Trappings

I worked as a designer specializing in green design techniques before I segued into branding.

It was a lot of fun, figuring out how to help companies and individuals ‘greenify’ their work, lowering their carbon footprint and in small ways contributing less to a problem they believed we should be trying to fix.

Of course, that party didn’t last long. Less than a year in, most of my clients were looking to ‘greenwash’ their projects: using special papers and inks to make it look like they’d gone sustainable, when in reality all they’d done was switch to more costly and green-looking butcher-papers with uneven edges. It looked good, sure, but they wanted the trappings of being environmentally friendly without actually being environmentally friendly.

This isn’t a trend limited to the business world.

A pastor once told my good friends Josh and Ryan at The Minimalists that they are better Christians than most of the people in his congregation. It’s not because they ‘spread the good word’ or hold fast to dogma — neither of them is Christian, as far as I know — but because they live in accordance with a set of beliefs, and many of those beliefs run parallel to the things he teaches at his church. They walk the walk, and as a result this pastor saw in them values he has trouble finding in those who call themselves Christian, but don’t live up to the title.

The difference between appropriating a title and actually doing something to earn it is that the former involves wanting to be associated with a group or set of attributes, while the latter is actually making something happen. Being the change you want to see in the world.

There’s nothing wrong with calling yourself something aspirationally; many people don’t put in the work required to publish a book until they start calling themselves a writer. But don’t put on a jumpsuit and decide you’re an astronaut. Better to live your philosophy and allow your beliefs and priorities to be understood through your actions, rather than the bumper stickers on your car.

Update: April 7, 2017

I find myself using a lot of what I learned a brander to explain labels and how insidious (but also sometimes useful) they can be. There’s a lot of modern ‘greenwashing’ that still takes place, though often it’s less about environmental things these days, and more about ‘organic’ or otherwise ‘woke’ about social issues. Very often slanting the conversation in this way is helpful in small ways, regardless, as it shows brands are catering to an audience that cares about such things, and amplifies the message by taking part in that wave. But it also diminishes action in some ways, because people believe they can buy from a particular brand, and that becomes their only contribution.

Pros and cons to everything, and labels, in particular, are powerful tools that can be easily misused.