Tuesday, June 10, 2008

If I could save Earth in a bottle

This weekend, I went shopping at Target with a couple of friends. Driving back home, I found that the cashier had placed in my bag a little brochure of different merchandise his store deemed environmentally conscious. One ad in particular caught my attention: It was for a new, more “eco-friendly” variety of bottled water, packaged with thinner plastic. By purchasing this product, the ad copy indicated, consumers can create a healthier world, and ultimately save the planet.

This is a very misleading ad. Its ridiculous premise confounds discourse on environmental responsibility, thus enabling destructive behavior. Though the advertisement acknowledges that disposable plastic is bad for the environment, it implies that plastic’s production and consumption in smaller quantities is good. This is paradoxical: by using thinner water bottles you are not saving the planet. You’re still hurting it—just not quite as much.

I don’t want to downplay the value of designs that cut down on waste. To scoff at the innovation of the water bottle would be the same as denouncing hybrid vehicles since they still use gasoline. Both are great examples of transitional technology and design, but neither are the ultimate solutions to our environmental woes. They are buffers and stepping-stones towards real and permanent solutions that give us time to make deeper change.

So when I look at these new water bottles, I see a sound design, but a branding that is reckless in its message. When advertising these transitional technologies, some level of “sexying up” the benefits—a bit of creative license—is understandable; After all, consumers should go with quasi-eco options rather than their more destructive counterparts. But the branding becomes counterproductive when it uses innovative design to encourage the same destructive behavior that the design attempted to moderate. The ultimate goal is not to use better water bottles, nor to merely use less. To actually “save the planet” we’d need to find a way to not use them at all.

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