Building brand loyalty with eco-design

When it feels like the world is barrelling toward disaster, some brands use design to show compassion and responsibility. Done right, an eco-aesthetic earns lasting trust.

When it feels like the world is barrelling toward disaster, some brands use design to show compassion and responsibility. Done right, an eco-aesthetic earns lasting trust.

Gradually, then suddenly

It started with the straw. Seemingly overnight, chain restaurants, bars, fast food joints and cafeterias collectively dropped the ubiquitous plastic straw used for so many decades before.

Corporate bans from the likes of Starbucks and American Airlines were joined by municipal bans. California became the first state to ban plastic straws entirely in 2019.

The tidal shift in regulations was mostly driven by consumers themselves. As a society we want to save sea turtles and other marine life. We reject plastic straws because they’re harmful. Now it’s on brands to design an effective, sustainable alternative.

Thousands of companies jumped at the chance to market a substitute to the plastic straw. Other materials include metal, plastic, bamboo, glass, paper, silicon—and a quick search for any of these materials will yield thousands of results. The alternative straw market is now a competitive space. The challenge? To stand out, these companies must show not only that their products are effective, but also that they are sustainable and the safest for the planet.

Challenge, then opportunity

In some ways, the alternative straw industry is comparable to the emerging face mask industry. Consumers want to purchase masks to participate in our collective well-being. Brands must offer a product that balances efficacy with design, utility with aesthetics. We want to trust what we buy.

Mask design doesn’t carry the same burden of sustainability that the plastic straw does, to be sure. But the similarity is the undercurrent of feeling like our purchasing choices aren’t just our own; they belong to the planet. Our decisions as consumers can save or sabotage the world.

Cost, then savings

Did you know that using an outlined logo instead of a filled logo can reduce ink by 35 percent or more, which can save millions of dollars per year?

Eco-friendly design doesn’t have to be a burden on the company. Some models, which ask consumers to send back their packaging for sterilization and re-use, save on the cost of production. In some cases, an innovative package is more sustainable and still catches the consumer’s eye. Think of Boxed Water, the brand that uses carton-style packaging for spring water. The company’s stark branding stands out—even though the clarity and purity of the water is hidden.

graphic displaying ink use across differing logos and how brand recognition generally does not diminish with less link
Source: MentalFloss

Humility, then trust

At Stiff, we often say that earning trust relies on the right balance of four qualities: conviction, empathy, intelligence and humility. These qualities emerge through writing and speaking, and certain rhetorical devices can increase or decrease the level of each. The key to persuasion? Let these characteristics emerge in perfect measure through subtle choices in language and delivery.

These character traits show in design, too. An unbranded paper shopping bag at your local grocer? Humility. A heavily branded re-usable canvas bag for sale at the till? Conviction. Design choices send messages to consumers about whether they can trust the company, and trust is the most important characteristic you can have to earn customer loyalty.

Here are four ways to show characteristics of influence through eco-friendly design:


  • Follow standards for recyclable material and label packaging as such. This is table stakes.
  • Go digital. Your mailing list and customer correspondence should be email-based as much as possible.
  • Reduce ink. Outlined versus filled logos can save millions of dollars per year.
  • Do your research. Ensure your practices are based on sound science.


  • Keep your design accessible no matter what. Follow standards for readability and colour use. Even sustainable products are no good if they aren’t inclusive.
  • Share your company’s rationale for eco-friendly design. Maybe it’s a quick social media post or a longer web page. Explain how your company values drive your design.
  • Make participation simple. If you ask consumers to mail back packaging, include postage. Know that small costs can still be prohibitive for many people.


  • Proud of an eco-friendly design initiative? Explain the benefits with a small (recyclable) insert or a page on your website.
  • Certain practices will come in and out of fashion. Hold fast to your strategy until research prompts a change. Otherwise, you risk coming across as insincere.
  • Consider adding testimonials to packaging, such as “What customers are saying.”


  • Keep the environmental or social objective top of mind, rather than brand optics.
  • Angling for media? Be careful not to come off as self-congratulatory.
  • Keep learning and be prepared to change when standards change (à la the drinking straw).