Reduce your environmental impacts of graphic design

The graphic design industry relies on a number of resources, such as energy, water, paper, inks, solvents and packaging. Designers make decisions that 'lock-in' potential environmental impacts associated with the life cycle of their designs.

Eco design is a way of minimising the impacts of graphic design on the environment.

What are the impacts?

The size, shape, colour, printing style and paper stock choices made by a designer will ultimately determine the size of the ecological footprint.

By making informed decisions, designers can reduce their environmental impact, resulting in less greenhouse gas emissions and a more efficient use of natural resources.


With a shift towards electronic file management and cloud computing, paper products still remain an important commodity in today's society.

The life cycle of paper starts before the felling of trees for pulp – the steel and fuel required for machines comes from other industries that have their own environmental impacts. Once the trees are cut down they're turned into chipping, then transported, pulped, bleached and finally manufactured into paper.

Each of these stages uses valuable resources, and releases pollutants such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and greenhouse gases into the environment.

Inks and solvents

Inks and solvents can contain pollutants and create emissions that contribute to environmental pollution.

Many printing inks and solvents contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to climate change – and once VOCs are emitted and mixed with vehicle exhaust, they can form photochemical smog.

Some inks contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and barium, which can pose major health and environmental risks if they find their way into the natural environment. During printing, waste ink is produced through colour changes, press cleaning and poor ink management.


A significant concern with printers is their emissions to air, water and the solid waste that's produced.

Printing companies who've considered their emissions will have some form of environmental accreditation or management system in place. Be sure to ask about how a printing service deals with their waste, and what measures they take to reduce their air and water emissions before selecting a printing service.

Design for the web

As a web designer, it's important to consider what happens to the design if it's printed. While techniques such as white text on a black background facilitate onscreen reading and reduces a computer's power consumption, it wastes huge amounts of ink when printed. This is also true of web pages that run onto two or more pages when printed and waste paper.

Another key issue with web design and development is the energy required to operate internet and IT servers.

Office energy use

Graphic designers rely on their computers for work. However, computers eat up large amounts of energy and contribute to climate change. Try switching a proportion of your electricity to green power – even if it's only 20 per cent – to reduce your carbon footprint.

Tips for sustainable web and graphic design

There are a number of ways you can design graphics in a way that considers the environment.


  • Do more with less: be innovative in downsizing – go for originality rather than size, whether it's a retro self-folding envelope or tiny business cards.
  • Rightsize it: by optimising rather than oversizing the job, you reduce the demand for paper to be produced.
  • Fill the white up: by reducing the amount of white space in a document, you can reduce the amount of paper needed to produce it.
  • Give it a second life: give your product a second chance at life so that it reduces the possibility of ending up in landfill.
  • Don't bleed to the edges: by simply leaving a white border around your design, you can reduce ink waste and allow for more paper to be recycled.


  • Make it chlorine free: request paper that has been bleached using either Totally Chlorine Free bleaching (TCF), or Process Chlorine Free bleaching (PCF).
  • Look for certification: there are several certifying bodies that provide a tick of approval for paper stock from environmentally friendly sources.
  • Use PC (post-consumer) recycled: choose paper with the highest percentage of recycled content available.
  • Make it thinner: does it have to be on thick heavy-duty card, or can you get away with a lower GSM and still deliver a quality product?

Ink and printing

  • Request VOC-free inks: reducing the demand and choosing VOC-free alternatives can really make a difference to the amount of VOCs emitted.
  • Use an eco friendly printer: ask your printer what they're doing to reduce their environmental impacts – a good printer should be reducing waste.
  • Don't print at all: go digital and use an alternative to printing where possible as this will drastically reduce the environmental impacts of your product.


  • Let them know: communicate your decisions to your clients and encourage them to include the information on their product.
  • Give clients the eco-option: always offer your clients an option that has been designed to reduce impacts.

Graphic and web design sustainability checklist

Use our checklist to make informed decisions to incorporate sustainable practices in your graphic and web design work.

1. Identify key design outcomes in the brief & concept

  • Prioritise the decisions you make in the brief and concept stages of your work – they'll impact on the entire design process and the environmental impacts of the job.
  • Ask your client to identify in the brief the most important to the least important items so you can accommodate these with eco preferences.
  • Provide your client with an eco-design option when responding to a brief.

2. Produce drafts sustainably

  • Consider formatting, aesthetic style and impacts equally – use space efficiently and effectively to minimise resources required.
  • Encourage your designers to design with minimise offcuts and paper waste at the printers.
  • Think about whether you could get the desired visual impact with the least amount of colour and ink – some inks create Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) which contribute to air pollution and climate change.
  • Use 100 percent post-consumer waste recycled paper (PCW) approved by a certifying agency such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
  • Send proofs digitally to clients for editing and approval.
  • Switch equipment off at the wall when not in use.
  • Look for energy-efficient appliances and products for the office.

3. Reduce inefficiencies in printing, post-press and packaging

  • Engage a printing company that's certified or environmentally-conscious.
  • Use low or non-VOC based inks – water, vegetable, soy based and recycled inks have less environmental impacts.
  • Explore the best post-press operations such as using water-based glues for binding and labels to avoid VOCs – many post-press processes, such as laminating and spiral binding prevent finished design jobs from being recycled.
  • Think about ways to minimise packaging.
  • Consider your recycling options.