The Quiet Revolution: A Sustainable Alternative To Conventional Creative Approaches

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When you think about Adobe, you think Photoshop and Illustrator.

But they invented the PDF. Now, think about that for a second. You've lived with this file type for so long you probably can’t imagine a world without it. More than 73 million PDFs are saved to Google Drive and Mail every day. That number alone avoids the use of 22.7M reams of paper, the harvesting of 2.3M trees, and the emissions equivalent to 57M cars.

Another behind-the-scenes transformation is happening now—with Adobe among others at the forefront of change. It's starting with something as seemingly innocuous as a photoshoot.

Advancements In 3D Software and Other Digital Tools Unlock Alternatives

Flip through the pages of any IKEA catalog, and you’ll probably find some swoon-worthy furniture for your humble abode. But what you might not realize is that a majority of it was computer-generated.

“If you go on to the websites for some very famous brands and look at their products, many of the photos were done digitally,” says Vince Digneo, Adobe head of sustainability. “And what that means to me is that they did not produce emissions from airfare, shipping, any kind of commuting or travel, or lights or catering or food waste or any of these things that go on with a physical photoshoot. It's now virtual.”

“You can save a ton of time, energy, emissions, money—and all these resources—by doing it digitally,” he adds.

3D design is now enabling creative agencies and global brands to be less wasteful, and designing for circularity is a lot easier digitally than physically. You can now create photorealistic 3D assets from scratch using Adobe Dimension. Upload your designs from Illustrator or Photoshop, and then you can use Substance, a 3D material texturing tool that gives the objects you envision the look and feel of the real thing, be it glass, aluminum, or even paper.

“Say you're trying to design some really cool package. Rather than shipping paper, cardboard steel, aluminum, and plastic from China to the US to make a bunch of prototypes that you throw away 99 percent of the time,” says Vince. "You can create a digital version and look at every angle of what you're producing, you can pick the materials from the materials library using Substance 3D, and make it exactly the texture and look you want. You can then make it in 100 different colors." Digital prototypes make it easy to iterate, creating multiple views and variations in minutes vs hours or days.

Always innovating, the design folks at Ben & Jerry’s were intrigued. They quickly pivoted to Dimension as an alternative to traditional photoshoots using 3D assets with photographic backgrounds to create virtual photos for campaigns they are running during the pandemic.

“Ben and Jerry’s found what many companies are finding; that 3D-rendered images are indistinguishable from traditional photos, and they’re far more efficient and actually less expensive to produce,” said Scott Belsky, Adobe’s chief product officer.

“The idea of rapid prototyping digitally in the studio and bringing that to the production process through digital printing and other methods phenomenally cuts down waste,” says Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle, a company that collects hard-to-recycle and non-recyclable waste and turns it into materials that can be reused to make new products.

But there’s more than the environmental benefit (though let’s not undercut that either). “Waste is also equal to cost, right? It will save tremendous amounts of money. It will save tremendous amounts of time. It will allow you to innovate significantly faster and actually try to have the product accomplish what it’s intended to do, which is delight and make someone's life better in some way.”

Once you have those tools, not only is it hard to go back, but it can foster behavioral change, a digital transformation that can eliminate wasteful and conventional design processes.

Taking on CPG Challenges

When you introduce transformative changes at the corporate level, they echo across an organization’s business practices, and that’s a critical milestone when it comes to the circular economy. Plenty of companies want to improve their sustainable bona fides, but they’re worried about being accused of greenwashing. Many even fall into a kind of paralysis with a damned if we do, damned if we don’t mentality.

“You have to achieve it in bite-sized chunks,” Tom says. “At the very beginning, the first step for the organization should be something that they can act on and celebrate within 90 days, which may be as simple as skipping a photoshoot. That gives you a runway to do something that may be a little bigger.”

The same technology that’s disrupting creative processes can also have a big impact on materials and packaging decisions in the CPG world. Enter Loop, a circular economy venture led by TerraCycle. It’s an innovative reuse platform that sells CPG products in reusable packaging that can be cleaned and refilled. Loop also wants to influence product design using refillable containers instead of single-use plastics. The idea is gaining global momentum with big brands, like P&G, Gillette, Unilever, and more. “Loop is the beginning of the end of disposability, making reuse a viable and accessible option for CPGs, retailers, and consumers,” Szaky says.

Loop is also quickly building an ecosystem of agencies and 3D designers, who understand TerraCycle and Loop’s materials standards and can design accordingly so that when the reusable packaging meets its inevitable end, it can still find a way to be used in some other capacity.

For this transformation to take hold, the design has to be better, and the container has to be more innovative and beautiful than what came before. That’s the playbook. It’s not about capitalizing on guilt or shame. “Many times, sustainability is shrouded in some form of sacrifice, right?” Tom asks. “Live in a smaller home, fly less, don't eat meat.” This transformation is about giving people a viable path forward that revolutionizes how we design, how we do business, and even the way we live our lives.

By the time a product makes it to the shelf, so much has gone into it—from R&D, funding and design to sales and distribution—it’s smart business to give it a longer, more valuable life. “When they move the package from being a cost to an asset, you can explode the investment per package significantly,” Szaky notes.

Now designs can be richer, more substantial—made with heavier alloys that feel less disposable. Designers can devote more time and attention to the details, creating goods that are more like lifestyle accessories. Brands can differentiate reusable packaging with styles and shapes not possible with single-use options, catching consumer attention.

“I'd rather play into their desires and get them things that are better and more awesome and just so happen to be more sustainable,” Tom adds.

The biggest changes often happen naturally and because it is the right thing to do. Whether it’s an unexpected need to workaround photoshoots or the looming problem of single-use plastics in CPG, digital transformation is creating a more environmentally friendly future.