… without greenwashing! 

 It can be done. It is not always easy, especially because sustainability progress can be slow and inconsistent despite our growing realisation of the impact of our unsustainable ways on the planet and the understanding of our moral obligation to make better choices. But sustainability in signage and wayfinding, an industry that tends to be set in its ways, is easier said than done. Since the big switch from neon to fluorescent and then to LED, signage has remained the same for the last ten to 15 years.  

Photo: Cooperative DELA will replace its signage and signage at the beginning of 2024 using more sustainable materials.

What is sustainability in branding? 

Oxford defines ‘sustainable’ as ‘capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level’ and ‘the use of natural products and energy in a way that does not harm the environment.’ However, it is often misinterpreted as durability. While durable materials can be sustainable, requiring less replacement and thus producing less waste, they are not automatically eco-friendly. 

Take basalt, for example. While there is no question about its durability, both processing and transporting basalt are damaging to the environment. This raises questions about greenwashing, as the environmental impact of producing them may outweigh their longevity, especially since signage does not need to last 90 years. How, then, can we make more objectively sustainable choices? Thankfully, we now have tools to help us with that.  

"How can we make more objectively sustainable choices?

LCA and ECI 

The Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is an internationally recognised scientific method for quantifying environmental performance – from the extraction of raw materials to their recycling.  There’s also the Environmental Cost Indicator (ECI; in Dutch: Milieukostenindicator or MKI), which is used alongside the LCA. The ECI, expressed in euros, is a weighted average of all relevant potential environmental impacts throughout the entire life cycle of a product or project. Because it is impossible to accurately express the environmental impact in monetary terms, the ECI is an estimate based on the maximum cost of preventing the environmental burden – or the shadow price. You then add these shadow costs to the actual cost of the material to quantify the sustainability of a material. The lower the ECI, the better. 

Here’s a sample calculation for a traffic sign to illustrate: 

sustainable signage

While these are notional amounts, they can realistically demonstrate how supposedly sustainable alternatives can end up requiring a larger investment. 

CO2 eq

For signage and wayfinding, the CO2 equivalent (CO2 eq or CO2 eq) offers a better yardstick, even though it is only one of the eleven environmental impacts calculated for the LCA and ECI. It is now a globally accepted metric, and you can expect your supplier to be able to provide this information. 

Here’s a brief explanation: 1 kilogram of CO2 equivalent has a greenhouse effect equivalent to 1 kilogram of CO2. In addition to carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases are included in a ratio determined by the Global Warming Potential (GWP). For example, 1 kilogram of methane proportionally yields 28 kg of CO2, and sulphur hexafluoride, a potent greenhouse gas, produces 23,500 kilograms of CO2.

sustainable signage

Please note that these figures are specific to the supplier/manufacturer, and the ACM is also dependent on the material between the aluminium sheets. You can see in the example above that virgin acrylic scores significantly worse (and therefore more environmentally damaging) than the recycled variant. The scores get even worse if you factor in the source of the material, as transporting them will definitely add to the environmental burden.  

Calculating the degree of environmental impact in a comparable unit, such as the ECI and CO2 equivalent, provides objective insight when choosing a new material. This makes it, in principle, more objectively sustainable and thus greenwashing-proof. I say ‘in principle’ because it still requires transparent insight into the entire chain, which can be challenging. 

Steering towards the lowest possible carbon footprint  

The calculation units mentioned above give you an instrument to choose from. That’s great – but what if those figures aren’t immediately available?  

There are a few simple principles that already allow you to steer towards the lowest possible CO2 footprint when purchasing signage and wayfinding, even in the absence of these figures. Here are the most important ones:

  • Use recycled materials (because the extraction and production of virgin materials are often the most damaging factors in the entire process)  
  • Use alternative materials that use little/less water, energy, limited raw materials, and land (think of bamboo signs instead of the traditional steel or aluminium versions) 
  • Consider where the raw materials are extracted and produced (every kilometre of transport leaves a footprint; the farther the source, the greater the footprint) 
  • Reduce the amount of material where possible (because every gram less means a smaller footprint) 
  • Choose materials with a low/lower specific weight (because transporting lighter materials results in less emission)
  • Consider the available options for the end of the materials’ lifecycle (because not all materials are infinitely recyclable, and some disposal options are greener than others).

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A practical step-by-step plan for brand, marketing and communication managers.


Circularity and sustainable branding 

A completely different approach to sustainability in branding is to increase the circularity of products and their components, which reduces the need to mine raw materials. When we think of circularity, we usually think of recycling because this is ingrained in our daily lives, but there are more and better forms. 

Jacqueline Cramer’s 10R model can clarify this. The greener it is on the ladder, the better for the planet. VIM Group has adapted Cramer’s model for signage and wayfinding 

Ten steps to sustainable branding  

You have the intention to contribute better to the planet – now what? Where do you begin? And how much time do you actually have to make a better choice if there is a rebranding or brand change on the horizon? Here are the ten steps you can take in making more sustainable branding choices: 

  1. Set a road map for your sustainable branding goals if your organisation does not already have them 
  2. Translate those goals into requirements regarding signage and wayfinding in addition to the technical specifications and design  
  3. Determine the assessment criteria that are relevant to you:
    • how do you measure possible solutions? [in addition to the yardstick of ‘(extra) investment’ and ‘suitable for visual appearance/design’] 
    • how do you weigh them against each other?
  4. Conduct desk research in looking for possible fitting materials/products 
  5. Narrow down your long list of possibilities 
  6. Research extensively on your shortlist of suppliers, producers, and other players further down the supply chain 
  7. Have prototypes made to find their actual applicability 
  8. Let potential suppliers bid (you can combine this with the step above) 
  9. Make the comparison objectively visible 
  10. Choose the right supplier and accompanying plan

"Where do you begin? And how much time do you actually have to make a better choice if there is a rebranding or brand change on the horizon?"

Get the right expertise on board  

These ten steps are relatively simple, but some technical knowledge is needed for several of them. And I’m not only talking about having material and construction know-how. You must also align your sustainability goals with design (desired brand experience) and (available) budget. Add to that the fact that sustainability in signage and wayfinding is relatively new and largely unexplored. That is why you must also be persistent in asking the right questions and finding the right people – even if it means going deep into the supply chain. Not many organisations have this expertise internally. That is why we support many of our clients with such issues. 

Signage or wayfinding rarely consists of one type of material, making it even more complex. It is impossible to measure their sustainability as separate parts. Think of: 

  • the after-treatment to prevent rust (the various techniques all show varying scores in terms of environmental impact)  
  • the application of foils and coatings (PVC, PVC-free, bio-based, etc., with different scores in terms of environmental impact)  
  • add-ons such as lighting, foundations, and fasteners 

It is crucial to look at the sustainability of signages and wayfinding in their totality. For example, you can have a product that scores beautifully on the sustainability criteria, but if the dimensions lead to a lot of waste during construction, then maybe a lower-scoring alternative would be the better choice  

Is sustainability expensive?  

Sustainability can indeed be expensive; in many cases, you may have to cough up a significant initial investment. But there are also examples where the sustainable choice costs less (which may or may not be from the perspective of depreciation – CAPEX). And hopefully, as sustainable innovations advance, more affordable options may eventually become available. 

If your organisation values CSR highly, then ECI scores are beneficial because you can quantify it in terms of actual cost price (purchase price + ECI). This makes your sustainability investments transparent, which, in turn, will also look great for the (social) annual report. 

In conclusion 

When it comes to sustainable signage and wayfinding, we are sadly not there yet. We are still on a fascinating journey of discovery – and a much-needed one at that. Comments, input, and beautiful examples from the readers of this blog post are more than welcome. Let us, as an industry, kickstart the movement towards sustainability. We have a lot of catching up to do, and every step helps! 

Are you interested in sustainable branding, and would you like to discuss this further? I am happy to help. Feel free to contact me at bert.wolters@vim-group.com or 06 21 24 67 30.