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The topic / question is quite tricky and possibly the wrong question but...

The M&S example is very good because of who they are and what they mean to the UK consumer. I think it's even more important because they're not some trendy brand for whom green stuff is part of their USP and ultimately part of the positioning. It's also important that they're doing something when really no one knows what the right thing to do is.

If it was me I'd use this quote I found from Porsche on the sustainability section of their website, "more than 60% of all Porsche vehicles ever produced are still on the road today". It's not that I necessarily agree with that, but I think that highlights the complexity of the problem. The fact that 60% of the vehicles are still on the road today, is that a good thing? Would it be better if they didn't make the cars in the first place? How many of the world's laptops are still in use today? iPods anyone?

The country is definitely ready to do something, or at least appear to be doing something. You can't deny that politicians have pushed the issue further up the agenda and you can expect brands to be doing a lot more and soon.

Relevant post from Seth Godin yesterday on how Zero is the New Black http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2007/03/noimpactman_mak.html

It's not much of a thought but watching a Virgin Trains ad espousing the relative greeness of going by train rather than other transport, I was gripped by the notion of bandwagons being jumped on for commercial purposes.

The fact that's everyones branding themselves green runs the danger of engendering indifference amongst some consumers - and worse, when somebody's green credentials are shown to be overstated, the cynicism will ripple.

So I'm with you, less branding, more quiet action becasue quiet action will resonate and lead to changed behaviours. Or is that too idealistic?

WARNING: this is a bit of ramble, and I realise this is not really about brands, but...

Modern industrial design has always been about maximum idea, minimum stuff - more maximum benefit, minimum stuff. Inject the quicksilver of software into the stuff, and hopefully it ratchets that up further. Unfortunately, over the last 20 years, software has become big and crufty too, but a lot of the 'new wave' (sounds cooler and punkier than web2.0, imho) is lightweight, beneficial small-pieces-loosely-joined. It's not green though in itself - in fact technology typically has a godzilla-like eco-footprint what with the rare-earth metals, extensive refinement, potentially environmentally damaging manufacturing processes and embodied-energy necessary to make most things that involve microprocessors - that's before you even get to switch them on... and leave them on... always-on...

but- like most Promethean gifts, i believe information technology is the best way to bootstrap our way out of ecogeddon.

Read Bruce Sterling's "Shaping Things" for a wonderful vision of how 'things that think' - what he calls 'Spimes' could think about how to euthanise themselves responsible or report for re-use duty to those who need them. He says that spimes are 'Data first and foremost, and objects now and again...' - maximum idea, minimum stuff indeed...

Read "mirrorworlds" for David Gelertner's prescient vision of how tools like google earth teamed with data from our environment could give us simulations that help us to reflexively do the right thing - EcoCognoExoSkeletons...

(plug: i wrote a bit on this a while back: http://web.archive.org/web/20051219144628/http://www.blackbeltjones.com/work/?p=9)

read Alice's transcript from Will Wright's demo of Spore at SxSW: he wants to give kids a toy planet, to learn how to run the only real one we have... Just as his Sim City gave us all model cities to play with (and ended up being used by town-planning students and professionals for learning and community outreach activities)

The trail of data that we're generating about ourselves as we live our lives part-digitally is creating a model of ourselves that we can reflect upon, and change our behaviour if we feel it's not sustainable for us (or the planet)

The work done by RED and the Design Council is a great example of neat ways that products, design and service can combine to make us reflect on our behaviours in playful non-orwellian ways.

Don't worry - it's coming back to brands. maybe. i think.

In my post about 'Practical Mirrorworlds' I've used a picture I took years ago in the sydney opera house: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blackbeltjones/1346008/ which is a caption saying "sometimes we draw pictures or make models to help us understand things" - isn't a brand a model that is created by people to understand the promise that a company is making? And don't the guardians of that brand on the company and its proxies inject politics, dreams and values into that model which they believe will be appealing and increasingly sustainable - in both the sense of that appeal over time, which more and more comes to be the same as sustainable in the environmental sense.

And, in Sterling's Spimeworld, couldn't that promise be all that was necessary to understand until you needed the thing?

In the future, Brands should be interactive market-scale toys - models that we can all play with as individuals or communities to understand what we want in terms of things, services, dreams, outcomes before we get them. Spimes will be brands, invoked, instantiated.

Maximum idea, minimum stuff...

Sun mocrosystems took major steps to reduce the energy requirements of their servers years ago. This is now a major point of difference compared with their competitors.

I don't know how they made the decision to invest their R&D in this but it has looked smarter and smarter over the last few years.

I like the idea of betting on the direction of the market - this provides a reason for companies to do more than consumers say they want right now.

By the way - we have two spare tickets for this at The Design Conspiracy HQ. Email ben at thedesignconspiracy dot com. They're free.

I just read that Google offered every single one of their 2000 European employees a new bike (Google-branded of course) so they could cyle to work, instead of travelling by car. They're taking action as well as getting their brand message out there on the streets (literally). I like this because it's a simple and helpful approach, which actually brings the issue home. Maybe by making your employees 'think green' you'll have a greener company?

http://blog.outer-court.com/archive/2007-03-27-n56.html

Why not also shift focus onto the design of experiences? This already happens in a sense - but why not a bit more literally? 'Product as experience' has great potential to offer a different but equally emotional bond to a brand, but without the 'stuff'. The emotional experience is often what matters anyway. Okay - not to forget our rational selves, the experience must have a purpose, a function, but need there be a 'thing' attached to function? There is nothing new here, but as it wasn't flagged up in the comments, thought it might be worth the reminder.

Will there not, one day, (perhaps there already are) experience specialists in every design/comms/ad agency who focus specifically on sensorial, community, one-to-one, engaging, participative experiences? This is not about 'viral' this would possibly become the standard?

Nothing terribly new, sorry if I've managed to just repeat too much of what is already done and dusted.

One more book on the poss. darkseid of maxidea/minstuff tip: 'age of access' by jeremy rifkin
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Age-Access-Hypercapitalism-Paid-Experience/dp/1585420824

stuff in some ways gives you more possibility and licence to hack than idea/experience...

When I worked at TWBA\London, we were approached by the Guardian to create a pretend campaign to change people's minds about the environment. I think we cracked the idea that asking people to do too much or worry about too much creates inertia, but we didn't get the aspiration/status bit (which I love).

http://environment.guardian.co.uk/climatechange/story/0,,1829432,00.html

But the mistake in the first place was thinking that a print ad can make a difference. If company's want to change behaviour, they have to change the way they behave (not just communicate). That has to happen everywhere from product design to distribution to manufacture. I agree with Nicola that Google are probably the best current example of a holistically 'green' brand.

But it's not, you know, easy being green.

Bit late perhaps, but adding 3 simple points that may fit in somewhere:

1. Arguably brands become green because they want to be liked. However this does activate mass consumer change, whereas guerilla or government messaging often causes paralysis. A brand is more tangible. It's positive from negative perhaps.

2. Demand for novelty may be ecologically balanced. Enforced obsolescence of technology should come with a forced donation to the environment. Every time my beloved Apple upgrade the Core2Duo chip or whatever, they should perhaps balance against planting a lot of trees, or something more intelligent. Although hits into your points about complexity big time here. Perhaps share the cost with the consumer as i want better stuff too.

3. As we become more collectively clever, alternative fuel sources and materials will emerge to drive positive change. An unlikely source is the Indy 500 where the cars have all switched over to a corn based Ethanol product. http://tinyurl.com/3bk3zd. Also influential designers like Ross Lovegrove, http://tinyurl.com/2sbvl7, who are exploring and championing alternatives to approach novelty and product. Innovation can inform future demand for novelty and brands can champion this too.

Maximum ideas, minimum stuff seems to be about a move to the functional, utilitarian doesn't it? isn't environmental ethics a utilitarian ethics? and the pros and cons inherent within that [freedom vs future?].

The spime based brand idea mattj mentions is potentially really neat; small concepts that take on a life [from our life data] and then disappear when they're not needed or become redundant.. agile, yet fragile things THAT DO STUFF. but the technology and the data around such spimes are fraught with the same sort of issues around power, access, cost, environmental impact, security and literacy that we have now. grumpy. gloomy. sorry.

Actually, to me, Maximum Ideas, Minimum Stuff is almost the opposite of utilitarian. It's massively, splendidly, trivial. Which might be it's merit.

My thought process is this:

Whatever we do, people will want to buy new stuff. This doesn't matter (to the planet) if we can sell them something which satisfies that urge but doesn't consume any energy (ie. doesn't physically exist).

Services might be an example. Something else might be but I don't know what.

I think the minimal spime object enlivened by data is something else. Something interesting, but something else.

You know how people used to say that drinkers of premium lager were just 'drinking the advertising'. That was probably supposed to be a bad thing. But what if you could get people to just 'consume the advertising' now. That might be a good thing. If they didn't consume any stuff.

It's almost transcendentally frivolous. And therefore probably more likely to be wildly popular than something well-thought through and practical.

Does that make sense?

Just on the indy 500 example, corn based fuel might not be the way forward - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2043724,00.html

I know this is to late but...

a) San Francisco just became the first US city to ban plastic bags. Which company can sieze the intiative in the rest of the world?

b) Do online services have an advantage because they can (potentially) offer a lower carbon footprint and have more control over how a brand is delivered ?

c) Consumption is one likely source of change. But what if we looked at this from an employee aspect - from the impact on recruitment to the fact small employee changes can make a big impact on a company's carbon footprint.

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