“Value” and “mission driven” are favorite words these days as corporations dive into social responsibility—from blocking gun sales to minors to sending eyeglasses to Zimbabwe. As companies (and their marketing teams) tangle with lawmakers and mindful customers, our heads are spinning. So we asked Do the Green Thing founder and Pentagram partner Naresh Ramchandani what he’s learned from running Do the Green Thing.
Do the Green Thing has been turning out whimsical, solutions-oriented posters, music videos, and campaigns by some of the biggest names in the design world for the past 10 years. Now, a decade into the venture, Ramchandani and his art director, Lizzie Reid, reflect on their in-house passion projects and how they direct their marketing and design expertise at global good.
A lot has changed in how we talk about going green in the last ten years. How do you design campaigns for a more eco-literate audience?
NR: You’re right, the conversation has changed in the last 10 years. It’s not quite mainstream news anymore as it was in 2006 and 2007. What individual green action is, and the difference it can make, have become more ingrained, and more subtle. But I also think you’ve got something else going on: You’ve got a younger generation who were born into the problem. How they engage in solutions is much more natural and intuitive.
LR: A good example is Ungifted, which is the Christmas campaign we launched in 2016. It’s an example of how you create a solution to a problem such as over-consumption at Christmas.
NR: Which is a colossal problem.
LR: A huge problem. Ungifted a website where you can give people time at Christmas. You e-mail a friend and say “Instead of buying you this cheap scented candle or socks, I’m going to try and find the best coffee with you in our local area. Or I’m going to go ice skating with you.” The conversations we had when we were coming up with the solution is “How far up in the About [section] is talking about saving the planet?” People are quite clued up already. You need to start talking about the other benefits. It has environmental benefits—stopping wasteful gifts—but it also plays into other benefits that young people are looking for: spending meaningful time with your friends when you’re time-poor.
NR: You can assume that people are literate in the problem. You just mention super quickly that the gifts that we tend to buy thoughtlessly are also thoughtless for the planet. Then get into the positive, imaginative solution. I’m waiting for the world to understand how brilliant Ungifted is.
How do you select your campaign topics?
NR: We look for issues that are big enough and new enough. They need to be an obstruction to stop us being green. We did a thing called Glove Love, which I started when I lost a glove. It was the middle of winter and I’d lost my left glove. I was about to throw the right glove in the bin. In fact, I did throw it in the bin. And then I went to the local park with my children and I saw someone else’s left glove left on the fence. Then on the way back an hour later no one had claimed it. And, I thought “Those two gloves could be wasted or I could put them together into a pair.” From that this idea of Glove Love was born. We went to the London theaters and the London Underground and asked for them to send in any lost lonely gloves. We collected them and washed them. And then added a little tag with the story of where the gloves were found and how they met each other. We sold them for five pounds on our site and got lots of coverage for them because it was seen as a cute idea. It was a nice symbol of how to not waste imaginatively.
Do the issues you take or the industries you question ever put you into conflict with your client work at Pentagram?
NR: A lot of our criticism is about consumerism and our value systems, as opposed to the businesses providing the means of consumption. We will sometimes take issue with particular clients or causes that other [Pentagram] partners may be doing work for. But, we would never criticize Pentagram for doing those things. We’ve never had a Pentagram partner say, “Why have you looked at the car industry in London, or the Christmas consumption glut?” A lot of the Pentagram partners have contributed to Do the Green Thing. That’s humbling and also reassuring that Pentagram doesn’t see Do the Green Thing as a critique, but as an important voice.
What is the relationship between Do the Green Thing and Pentagram?
NR: Do the Green Thing is not a Pentagram product. It’s not a Pentagram initiative. It’s proudly independent. We use Pentagram’s platform to publicize the campaigns and initiatives. Pentagram is my primary focus during the day and, as often as we can, we focus on Do the Green Thing.
Lizzie, you came on in the last couple of years. How did you end up art directing this project?
LR: When I came to work with Naresh, it was a big draw for me that, alongside the commercial work, I got the freedom to work on a project like this, which a great cause that we all believe in and allows you to work with so many different kinds of creative collaborators. Plus, you get a lot more freedom with creative solutions than you do with clients.
LR: Because we approve them ourselves!
Where does funding come from?
NR: We started when the grant and foundation market were very different. We got a couple of small to mid-sized grants and bits of sponsorship. That became harder as the grant world changed, and we became more comfortable operating on favors rather than money. Occasionally, we get the chance to do little bits of creative services work to get a small level of cash flow into Do the Green Thing. It’s important because it means we can give some money to younger and independent creatives. When they’re doing such great work for us, we don’t feel it’s fair to ask them to give their time for nothing.
What advice do you have for companies trying to make Do the Green Thing-type values part of their structure?
NR: Too often, commercial creativity is self-serving for a corporation and their P&L. Creativity needs to understand that potential outcome and try to do the opposite: Put something good into the world. If it can service society or culture as well as service commerce, that equals a different kind of success. The idealism and purity that’s in Do the Green Thing is not isolated. We always try to explore with the organizations we work for ways that they can enrich the society they’re part of.