This post is made possible by Boxed Water. As always, I only take financial support from companies I think are doing good things. Support EcoCult by supporting them! 

Gone are the days of sustainability being synonymous with crunchy granola hippies and hemp (in all of its forms).

Sustainable design, rather, has become the mode de jour, with brands like Reformation, Everlane, sweetgreen and Boxed Water elevating conscious consumerism with design and modern branding.

A report from Harvard Business Review published late last month echoed the same idea, saying “consumers expect more transparency, honesty, and tangible global impact from companies and can choose from a raft of sustainable, competitively priced, high quality products.”

This is good news: there is a want (consumer demand) for sustainable products (yay!). But there’s more bad news: Despite the want for more sustainable stuff, many powerful multinational corporations aren’t making it easy and relying on the one vice most of us can’t shake completely: convenience. It’s the reason, despite documentary upon documentary, the plastic water bottle business still thrives. It’s the reason Zara can have questionable sourcing for both materials and design, and still be remarkably successful. 

Despite this pessimistic reality, we also know consumers are easily seduced. As much as we love convenience, we will go out of our way for pretty things…How did anyone justify this summer’s purchase of a $100 Pegasus pool float? With the right dose of good design and branding, sustainable alternatives have the potential to disrupt market giants. To put it simply: how to make sustainability successful? Follow the equation of cool.

Warby Parker

Start with good design.

One of the best examples of success by design is Warby Parker. From its roots as a socially aware startup with a thing for books, the company has become a household name by way of an accessible story (dudes who love books make affordable glasses) and rebellious marketing tactics (they flashmob-fashion-showed the New York Public Library in 2011). Tim Riley, Director of Online Experience for WP, credits this success to the value of good design above all, especially for socially conscious brands. “It’s not that the social mission is less important – it’s that you have to do the first things in the list before the last one can come true,” he says. “If people don’t buy into your lifestyle brand, you can’t do all the fun stuff.”  

Warby Parker upped indie eyewear from hippie to haute. And while the name is certainly one of the most notable socially conscious companies, other small-scale eyewear brands are getting some of the spotlight (like Krewe du Optic, an independent line out of New Orleans that placed second in the CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund Award last week).

Add authentic aesthetic.

Raw and slightly rebellious positioning does well for sustainable brands. A loud example? Reformation’s punchy taglines. Their last email subject reads YOU’RE NICER WHEN YOU’RE COMFY. Do the caps get my attention? Every. Single. Time. Is the copy true? I’ll let you answer that one.

Then there’s Boxed Water. They’re not as noisy as Reformation, but I’ve been seeing the company’s signature white cartons everywhere. Some might carry it because it’s more eco than plastic water bottles. But I strongly suspect others carry it just because it looks cool.

The idea behind Boxed Water is simple, offer a better option for those days you need a “disposable water container.” We’ve all been there: you get to spin class and forget your S’well bottle. You’re at a music festival and are the rookie sans-Camelbak….as conscious as we might be, we’re not perfect. And imperfect hydrators opt for – you guessed it – convenience.

I like Boxed Water because they keep it real. I mean, I live in New York and most corporate offices don’t even recycle. Boxed Water’s packaging is 74% renewable, and portions of proceeds are circulated back into reforestation efforts. Much better than the Poland Spring flooding my offices’ trash cans. They understand the need for a middle ground and offer a stepping stone for eco-conscious newbies to get on board.

I would be remiss not to mention the appeal of the box itself. It’s not a cardboard bottle, but instead bares striking resemblance to a milk carton. Very cool since, as any millennial would tell you, brash throwbacks are most certainly in. For example, I’m fairly confident I was sporting butterfly clips, stretchy chokers and high waisted jeans all whilst sipping from my personal supply of 2% chocolate milk. My look these days with a Boxed Water is not that far off.


Incorporate modern branding.

We all know that social media allows a brand to have personality.  That’s how a glasses brand can love books, a wool-based shoe brand can be about birds, and a mattress brand can run a sleep research publication. This is super news for sustainability because when consciousness is a part of who you are, it shows. 

A good example is Everlane’s highly evolved Snapchat story. One of the first brands to use the real-time social platform for business, Everlane touts Snapchat as the most “naturally transparent”, and therefore the most well-aligned social media tool. From Transparency Tuesdays, when customers questions are answered, to office anecdotes and worldwide customer takeovers, the channel allows for questions, concerns and celebrations to be discussed in an unrehearsed public forum. Through this form, we see user-generated content is being integral for the sustainability movement because, not despite, the difficulty to control user feedback.

Fortunately for champions of sustainable design, these social media platforms encourage conversation and engagement from consumers. And maybe that’s just how it is for all branding these days: We’ve seen how believing in something – be it a person, politics, or product – all require an authentic dialogue, but also good visuals. As the market for sustainable alternatives grow, brands need to utilize these tools of branding and design to educate and convert the consumer over to sustainability – or else risk driving consumers back into the arms of conventional companies.