Sustainability. And the recycling of ideas

In association with Xerox

Issue 57 | December 2020

With the word ‘sustainable’ up there, you probably think I’m going to bang on about how you really can’t blame the print industry for the destruction of the Amazon rainforests. But I’m not. Even though it’s true. We have the beefburger to thank for that. 

Nor am I going to recycle old evidence that spam email is responsible for more greenhouse gassing than all the print companies in the world combined. Even though it is interesting and true.

Nor am I going to urge you to stop using plastic bags when you go shopping and use paper bags instead. Which you should.


I want to talk about sustainability in a different context. In the realm of ideas. If you check the dictionary, to sustain means to bear weight of, support, esp. for long period’ endure, stand; uphold’ substantiate or corroborate.

You want things to last. Like the planet, obvs. But what about democracy? Faith? Truth?

Many of the ideas that sustained human purpose for hundreds, even thousands of years, seem now to be eroding rapidly.

Misinformation, fake news, Rudy Guiliani announcing on behalf of the President of the United States that “the truth isn’t the truth”.

It’s not all Russians and North Koreans out there, deliberately trying to sow discord. Many good people have come to believe falsehoods simply because they aren’t challenged in the (digital) media they consume. The result is we have elected leaders around the world whose motivations and ambitions are far from democratic.

The story I want to tell, then, is that print has been, is and will continue to be the medium by which we can and should sustain our values.

Take love. One of the things that binds families together is photographs. I have my dad’s albums from when he was a boy. I have my great grandmother’s albums. Ireland in the 1880s. I have my own albums. Which stop about 15 years ago when photography became digital. Vint Cerf, an internet pioneer, has been urging his followers to print their pictures before they get buried beneath layers of new technology.

Elsewhere in family life, I am losing the memories of my children growing up. My first videos were shot on tape. Then on MiniDV. And today I can’t watch any of them back unless I spend a small fortune having them transposed. The technology has moved on to MPEG-4 and Quicktime X.

That’s the paradox. Digital is supposed to help us save our memories. Instead, it’s losing them. It’s supposed to allow us to communicate more freely, instead it is imprisoning us in an echo chamber.

Here’s another value that is eroding fast. Love of learning. I’ve been reading about Leonardo da Vinci. Walter Isaacson’s biography is 600 pages long. Wikipedia gives him 24. National Geographic, 6. Scholarly criticism is often reduced to four savage letters: TLDR. Too Long Didn’t Read.

Here are some more letters. OADD. Online Attention Deficit Disorder. Microsoft told us a few years ago that the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. That’s longer than your average millennial, who loses concentration after a mere eight seconds as a result of “the effects of an increasingly digitalised lifestyle on the brain.” What this is endangering is another value. Balance. How can we consider the implications of policy in an election when the arguments are expressed in 140 characters? I’m told, the optimum length of a tweet is even short, 100 characters.

Democracy itself is being undermined by the grotesque simplification of complex issues. We are all being made to see the world in binary terms.

If you are a Republican, you can’t abide a Democrat. If you are a Brexiteer you are a blinkered racist. If you are J.K. Rowling and express the opinion that people who menstruate are called women, you get trolled by the actors and actresses you made rich.

Politics is the endless tides of nuance. Thankfully, the UK still has a functioning independent press. For the most part they don’t lie. At least you read about events with something approximating to the truth. And it’s usually to a length of about 800 words so there is at least the impression of depth.

True, newspapers get thrown away but the stories they tell reappear in books. And that’s how the ideas that inform those stories get to survive and, sometimes, thrive. Take the idea of God. Whatever you think of Him, He is a big idea. We know He was around three centuries before Jesus because the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in a cave in what was once Judaea and is now Israel, tell us so. The Bible is the most-widely read book in history. Closely followed by The Koran.

The ideas The Koran describes were first committed to paper at least fourteen hundred years ago but continue to exert incredible influence even now. Personally, I don’t believe history can survive in Facebook Messenger.

Talking of Facebook, if for some reason you want to find an old post, it takes 13 steps to retrieve it. Compare and contrast with Directory magazine. If I vaguely remember a great campaign from 2007, I just get down the mags and flick through the pages. I can’t do this online because (a) I can’t remember what it was called and (b)it’s buried beneath a ton of newer uploads.

We are losing our points of reference. And we are losing libraries.

Please don’t think I am a Luddite. I am excited to be a non-exec director at Ad-Lib, where AI is making advertising (a little) more acceptable to the millions of people who hate it. And I’m amazed by the innovations which are transforming our lives. (Perhaps you are reading this on your mobile phone?)

It’s why I am inspired by Xerox. If the company had tried to ignore the digital revolution, it would have sunk without trace. Instead, it was the boffins at Xerox PARC who led the charge into the new era. They are still charging.

The most recent figures I can find show that in 2017 Xerox was granted 1,026 patents, down from 1,215 in 2016. USA Today ranked the company as the 33rd most innovative company in the world. Ahead of Oracle, Nokia, Honda, Cisco and HP.

(Incidentally, while we’re talking rankings, The Wall Street Journal has just ranked Xerox in its list of the world’s “100 Most Sustainably Managed Companies”.)

Nevertheless, Xerox Corp’s roots are sunk deep in print. (And, while we’re talking sustainability, worth mentioning they partner with PrintRelief’s “You print one, we’ll plant one’ initiative to help customers reach sustainability goals.)

The point being, all our cultural roots sunk deep in print. The ideas that have shaped each one of us are embedded in the books, the papers, the journals, the magazines and the print-outs we share.

Those are the places where our ideas are expressed, shared, shredded and reassembled. If we forget our roots, then we become thistledown on the wind.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and the rise of the BLM movement, there has been mounting shame and disgust at Britain’s involvement in the slave trade.

But it’s not entirely a story of disgrace and I am proud that my father wrote a book about George Sulivan, who dedicated much of his life in the nineteenth century to stamping out slavery along the East African coast, where it existed long before Europeans arrived. It worries me that my children have never read it, nor expressed interest in it. This is how our collective knowledge shrinks and with it not just knowledge but tolerance.

Books do more than furnish a room, they furnish a mind.

This photo of my grandmother was taken in about 1890. It’s not just a memory, it is history.

Will the pictures you take today still be in existence 120 years from now?

Start printing them and safeguarding them in albums, that’s my advice.

56 issues of Directory on a shelf. The history of marketing communications since 2007 all in one place.

The reason we continue to print is because creative people like flicking through the pages, waiting for an unexpected connection to happen, something on the page meeting a current brief and throwing up an idea. That sort of random serendipity simply doesn’t happen online.

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