It’s been 18 years since I embarked on my career in the advertising industry as a proud, freshly-pressed Communications Design graduate. My first agency job was on the Gold Coast, a hotspot for surfers and ocean-lovers, executing beautiful designs and advertising campaigns. Lunch breaks on the beach, weekends in the ocean… Such an idyllic start to my career! But despite the golden veneer, I’ve felt a disconnect between my career and my sense of purpose ever since my career began. It’s a feeling I’ve had to navigate on instinct and more recently through self-reflection.

The Great Barrier Reef was my playground.

I’ve spent most of my life in tropical North Queensland, Australia, with the Great Barrier Reef as my playground. As a scuba diver, I’ve experienced the most spectacular underwater worlds — from grappling boulders as hundreds of hammerheads glide overhead in the currents of the Galapagos Islands, to peacefully floating mid-water in the centre of massive barracuda school in Sipadan, Malaysia. I’ve also dove in some of the most disgusting and polluted too – including the very port to Sipadan.

Waste collected in a single beach clean-up campaign with Utila Dive Centre, Utila, Honduras, 2011.

Having an underwater panic attack in Semporna while trying to navigate through more plastic waste than sea life is an experience I’ll never forget.

It’s that horrible memory being tangled in garbage bags in those murky waters that spurred me to action. My vacations changed to include on-shore and underwater clean-ups (including two local clean-ups last year in the St Lawrence River). Consistently, the waste we collected is the same I swam through in Semporna: bottles, snack-packs, chip packets, candy wrappers… waste that designers — like myself — helped large corporations design and promote.

Consistently, the waste we collected is the same that designers — like myself — helped large corporations design and promote.

Why am I in an industry that so directly grates against my principles and destroys the environments that I love?

It would be easy to turn a blind eye and continue with business as usual. But once I realised I was part of the problem I started asking myself harder questions: “How can I deal with the dichotomy of my principles and my career choice?” “Should I leave this industry and start over in a less harmful one?” and “Can I become a positive influence within my industry?”

To reduce the waste downstream, I needed to control the waste upstream. So I became a Sustainable Designer.

My carbon offset site in Hartley, South Australia, 2008.

In 2008, I became one of Australia’s first sustainable designers. My business went carbon-neutral, I worked with eco-friendly suppliers, and educated my clients on more sustainable advertising options.

I also became a Sustainability Educator for the design community through the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA). We produced green guides and held talks on the issue and the alternatives we have available to us. From there, we became more informed to make more sustainable recommendations for our clients and consumers.

The world is waking up too.

Slowly, the world is catching on that we produce a lot of waste. Putting our waste out for collection every week doesn’t magically solve our problem either. Everything we produce has either an ongoing positive or negative impact on the environment – mostly the latter.

Last year, Extinction Rebellion put more pressure worldwide, including protests at the Cannes Lions Awards. Their actions got the attention of Creative Directors of international advertising agencies, reinforcing that the power is in our hands. We are marketing experts with the power to inform and recommend the best solutions to our clients. It’s up to us to inform ourselves on the impact our industry has, and how best to mitigate that impact.

Extinction Rebellion protest against the advertising industry, sparking discussion amongst advertisers and agencies in Cannes, France, 2019.

Communities, cities and entire countries are establishing single-use plastic bans, as well as enforcing stronger regulations on environmental toxins. Companies will eventually have no choice but to comply, which will change how we will design and market products. It’s still up to us to expedite the transition to more sustainable alternatives in the meantime.

Enacting positive change from within the design and advertising industry comes down to three key areas: Sustainable Print, Sustainable Digital and Sustainable Practice.

These three areas cover common touch points we encounter every day, from carefully chosen printing techniques, tree-shaking web code, to how we use our digital tools and devices.

I will take a deep-dive into each area over the coming weeks, with Sustainable Print next. Stay tuned!