Green, by the bottle

If Wayne Hemingway says that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are genuine in their efforts towards making serious sustainability statements, it’s good enough for me, says Aidan Walker

It all started at a conference I was attending recently which had, ostensibly, nothing whatsoever to do with contract interior design. The design connection was arguably there, though a thin one; it was about what has become known as ‘content marketing’, which is a new way of saying ‘customer publishing’, which itself is a (reasonably) new way of saying ‘contract publishing’. Which describes the kind of publishing done on behalf of other companies who are publishers. Jaguar, Audi, Virgin Airlines, BA, Easyjet, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose – they and many more have, or had, their own ‘in-house’ magazines to address their customers and keep them in touch with what the brand is doing, underpinning their brand loyalty. That’s all changed, of course, with the explosion of digital publishing – one of whose immediate and highly visible consequences is that there is now no such thing as a company that is not a publisher.

Which means that all the activities, issues and subtleties of mass communication, or at least ‘batch communication’, to a particular market or segment are now the concern of pretty much any company you care to name. Of course they’ve advertised since advertising was invented and most of them have used these ‘customer magazines’ as well; but in the world of interactive, ‘content-rich’ websites, iPad or tablet apps, Twitter and Facebook, every company now needs to address its market directly in a way which only publishers used to do.

Perversely, this has led us to a world where the ‘non-publishing’ companies are often doing that communication job in smarter and more effective ways than publishers. Certainly if you’ve a brand to talk about you can tell your own story using a variety of compelling and engaging techniques, whereas traditionally publishing companies have not been brands with a message – they have carried the message for brands.

So here I am at this conference, and up stands Sarah Tuke, head of media relations at Coca-Cola GB and Europe. No small job. Her presentation is called ‘Collaborative storytelling’, and it is all about the way Coca-Cola has used social engagement and social media to promote its ‘plant bottle’, made of 22.5 per cent plastic from plant sources, and 25 per cent recycled material. It’s 100 per cent recyclable in itself.

I’m impressed but slightly cynical. This is one of the world’s biggest corporations, and it clearly has to pay lip service to the green agenda while it continues to pump out the sugar/sugar substitute-laden fizz in the mindboggling quantities that sell round the world every day. I sit up and take real notice, however when we get to a slide which shows a plastic umbrella, made entirely from recycled plastic bottles (some of which are the plant bottle) and designed by none other than Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway.

Wayne Hemingway, the scourge of corporate pomp and puffery, working with Coca-Cola? What’s going on?And in the resulting conversation with Wayne, I discover some very good reasons to be cautiously cheerful about the current state of sustainability thinking in corporateland, because if Hemingway can be cheerful, not to say enthusiastic about it, then so can I.

One of my first memories of Hemingway is when I asked him to help judge the FX Awards half a generation ago. His reputation then was based more on his joint creation with Gerardine of the Red or Dead fashion label than his activity in interior design and architecture, which was just beginning to gain attention. More than 10 years ago, he was vocal and insistent on the value of recycling and reusing– or, to put it another way, the one on which he and Gerardine had based their original business – secondhand. He was at pains to explain to the FX Awards panel how he wasn’t wearing anything new (he didn’t go into the underwear section). The only thing you could have been absolutely certain was entirely new on or about his person was his Nokia Navigator, a long-forgotten forerunner of today’s smart phones.

Hemingway is an innovator par excellence, but with a very strong belief in reusing just about everything, and a horror of waste, much of which he likes to attribute to his humble Northern upbringing. His nan made soap in a jar by pressing all the little old unusable bits together, his dad shredded old newspapers to protect his strawberries, that kind of thing. So, who better for a global corporation to engage for a bit of promotional design than the man who has made ‘vintage’ into an eco-virtue?

The $64,000 question comes first. So, Wayne, are these people just greenwashing, or are they sincere? I have as much pleasure in quoting him as he clearly does in saying it: ‘Hand on heart I can say, beyond my wildest dreams, there is no hint at all of them doing it just for the PR or to pay lip service.

‘I have a reputation for being anticorporate, and we aren’t afraid to pull away from a project if it isn’t going right, the way we think it should. They mean it because it makes sense. It’s a direct cost saving but also, in the long term, they know that this is what they should be doing,’ he says. ‘They’re a dream to work with, because we push them, and they like being pushed.’

It so happens that the Hemingways are also working with another one of those corporates whose massive global output of comestibles has attracted a certain amount of negative attention. What goes with a Coke? Yes, a McDonald’s. Turns out McDonald’s throws away its staff’s uniforms regularly – something like every 10 weeks – and it came to the Hemingways for design, and to a fabric upcycling company called Worn Again, to help create a ‘closed loop’ manufacturing system for their uniforms.

‘Uniforms are collected in restaurants,’ says the company’s website, ‘reprocessed into raw materials, and made back into uniforms again as part of a “closed loop” system. The entire process will take place in phases over the oncoming years. McDonald’s is the first company in the UK to commit to developing a closed-loop uniform.’

‘The collaboration with McDonald’s fits with what we stand for,’ says Hemingway. ‘Great design that goes hand in hand with long-term sustainability. This is a bold commitment from McDonald’s, and one that we are delighted to be part of.

‘But as well as being a move towards sustainability, these clothes need to feel fabulous to wear. The next few months are going to be busy, as we work on creating a young and fresh look for McDonald’s employees, to be unveiled in time for the London Games.’ Aha! In time for the Olympics. Are the Coca-Colas and McDonaldses making good use of that sustainable bandwagon to promote their green side to a generation of suspicious consumers?

But if, as Hemingway says, the moves and the intent are genuine, then I for one applaud them. Arguably, very few things on earth have the power of global brands like these, which is where that collaborative storytelling of which we spoke earlier comes in. And if their sustainability message is sincere, their influence in that direction is incalculable.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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