Learning Sustainability from an Old Chick with a French Name
The proliferation of “eco-everything” is starting to look an awful lot like the “everything-dot-com” craze. That worries me, because green design is too exciting and important for us to let it suffer a similar crash into mockery and mediocrity. It seems to me we all need to figure out some better ways promote sustainable lifestyles, without all the eco slogans and leafy logos.
I started to see a glimpse of one of those “better ways” early last year when I started a branding and packaging project for Bon Ami cleaners. Bon Ami is one of the oldest consumer trademarks in America (the little chick mascot still “Hasn’t scratched yet!” after 120 years). For the past several decades, this nontoxic cleaner has been particularly popular among people with chemical sensitivities.
But it’s not accurate to market Bon Ami as a typical “eco” product, because it predates that whole movement. It is “green” in a way your grandmother would recognize—simple and safe, without any mysterious ingredients.
The challenge was to update this cool old brand without killing its authenticity or turning it into historicist kitsch. We tried to do a simple, honest kind of green branding to stand out from the flood of slick, newfangled green products — and hopefully blaze a trail away from the “eco-everything” trap.
We developed lots of ideas for super-green packaging early in the design process, many of which pointed toward types of packaging Bon Ami used way back in the 1800s. So we drew on that heritage to bring out the product’s simple pragmatism. This served as inspiration for all the new design work. Instead of doing a period vernacular, we aimed for a sense of timelessness — at home in a contemporary setting, but not too precious or trendy. We thought Bon Ami’s type of sustainability could be relevant for old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural.
The design we settled on celebrates the low-tech spiral-wound paper canister Bon Ami has come in for decades. We tried out many state-of-the-eco-art alternatives, and ultimately decided not to change the structure. Spiral winding is cheap, efficient, easy to recycle and uses a high percentage of post-consumer fiber. But as a designer, you have to deal with this annoying diagonal seam across half of your package. Most labels end up with crazy triangular text blocks to avoid the seam. Instead, we decided to embrace the spiral…so we simply rotated everything 40 degrees. It turns out this is radical rule breaking in the spiral world. It took four conference calls, several 6-ft.-long mockups of uncut tubes, and a step-by-step photographic guide to convince everyone our files weren’t screwed up.
The tilted type and big spiral banner carried over to new liquid products, which are packaged in 100% post-consumer recycled PET. That’s pretty much the greenest plastic package you can buy these days, but it tends to look smoky. We considered adding colorants to mask the smokiness, but it costs extra and reduces recyclability. So we decided to take a low-tech approach: tell the truth. We added a message to the label, “Find out why our bottles are smoky,” with a link to a website. There you can find a description of our decision-making process along with the question: “Does it really matter if the bottles have blemishes? The quick answer: Of course not! We figured our customers wouldn’t mind, particularly if a few blemishes on the bottles meant fewer blemishes in nature. We now look at these bottles and rather like the imperfections.” I think that’s a line my grandmother would have liked.
So what can the old chick with the French name teach us about the future of green design? It reminded me that the road to sustainability is not just about plug-in hybrids, photovoltaics and biopolymers. It is also about rediscovering simple solutions that previous generations discarded in the insatiable search for the new. One of our jobs as designers is to uncover these heirloom solutions and teach people to cherish them again.
This article is the first in our continuing series called Green Loop. In the months to come, Green Loop will feature the leading voices in sustainable design, discussing innovative approaches to responsible print, production and lifestyle decisions.