bags to the store (and bagged their own groceries). In the U.S., we expect free bags, at the cost of trillions of discarded bags each year. Passing a law is one way to change behavior. In 2007 San Francisco banned standard plastic bags at large supermarkets and drug stores (paper ones are still permitted). People tend to resist change if they don’t see an obvious benefit to themselves. Walmart and Costco have introduced a cubic milk jug that supports its own weight when stacked, eliminating the need for plastic shipping crates. Getting rid of the crates saves room on the trucks; ditching the crates also means not having to clean and sterilize them, saving more money and energy. The problem is, pouring milk from the new jugs is a little different (you have to tilt the jug rather than lifting it to pour), so the change has met with consumer resistance. Consumers are willing to buy the new milk, however, because it is cheaper than the old style—saving people money can inspire them to accept new behaviors.

Next time I buy laundry detergent, I’ll try to give it more thought. Which product packs the most cleaning power into the smallest package? Which product has the lowest weight per wash? Which product works best in cold water? Someday, I hope the soap won’t come in a package at all—that’s the goal that “green” designers are working toward.