This interview took place in my role as Head of Sustainability at Seymourpowell.
Chris Sherwin is Head of Sustainability at Seymourpowell, one of the world’s leading design and innovation companies. He’s among the global business leaders and practitioners speaking at Sustainable Brands 15 London,where Greenhouse is a media partner. We sat down with Chris to ask him about his experience and insights on shifting the world to a more sustainable future.
Read on to find out what has been Chris Sherwin’s favourite projects to work on at Seymourpowell, which brand’s sustainability initiatives are impressing him and what advice he would give to people wanting to change norms…
What is your role in your organisation?
I am Seymourpowell’s Head of Sustainability and am basically responsible for building and driving all our sustainability-driven design and innovation work for clients. I joined Seymourpowell three years or so ago, as more and more clients were showing interest in sustainable innovation and in developing new sustainable products and services. Seymourpowell itself was also eager to apply all its brilliant design and innovation skills to some for the worlds more pressing problems. At heart, we’re a creative bunch that really enjoys new human and technical challenges to get our teeth into – and sustainability offers plenty of these!
What have you been working on in the last year that you’re proud of?
We’ve recently finished design work on the new Fairphone 2 handset, which we found incredibly energising. Its not everyday we get a client with such lofty sustainability ambitions; to change the way electronics are made; we needed to be at the top of our game! The new phone has all the ethical sourcing credentials of the first device, and more, but is also now designed to be longer lasting and repairable. We’re also working with Akzonobel, owner of Dulux, and small entrepreneurial company called Newlife Paints to mainstream recycled paint. That will mean taking all the old and unwanted tins you have in your garage and shed (there are 17 tins in the average UK home by the way) which can be reprocessed back into perfectly good, usable paint. It’s fascinating stuff as the market and the process don’t exist yet at scale.
How significant is sustainability in your organisation? I.e. Does it sit in the heart of your business and is central to business transformation?
Part of Seymourpowell’s mission, originally written with the company’s inception 30 years ago, is to create things that are ‘better for the world’. Designing for the greater good has always been a consideration in what we do.
Formalising this into a sustainability offer and employing me is a way to deliver on that promise and step this up to a level that matches the size of the challenge and opportunity. The company is also currently renewing its vision and strategy due to new leadership, and sustainability and ‘design for good’ will also be a fundamental pillar of that too. We’re fully signed up the impact design can have on the world.
What are the big barriers or frustrations you face to achieving change?
Frustration number one is a lack of joined up thinking between sustainability and innovation/design/marketing functions in our clients. We still get a lot of mainstream briefs from clients that don’t feature sustainability at all, from companies that I know have ambitious sustainability goals sitting in another part of the business.
I also don’t think enough brands focus their sustainability efforts on their core product or on innovation. They seem happy to carry on making and selling the same stuff and then to spend their comm’s budget on a flashy ad or social media campaign inviting their customers to change their behavior rather than doing it themselves. It’s a real barrier to sustainable innovation.
How important is communications in pioneering change?
Our approach is to build communications into the design and the product. We tell our FMCG clients, for instace, that the product or packaging is an expression of the brand, and should reflect its values and positioning. As a result, customers should see a sustainable brand leader’s commitment in all aspects across the total proposition: the product, pack, supporting services, not just their ad’s and communications. The best way brands can talk about their sustainability ambitions is through the products and services their customers buy and use.
What brand do you most admire that are doing interesting things in sustainability?
A few of the usual suspects spring to mind but I also really like what Nike is doing on sustainability. They’ve managed to make sustainability seem really aspirational and desirable through concepts like Considered Design, ‘Making‘ and Better World. And rather than a separate pillar in the business, Nike links sustainability to innovation, to make it seem normal and inspirational – see innovations like FlyKnit, water-less dying, recycled polyester fabrics, etc. Like us they’re also design-driven too, having inspiring programs like the Making app to change the way things get designed. Obviously they could do more, but I think they’ve certainly helped up the ante for sustainable brands.
Is there something you’ve read over the last year that has inspired you or contributed to your thinking? I.e. a book, campaign or white paper?
We’ve been massively inspired by Fairphone, who we’ve been lucky enough to work with. They’re really design-driven, and ultimately they try to change the world by delivering a real alternative that takes theory into practice. It’s a fantastic story and really recognizable to us. Inspired by Fairphone, we’re just kicking off our own project, partnering with two manufacturing clients, in which we will apply their ‘fairness’ approach to another everyday product and look to rethink and redesign it from scratch. It helps make sustainability real and understandable for us as designers.
What insight can you share that would be useful to other people wanting to change norms?
I would say start with your product. Rethink and redesign your core product – it’s the most authentic way to show your sustainability leadership and ambitions to the world. It’s also where the real value is in sustainability, as sustainable product and service sales continue to grow. Change the product and the supply chain, production, distribution, new technology, even the business model all fall into place afterwards. We think it’s the ultimate change strategy for sustainable brands.