As the chief design officer at Johnson & Johnson’s Global Strategic Design Office, Chris Hacker is ambitiously pursuing a plan to make sustainable design a company norm. The innovations he’s shepherded during his five-year tenure include removing the paperboard box from Tylenol packaging, sourcing sustainably managed wood for Band-Aid boxes, and working with an impoverished Brazilian community to recycle plastic. Hacker extends this mission beyond the halls of J&J by regularly presenting to groups of designers and students advice on how to craft work that’s better for the planet.
Can you discuss the ways you’ve refined your approach and understanding of sustainability over time? It’s always a journey, and there are always changes in the road as you go, because technology gets better, or something happens and you learn that something is not as good as you thought it was. Having a single-minded approach is probably not the right way to think about sustainability. It has to be thought about as an evolving idea.
At Aveda, the logic was very much structured around a single company with a mission that was about sustainability, which gave us much more ease and permission to do what we needed to do. Johnson & Johnson is a very good and well-intentioned company in the realm of sustainability, but because it’s made up of 250 companies and 20,000 people, the complications of sustainability are more difficult. But it’s worth doing. The reason that I joined J&J was because I felt that those of us who are engaged in sustainability need to work in the places where we can do the good work in a larger way to make a bigger difference. We need to work inside companies like J&J to do things more sustainably.
How would you define sustainability? We as designers make stuff. And sustainability is about making that stuff as light on the planet as we can. It’s as simple as that, frankly.
You’ve been giving a presentation about your sustainability work to audiences of designers. What are your goals for this?Designers are at the heart of how things get produced in our world, and are key to the process of making things. My mission is to get people to think about sustainability as a part of their day-to-day life. Because the reality is that if you think about sustainability in the process of your design work, it doesn’t necessarily cost more. And in my experience, it actually drives creativity. In the work we do, we’ve actually done better design work because we approached it in this way, in terms of thinking of sustainable materials or sustainable processes, and it took us in a direction that we wouldn’t have gone—it almost always takes us in a better design direction. I do the presentation to designers to be provocative to the design world, to get people to think about the work they do in a different way.
And some of these choices can actually save money. Yes. We did the Splenda box where we removed literally a half-inch of paper on the opening flap—and that saved 90 tons of paper and $700,000. It’s a half-inch less of paper, and it’s easier for the consumer to open the box, and it’s a better solution. And there are all kinds of those examples.
You’ve spoken about how your design philosophy is to leverage sustainability to create more value for the consumer. Our approach is about making sure that while we’re doing this, we’re also mindful of the end-use experience. We’re not just making sustainable things for the sake of doing sustainable stuff—our real job is to make sure that we’re providing a really great consumer experience for people.
With the new Tylenol packaging, you got rid of the box packaging completely. How do you get your colleagues to agree to this, when the change could be seen as something negative? The inertia is always with how we’ve done it before. We look for the reasoning that will best explain the change to our business partners, by proving the case for why doing it a new way is a good thing. In that particular example, we went straight to our business partners and explained that if we did this we would be making a difference in sustainability and make a better consumer experience and we were going to save them a huge amount of money. We also explained that it displays better in Costco and looks great on shelves because the bottle interlocks. The bottles all stay in place. So we start with the wallet. However, sometimes the wallet’s not the main reasoning—sometimes we have to spend more money to do the right thing.
How about outlandish ideas, like zero waste—how much is that a part of what you’re looking into?The idea of always stretching to the “next” is what we have to do as designers and as people interested and engaged in sustainability. When I started at Aveda, the big deal was making recycled content as high as we could make it. And now, we’re there, which is great—everybody’s doing 50, 60, 80, 90, 100 percent of post-consumer content. What do you do next? Because you’ve got to keep improving.
One conundrum for designers beginning in this arena is what you describe as “so many opportunities, where do I start?” I think that is paralyzing for a lot of designers. They think, “Oh my God, if I do this, I’m going to get into a morass that I can’t get myself out of.” And the reality is that you just have to pick one aspect to focus on and start the journey. That can jar you out of that overwhelmed state. The J&J credo is of enormous use—something you use to explain the importance of sustainability. How can designers working at companies without such a credo make it part of the culture? If you’re working with a team of designers, and you have like-mindedness on this subject, you just do it. Companies come to designers to design things—and we do it in the best way we can. And if we believe in sustainability, we use sustainability as one of our tenets of how we design things—that’s just part of the process. And if it doesn’t cost the company more, or you figure out how to save the company money, that’s a good thing. In companies where it’s less obvious, think how you can do it and try to convince people. It’s about bringing your colleagues and boss along in this transformation: pointing out how other companies do things in a good way, saying, “We ought to be doing that, too.” People who believe in it have to be advocates for other folks who don’t have the easy ability to get there because their company doesn’t have a credo. It’s an essential responsibility of being a designer on this planet right now.