Naresh Ramchandani is the co-founder of the environmental non-profit Do The Green Thing, a partner at design firm Pentagram and a practitioner of what he calls “communications with a conscience.” Last week participated in the What Design Can Do conference in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

In 2007, Ramchandani decided to harness the persuasive power of design for the good of the planet, and co-founded Do The Green Thing, an environmental charity that uses playful and provocative means to encourage people to live greener lives.

"How Screen Writers Are Ruining The Planet" campaign
“It’s design that helps to convince us that we need exotic holidays or this year’s shoes or this month’s phone. Equally, deployed well, design can help to convince us that holidays at home are as special as holidays overseas, that last year’s shoes are worth keeping and that last month’s phone is not any worse than this month’s,” says Ramchandani of his initiative. “That’s our manifesto: to use creativity to give sustainable behaviour a fighting chance.”

Today, Do The Green Thing has a network of over 500 creatives around the world who donate their time and talent to help tackle the issues, behaviour and assumptions that are making modern life so damaging to the planet. Next to this, Ramchandani is a journalist for the Guardian.

Why Theresa May's Brexit means oh shit poster, by Craig Oldham and Do the Green Thing
What does Do The Green Thing Do?

We are small team and we look for issues and scout culture. We research companies, industries, institutions and even traditions that make it hard for individuals to be sustainable on a daily basis. Then we question and challenge them in a way that gives people the inspiration to get past them. Mostly we make films and posters, but also other materials to raise awareness.

Charlie vs the World campaign
Charlie vs the World campaign
Can you give a good example?

We follow big current issues like the UK elections. We usually handle it by deconstructing the bigger situation through certain issues and give people the inspiration to get through it and to make desirable choices.

But also things like the cosmetics industry, which is entirely unsustainable. Big brands make loads of new products every year yet people do not finish what they already have. It is as bad as fast fashion. Plus, the ingredients are rarely well-sourced and the packaging is not great. It is the usual mess.

We communicate this with our subscribers in the hope of giving them the optimism to avoid bad behavior. And not just by moaning about it, but by pointing to better brands that are doing it well. It is really about helping the public to resist good marketing.

So it is creativity versus climate change?

Yes. And we only work with the very best creatives because only brilliant will work. Our reach is tens of millions because we ask the creative and the subscribers to help us to increase the reach.

And what role does design play in all this?

I think we are thinking about design with design. But also we are questioning rather than criticizing. Our only enemy is over-consumption. But to make a change we need to look at all the factors that lead to it.

Great innovation, design and communication are the key ingredients to making new products and services and marketing them. It is great for the entrepreneurs behind them, but less good for the environment. We understand this but not everybody shares the same agenda.

How do you approach creatives then to get involved?

We just ask. A lot of designers believe in the cause and they relish the opportunity to create a counter-spell, as I like to call it. They like the idea of convincing people that consumption really does not make them happy despite what the marketing tells them.

But how can that really sit evenly within contemporary society?

We are not extremists. We get that people have emotions. We are not activists, we are moderates. I think it is also about understanding people and their pleasures. I really do believe you can have a bit less and enjoy it a bit more. But we are not really taught this and eventually the bad habit to always want more becomes habit.

So really you are saying please consume more thoughtfully?

Yes, basically. It sounds simple, but changing behaviour is not simple. We just like to suggest alternatives and to ask gentle questions.

Knee jerk cynicism begs me to ask is a cool poster design for a devastating issue too superficial?

No. Of course it can be said. But at the core of all our designs is an attempt to change behavior. We are all so ingrained with unsustainable behavior and how do we teach or change an alternative?

But what difference can designing a message really make?

I think the problem is that most mainstream messages we receive are deliberately designed to make us think there are no alternatives, that nothing can be done about the broader situation. They create a culture of dissonance.

Do The Green Thing messages are designed to hit and make people think, and even realize that there is a different way.

This matters because although the problems we are facing are huge, the solutions do not have to be so onerous.

Communicating solutions is a hard task though. There is a lot of it out there. It’s either boring or confusing. Do you guys consider that?

Of course. I think the core is trying to reveal how sustainable behavior can be as charismatic and desirable as the lifestyles portrayed in advertising.

But can it?

I think that is a question of design.

But again then we come back to the issue of superficiality. If it is designed to make it look cool and attractive where does that leave the issue?

Of course the issue might end up coming across as lighter than it is, but if better behavior results from effective communication, then I do not see a problem.

At What Design Can Do there is an expert climate panel interjecting throughout. Were you concerned about what they might make of your work?

Of course. I expected them to ask hard questions on the issue of whether a poster is too superficial.

But my answer was that there is a big marketing problem around sustainable behavior and the people on the Do The Green Thing team are marketing experts. They know their stuff. They know how to make expensive cars sell, which isn’t easy. So why not employ those skills to make sustainable behavior also sell.

Design is a very strong thing and when design and communication come together it can be like a tiger.

So let’s talk about the actual graphic design then.

We are always thinking about the importance of how something is visually manifested and how it connects with an audience. Obviously this is extremely important. Because when the two come together, the product, the service or the cause gets the best possible chance.

Sure, but do you have any particular position on how your messages should be communicated?

Visual design is about being. It is saying with unarticulated thoughts and ideas. Sometimes you just need to say it. Directly. Generally that is the job of words and why they were invented.

So impact comes from visuals and words?

Yes. But the way I see it, words are something to be designed. They are crafted and chosen. They have to have the right rhythm, emotion and psychology. Words connect with people and change how they think. It can be very immediate.

Tell me about your anti-Christmas campaign? Wasn’t it a bit of a kill-joy?

That was one of my favourites. We asked Pete Fowler to design a poster about Santa and why he must die.

I thought you said you weren’t an extremist?

But Christmas is such an extreme situation. The glutton, the over-consumption. It is competitive, guilty and selfish.

And is Pentagram OK with all this?

Yes they support it. A lot of partners contribute. I said from the start that this was my thing.

Tell me about some more of your favourite campaigns.

“Women against bath bombs” was a good one. Also “Glove Love” that collected odd gloves, washed and matched them and resold them in London for five pounds. Also the “Charlie vesus the World” campaign was successful. About the carbon cost of a recreational cocaine habit.

I like the modest ambitions. You set the information free and hope that people act on it.

Yes. It is about interrupting the spell of design and marketing.

So it is also about what design can do. You presented on an appropriate platform then.

We got ourselves into a horrible mess. Design tapped into our aspirations. I think if it could do that then it can also help to solve it.

"Anti-Christmas" campaign
"Glove Love" campaign