The Costs and Benefits of Better Design

The Costs and Benefits of Better Design

Greener by Design 2009

Because most of the costs associated with products and packaging are based on decisions made early on in the design process, designers can make a big impact on an item's initial cost as well as long-term costs to the environment and businesses.

Wendy Jedlicka of Jedlicka Design spoke with GreenBiz Radio about explaining the benefits of green design to clients, countering the idea that green has to carry a premium and making sense of language related to sustainability.

Jedlicka will be speaking at GreenBiz.com's Greener by Design conference May 19-20 in San Francisco.

Jonathan Bardelline: First off, could you tell me a bit about your company, Jedlicka Design, and what services you provide?

Wendy Jedlicka: We're a full service packaging design firm and we provide graphic and structural design for consumer packaging. We also do vendor assessment, vendor management, vendor identification, project management, you know, all the good stuff that goes along with being a packaging designer.

JB: So you're designing the actual packaging and the graphics that go on it.

WJ: Yeah. And multilingual packaging, too.

JB: And how do you bring green and sustainable ideas to your clients?

WJ: Interestingly, at the moment most of my clients are not particularly green ethics companies. I mean, that's not their prime focus and for some of them, it's not even their focus at all. They just like our work.

So how do I bring green to the table? Well, green is - well, that's a fairly simple thing. I mean it's recycled and that sort of stuff, but we're actually a sustainability consultancy, so we look deeper at supply chains. We look at energy use. We look at warehousing and fulfillment. We look at a variety of issues way past green.

JB: How do you bring these issues and topics up to clients? Do they know that these are things you're going to look at going in or do you bring them up during the design process?

WJ: You know, it really depends on the client. If it's a green ethics company, they really want to know about it in the nitty gritty. I mean they want to hear every little detail. If it's not a particularly green ethics company, really what they want to know is what does it mean for them bottom line. How much money will they save or how many more units per will they move or whatever. So the language is a little bit different depending upon which client I'm serving.  

The net result is the same. We do the same stuff basically no matter who we serve. For a soup-to-nuts sustainability-type client, we're going to go the extra mile to make sure that we do a deep supply chain review because that's really what it's about and that's kind of where that eco discount comes from that you asked me about - is that we do dig deeper. So the project might be a little bit bigger than just slap something in a box and call it good.  

JB: And that eco discount, how did that come about? It's interesting in light of the fact that a lot of times green carries a premium, but in this case you're giving a discount for the companies that are going that extra effort to look deeper into their supply chain.

WJ: To be honest with you, the green premium has to do with assigning true cost to things. So let's say we're comparing mass produced factory farming versus organic. In the mass produced factory farming they're not accounting for the actual impacts of fuel or pesticides that are being washed downstream or effects to any of the neighboring fields or whatever, but whereas organic they're accounting for absolutely every bit of impact because they are managing all of that and there's more hand labor or whatever, so that price is reflected in the product.

Now for design - I get kinda tired of people saying, "If it's green it has to be more expensive." It doesn't, actually, and I want to have clients that are willing to look deeper.  

So that may mean a bigger project overall, so I'm willing to give them a break on the hourly that the bid is based on. It ends up being very similar as far as end cost goes, but we end up with a much more robust product at the end and we've looked deeper at the supply chain. And I also take the time with the eco discount to educate them to be a better client.

So if it's a client that really just wants me to come in, slap something in a box and leave, that's fine. You know, we can do that, too. It has no passion for me. I mean, anybody can do that. So for that, I'm gonna bill whatever market rate is.

JB: When you're working with the clients that want to look more at their supply chain, that's a lot different than just saying, “Here's the packaging you need for this product.” Does looking at that supply chain end up changing the approach to that packaging or does it just end up helping the client change other operations?

WJ: It's not an either/or. It can change the package or not. I'm quoted many, many times for saying I can completely make something - not completely - but I can make something incredibly more eco than it was and never actually touch the thing on the store shelf.

And then on the flipside you have companies that've right-sized. You know, it (the packaging) is 100 percent recycled paperboard. It's vegetable-based inks. It's all done with wind power, sourced locally. I mean they've done absolutely everything. Now what? Now what do you do? Well, you have to look at the rest of the supply chain.  

It's really a matter of - you know, they go hand in glove. You can't separate one from the other. It always cracks me up when people are like, “Oh, yeah. Show me all these great eco examples that you've done that are super cutting edge.” And I go, “Here you go.” And they go, “Well, that's just a box.” And it's like, “Yeah, but let me tell you about all the stuff we didn't put in the box and let me tell you about this or this stuff that we did, and let me tell you about what we optimized in the pallet and...” They're like, “Yeah, but it's just a box. It doesn't look eco.”

Well, you know, what is eco? Eco is a system. Green is a box. You know, put recycled on there, put a symbol, paint it green, make it look like bark and you're done. But if you really want to do something eco, if you want to do something that's sustainable, if you want to do something that's the next level, you have to look at the supply chain, and if you take a look at the people that have been doing sustainability as part of their core ethic for quite some time, they are looking at the entirety of the supply chain and I use Aveda as an example all the time.

I mean right on down to the herbs that they source that go into things. They talk to the vendors that are making their packaging. They were some of the early guys to put recycled content for the plastics, for the bottles. They are willing to try things and maybe it don't work out, but I mean they're willing to try it and to really explore what is possible within their supply chain to make it better. They're willing to help vendors become better, which is pretty amazing from a client because usually clients are about, "Do it for me, serve me," but Aveda stepping out early said, “Look, we understand you probably don't know about this stuff. We're willing to take you with us on this journey if you're willing to change.” They were some of the early motivators, especially here in the upper Midwest.

JB: And you mentioned that you've serviced a broad range of clients over the years from your experience. Have you seen a change in the clients on their own being more educated or interested in sustainability issues before they come to you?  

WJ: You know what? Until Wal-Mart threw the gauntlet down, no. Once Wal-Mart said, “You must change now or go away” - they didn't quite say that but essentially it was - they made it clear that they had goals that they wanted to work towards and they really wanted vendors to help them do that. (Before that) I wasn't seeing a whole lot of educated clients coming to me.

So this has actually been a fairly recent thing where I have pre-qualified clients coming to me. More often than not what ends up happening is I have clients that come to me just because they like my work - and actually it's my team's work - and we work through the process. And as part of our value add, we also turn them on to new possibilities to create a better client relationship. And generally speaking, our clients are very loyal because they like that aspect.  

Are they coming to me better educated now? Not necessarily. They are coming to me more motivated. (In the past) I would have to take about 80 percent of the conversation to explain why going to a more sustainable solution set or supply chain or business system is even worth doing because they're like, “Oh, it's that greenie thing, isn't it?” And it's like, “No, no, no. Not a greenie thing. Here, let me put it in words you love - profitability, resource use, efficiency," and start to pull out the words that they're used to hearing and then they're like, “Oh, well, that's what it's about. Well, I didn't know that. Well, why don't they just say that?”

And so the whole language is changing, so as people start to become more comfortable and familiar with the words that are used within sustainability, that part's getting a lot easier. As far as sustainability education goes, there is more and more and for that I am grateful. I mean there's some just key books that have come out over the years that have really helped kind of drive what people are looking for, drive their understanding, help them come to me with at least a more open mind. To be honest with you, that's all I really ask because I'll help you do the rest, but as far as sustainability education goes, systems thinking is not something that's readily taught, and that is actually the core of what we teach at the Sustainable Design Certificate Program at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Essentially we created a program to help create better clients.

JB: Okay. I was gonna ask about that, if you have any advice or recommendations for companies to educate themselves to think about things before they even come to you or some other design firm.

WJ: Generally speaking, when people come to me they already have an idea in their head, okay, and also they come to me pretty late in the process. At least people that are new to packaging will come to me late in the process, unfortunately. The product has already been created or is about to be created. They've spent years and years investing their souls into this thing and then they want to slap it in a box and that's the wrong approach. So then I have to explain to them why slapping it into the box is really not the greatest thing they could have done. 

Essentially what we hope for is they come to us at the beginning of the process, and those who have done packaging for a while or have done product production for a while know you need to really put packaging right up at the beginning of the process along with identifying a market for your product and actually trying to figure out how to make the product in the first place because there's a very well established symbiosis between product and packaging. And if you're going to start to reduce packaging, you need to have a way of maximizing the efficiencies to be found in that symbiosis. Combining the product and package as a team and looking at it as a team is sort of my Shangri-La, so when I start to work with a client that's when I start to get them in their heads and not even talking about green or anything else, start to get that idea in their head.

And then when I then am working with them and they start to see how things could have been more efficient or could have been less costly for them as far as what packaging options would be because they made their thing so fragile, then they start to go, “Oh, okay. Now I'm starting to understand what you're talking about,” and it again comes kind of back to the language thing.

When I talk about symbiosis, that's a biomimicry term. That is the reality of what's going on in the packaging world. You've got a thing. You stick in the box and you've got to get it from point A to point B and you've got to be able to drop it and it's got to be able to vibrated and it's got to be able to do a bunch of other things that are standard requirements of a package and the product has to survive the trip.  

So how do you start to work those components together? The Sam's Club and other warehouse stores actually were some of the first ones to really start to get producers and designers to think about packaging as more of service than as an object, so they start to dematerialize what packaging was about because it used to be you had a pallet, you had a bunch of shipper boxes on top of that, then you wrapped the heck out of that with foil and stretch wrap and it was material on top of material on top of material on top of material and it created an incredible amount of waste. And waste is cost, and cost is a dent in your profitability.  

So how can we then start to essentially deconstruct the materials but still provide the service of what things - of what these things did? And so the warehouse stores were fabulous in that they don't want a bunch of stuff. I mean they literally want to take a forklift, take it off of the truck with the pallets, plump it right in the store and it's done - and you're done. Here you go. So primary packaging started to become the only packaging. Amazon.com's new frustration-free packaging is actually pretty brilliant. Why do you need to have a thing that's packaged to sit on a store shelf and look beautiful when it will never sit on a store shelf, when it goes directly from manufacturer to the consumer? What it needs to do is just have some kind of transport packaging mechanism and then the actual stuff that touches the product is a simple little poly bag.

JB: And you mentioned that along with the warehouse stores that Wal Mart and they're driving this issue into companies and that's leading companies to want to change. What still are some of the barriers that you're running into? Is it mostly just an issue of, like you said, looking at more than just the packaging, looking further into the supply chains?

WJ: Barriers are...we don't use a true cost economic model. There are subsidies that are - hidden subsidies all over the place. There's no reason in the world why something should be able to be shipped halfway around the world and have it be cheaper than something that I make down the street. The reality is we don't pay the true cost for fuel, and so if we actually paid the true cost for gasoline, for extraction of oil, for any of the resources, it would change things pretty darn quickly.

The problems that I'm having, though, is that there are still quite a lot of things that are in that not-true-cost model where if you take a look at stuff that's (trying to be sustainable) - I mean again, like I told you, part of why sustainable products tend to be a bit more pricey is because they are paying the true cost or essentially paying the true for what it takes to make that thing.

So if it's wood from a sustainably harvested forest, it's, to be honest with you, it's quite a bit more of a hassle to go in there and selectively cull trees versus just going in there and wiping out a hillside. I mean there's certainly nothing more efficient than wiping out a hillside and walking away. That's pretty darn easy. Same thing goes for coal extraction, the whole mountain-topping issue. Three guys can do the work of 20 guys by just eliminating a mountaintop. Blow it up. Cart the stuff away. You're done.  

But what are the impacts for that? If you actually had to pay the impact, the literally downstream impact of what those operations have on the communities that they're affecting, the stakeholder communities, then that coal would not be so attractive. It would not be cheap, sort of like burning coal or any other type of fossil fuel. If we actually paid the impact of that burning then it would change the cost of a lot of things.