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"Sway's Startup Branding Lessons" — Emma Fanning, Green Graphic Designer

Emma Fanning (00:00): Hello, I'm Emma Fanning, a sustainable graphic designer, and this is my love letter to Sway Seaweed Packaging.

Sam Thorogood (00:22): Welcome to Branding Love Letters, exploring the emotions brands evoke and the journeys they take us on. I'm Sam Thorogood, a graphic designer and your host. In each episode, I invite a guest to pick their favourite brand and unpack why it means so much to them. This podcast is a celebration of the branding that informs, impacts and inspires us. So, without further ado...

Emma Fanning (01:03): It was around 2016, I was working just as a normal designer, like in-house at some museums. And that was like, fine and all, but there was a lot of news about climate crisis, you know, things were getting kind of scary out there. It was really becoming real and knowing that this was a serious problem we were going to be facing. And I started sort of trying to, you know, make my life more sustainable, more low impact, try and be a little bit more zero waste, I guess, low waste, you know, try and be more responsible about bringing my bags to the grocery store, stuff that's like, really, really common now. But you know, I was really kind of committing to trying to make an impact, not because it really will solve climate crisis, me bringing my reusable bags doesn't solve it. You know, oil and gas companies continuing to pollute. But it does make me feel better as like an individual person on this planet. And I wanted to be able to bring that value set to my clients. I really wasn't sure if any of them were going to like that, if this was going to like kill my freelance, like my burgeoning freelance business or anything. But I decided that it just was something that I had to do.

(02:16): I actually ended up going to an Adobe MAX conference. 2017, I think, and I ended up talking to a pretty well respected design educator and like design agency. They were doing sort of like a Q&A. And I asked them, what do you think designers can do for the environment? You know, I really feel that we have the potential to make an impact because we are dealing with clients and printers and suppliers. And they kind of laughed at me. They said that it really doesn't matter. And that I should just make a lot of money and then I can donate it later. And that would be the best thing that I could possibly do as a designer. And I knew that was wrong. And so the kind of like, you know, just the, I guess, like argumentative person in me was like, Well, I have to, I have to do it now. Like, I know that they're wrong. So I basically went back to the hotel and then like, rewrite, like, basically was like, Okay, I'm gonna, I'm gonna, I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do all the research I need to from scratch, to figure out how to be a sustainable designer. And so this basically took the form of reading a lot of books about climate crisis, about recycling, about, you know, oil and gas production, just like forestry, understanding all the pieces, so that I could understand where design fits into that, and where my specifications for paper, how that's actually functioning, because to me, it's not enough to just know that I should pick recycled paper, I want to know why, so that I can explain why to my clients, you know, it's important to pick a sustainable supply chain for recycled paper, because of the deforestation happening. And that's bad because of like ecosystems and carbon sequestration, and, you know, pollution and all of that.

(04:00): So I wanted to be able to have the 'whys' because otherwise, it's just you just, I don't know, I just felt like not enough. So armed with the 'whys', I decided to just totally change my business to be sustainably focused. And in the beginning, I was a little bit more lax, I just kind of talked to clients about it on enquiry calls and made them sort of sign that they were going to consider a sustainable option with me, even if they didn't ultimately choose it, they were gonna have to like, talk with me about it. In the beginning, clients didn't really care, like there wasn't necessarily a negative reaction, but there wasn't necessarily a positive one either. They were kind of like, that's nice, dear, you do whatever you want, as long as I get an end product, that's fine. It doesn't matter to me. And then as I got more experience, I started like putting more and more controls, I guess, on the kinds of projects that I was taking on. So instead of suggesting that they consider sustainable solutions, now they had to sign that they were absolutely going to pick one. And that really getting more specific about the kinds of clients that I wanted to take on, and refining my website, working on SEO, doing some like online education about that really started bringing in clients that cared, that were really looking for a designer that wanted and understood sustainable, sustainable design, because they themselves were sustainable companies or sustainable oriented, have sustainable oriented values.

(05:30): And that was kind of like, where things like changed, because all of a sudden, I'm like, I have a question on my enquiry form that says, "Why do you want to work with Little Fox?", which is the name of my studio. And that is like one of the best questions on the enquiry form, because it weeds out everyone that's just like, they don't care who they work with, you know, it's just like, "Oh, well, your work is nice. Maybe we can work together". And I'm like, "Okay, well, you're out". And it's when people comment things like, I'm so excited to find you. I've been looking for a sustainable designer, I tried other designers, and they didn't get it... It's there where I realised there's a true values fit, and that it's going to be a good time working on the project together, because I won't be fighting them to consider a sustainable solution. And so what this all means is that with that values alignment with clients, we get to explore really cool options. So it means that when they say, "Oh, we have a product, it's in a stand up pouch", it doesn't mean we just go find like, the cheapest stand up pouch out there, they're actually willing to like explore, talk to different manufacturers, like, take in our recommendations for the most sustainable outcome.

(06:37): You know, if it's something simpler, like, just like some cardboard packaging, you know, they're really excited to like, explore alternative materials, such as like hemp paper or straw paper. And so it really just opens the door to like, really fascinating conversations about how to lower their impact in a cool way, and how to communicate their sustainable design choices to their customers. I, we ended up signing a client that was a looking for packaging, like sustainable packaging for stand up pouches. And this kind of, you know, sort of launched the studio into this world of like, truly understanding sustainable materials and lifecycle analysis. And we found that honestly, this is a really rough world, especially for food packaging, it is really, really, really difficult to package food sustainably, just because it needs a moisture barrier, it needs a packaging material that will keep it on the shelf for, you know, 12 or more months. And that there was just so much greenwashing in terms of compostable packaging, not being truly compostable, and, you know, bio based plastics being greenwashed. And I can explain all of that.

(07:45): But... But basically, then I found Sway. And I was reading their website, and having already sort of encountered like all of this greenwashing that was occurring in the space, all of a sudden, there was this company that was like, actually trying to find an innovative material solution to these really fundamental problems in the food packaging supply chain, like, you know, global problem. And they were actually approaching it from a very sustainable approach, they understood all of the greenwashing, they talked about it publicly, and that they were really trying to not just create a new bioplastic, but an actual alternative to like plastic film, and soft plastic packaging solutions for food and other applications. And it was just so cool to see something like a company really take this seriously and understand that it is a problem and not try and like, just market a greenwash solution, they were saying, okay, no, we're gonna take like a sustainable material, like a sustainable feedstock for this new material, and really try our best to have something that degrades and leaves no microplastics, has no toxins, all of that stuff. And so their their product still isn't technically available, they're working on it, they're doing test runs, but it's still like in research, because they're truly doing something innovative and unique, which is just like, so cool. And so that was like, just amazing to encounter when I was first starting out to see that really, there was like, cool stuff happening to solve these problems that occurred.

Sam Thorogood (09:12): And what was it that really set them apart from because you talk about, you see a lot of, you know, plastics that are labelled as eco in some way, but what was it about what Sway were doing that really gave you this, this validity? This sense that they weren't greenwashing, there was actually a core belief in what they were doing, and what they were doing, and was was a mission, you know, had had a purpose to it.

Emma Fanning (09:41): Yeah, so basically, to cover some of the like, main areas where people say that their plastic is sustainable in some capacity is compostable packaging, usually that's in the form of industrial compostable, they may not always say that it's industrial compostable, but most compostable plastics, especially if they're in a food contact use, is industrial compostable. This is misleading, because unless it ends up in an actual industrial compostable facility, it will not break down on its own. So if your compostable, you know, stand up pouch ends up in the woods, in the ocean, it is basically the same as a traditional plastic, it will break down into microplastics in the same way that traditional plastic will and has the same, you know, bad impact on the environment. If it ends up in that, like, industrial compostable facility, then sometimes even then it doesn't get broken down, it needs to be at a very high temperature for a certain amount of time. And because those facilities are technically trying to turn a profit on their compost, they can't always be having the compostable plastic be in their compost runs for the amount of time that it needs to fully break down. So frequently, these composters will be pulling out pieces of the compostable plastic and sending it to the landfill, because it doesn't fully break down. Also, even if it does fully break down, if there's too much of that plastic in the compost mulch at the end, it can actually degrade the quality of the compost. So not really great.

(11:08): Overall, if it's home compostable, that's better. Most things aren't home compostable. You're going to see that more commonly in non food packaging solutions. That's great. If it truly is home compostable, you can put it in your, like traditional outside home compost, and it should break down within like four to six weeks. But this solution is often really expensive and isn't suitable for food packaging because the food will spoil in too short of amount of time required. So that is not great. But companies often say, oh, our plastic is compostable. This is so great. And then people don't realise the truth of it. The other thing with the industrial composting, which is like relevant to mention is that in North America, there are very, very, very few facilities that can even process this type of plastic. And so it's unlikely that it's going to end up there in the first place. Like as in there's maybe like, gosh, I think it was somewhere between like 20 and 30, maybe 40 maximum across the whole states. In Canada, there's two facilities, there's one of the West Coast and there's one of the East Coast, at least last I checked in, that just simply isn't enough facilities to process everyone's compostable plastic. So that sucks.

(12:18): And then on the other side, there's bio-based plastics. And that seems promising, because you'd think that any kind of plastic that's not made of petroleum is inherently better. But unfortunately, with the biobased plastics, this means that it's just coming from a different feedstock. So instead of coming from petroleum, it's coming from corn or beets or some other like, you know, sugary, rich material that can be like transformed into the plastic. Functionally, it is chemically identical to petroleum plastic at the end of the day, it's not any better for the environment. So it's kind of a misleading claim. It also comes with some problems around like deforestation to grow, you know, sugarcane for these, for these biobased plastics, in the Amazon Rainforest and stuff. So that's not great either. Ultimately, it's not the great solution that is presented. But those are the two claims that you're going to see again and again and again, on sustainable packaging. Now, the difficulty is that there isn't a solution right now until really Sway or someone else comes out with this, a material solution to solve the problem. Because really, plastics are so important for the food packaging, because it needs to have shelf life, it needs to have a moisture barrier. And when you make something home compostable, it needs to be like, able to break down with light, with heat, with water.

(13:38): And so it's kind of this current problem between the solutions that we have, and then, you know, future solutions coming out. So this is where Sway is like, really, really cool, because they are actually trying to tackle that problem of somehow being able to create a material that has a sufficient shelf life of 12 months or more for food packaging that will retain that moisture barrier and keep the anything that's packaged in it, like safe, and safe to eat, while also not actually just being chemically identical to plastic. And obviously, this is a really, really difficult solution. And yeah, currently doesn't exist on the market until like, Sway gets going. I mean, they are doing like test runs right now and stuff, which is so cool. But it's not like, I can't specify it for my clients. I can't say "You want to stand up pouch, you should definitely, you know, use Sway stand up pouch for that". But soon, hopefully, it should be in the next couple of years, which will be really, really exciting.

Sam Thorogood (14:37): What emotions does this brand evoke for you?

Emma Fanning (14:41): I think the main emotions that it evokes for me is a combination of hope, inspiration and admiration. Ultimately, because of the problems that exist in the sustainable packaging world, and even just, you know, sometimes still convincing clients that it's, you know, really important. It can be, it can be a little depressing. And just like seeing all the all the, you know, news that continues to pop up about, you know, IPCC reports, and we're so close to the tipping point. And, you know, these things are all very difficult to deal with as a millennial, as a human, as a sustainable designer. And so it's really companies like Sway that are really trying to do the right thing. They're trying to like actually make that shift that we need to be making in the next ten years to go away from plastics, to go away from fossil fuels, that it's just really inspiring to see these companies like actually trying, like not giving up, they're continuing to work towards like a better future for everyone, not just themselves. And so it, that's great. I also really like looking at the brand, like visually, it's very pleasing.

(15:47): Their brand really reflects how cool the company is, at least to me. I mean, I'm geeking out about like seaweed, like alternative plastic. So you know, there, there's that. But basically, like they did some really like high impact colours. So there's like some dark blues, and also some really bright oranges. And they both play with those colours separately as solid colours. But then they also have some gradients between them. And so in terms of colour palette, it honestly kind of looks like those climate change warming maps for like each year is getting warmer and warmer, going from like blue to orange. I don't know if that was intentional, but it's kind of what it looks like to me, which I think is like, kind of cool. And it's also like, a mild reference, even if it is intentional. So it's not really like doom and gloom, because the colours are so vibrant and pretty to look at. And they also like have like a very sort of like approachable, friendly looking font. It's Recoleta, which is like, used in a lot of places. So it's not exactly like the most like innovative font ever. But like the way that they use it in their brand really complements everything else that they're doing. And so it's really, it really makes it just feel like fun and fresh, and not just like a boring, like biotech company, brand, which it seems like it would make sense that, oh, you have a really innovative product. It's really cool. You would obviously have an innovative, really cool brand. But that's not really the case for a lot of biotech companies.

(17:08): And so I'm constantly looking at biotech brands from competitors and all of that stuff. And there's really not a lot of companies that have cool brands. It's sort of something that gets often overlooked, I would say, which I think is unfortunate. And so it's really cool to see, like Sway really just realising that that's important. Like I'm, I'm biased as a brand designer, but it's really cool that they're still focusing on that. The founder actually used to be a designer. So it makes sense. The brand is wonderful. But the other thing that they're doing is they have this really cool swerve, like S water mark or logo mark. It's like a bubbly 3D S kind of thing. And I was actually looking at the rationale that the agency like has for like what they were thinking when they were designing the brand. And they were basically saying that they wanted it to reflect seaweed, which is really cool. They said that basically, the goal was to, quote, "blur the lines between nature, technology and design". And I do think that they really managed to successfully do that. It looks really cool to an average consumer or like person on the internet. But then also, I think really speaks to both the biotech aspect, the innovation aspect and the nature aspect, which is really neat.

Sam Thorogood (18:22): In the short time that you've been journeying with this brand, what have Sway done that has really kind of surprised you in some way?

Emma Fanning (18:30): I think that the main surprise to me has just been the commitment to public education and transparency. They're not just sort of in their own little world with their investors and their R&D team and their website. They have a really strong social media presence. And they do public webinars about like the progress of their material and like where they're at and where they're going. What problems they're facing. You know, this is pretty unusual for, I mean, really many companies, but like especially a materials company like that. And so they're really trying to get the public on board and helping them understand some of the areas that occur with greenwashing. Because quite frankly, a lot of people don't know and that's fine. You can't expect everyone to know that like compostable plastic isn't compostable.

(19:16): I mean, hopefully we'll get to a point where most people know that. But, you know, these ideas are tricky to disentangle. And it takes like research time to do that. And it's unfair to expect every person to just nerd out about compostability and want to see that it's greenwashed and not just like trust the claim that's on the packaging. And so they're really trying to be proactive in that and help people understand with like beautifully designed Instagram graphics and simple instructions or explanations for why certain things are greenwashed and what they're doing differently. And I think that is really cool that they're treating the public as an investor of sorts. You know, they want the public to support what they're doing and be an ally to them. And I think that this level of transparency is just like really refreshing. It is surprising. And I think it really builds trust with everyone. So that's been really cool to see.

Sam Thorogood (20:11): And how would you describe them to someone that's never heard of them?

Emma Fanning (20:15): Honestly, the coolest alternative plastic that you've probably never heard of solving a problem you might not have known about. But that's kind of like a bit tongue-in-cheek. Really, I would say that it is a really amazing alternative plastic that is trying to come up with a solution that is equitable to people, it's equitable to ecosystems, and it's equitable to our society as a whole.

Sam Thorogood (20:45): And how would you, as you kind of look back, and maybe as you look forward as well, because obviously this is quite a unique conversation, because we're having a conversation about a product that doesn't exist yet. How would you summarise your journey with this brand and maybe thinking as well in terms of the future tense? You know, how do you see this journey going?

Emma Fanning (21:07): I'm really just following it with great interest. I would love to be able to recommend their solutions to my clients. I hope that everything continues to go as planned, and that it continues to pass compostability tests, it continues to be something that is really what they're striving to achieve. I think that it will. I don't have many doubts about their integrity as a business. And that's really cool. But I think one of the important things that I, sort of forgot to mention earlier, but one of the things is the way that they're approaching it is really from not sort of like your traditional people, planet, profit, like intersection of sustainable business choices. They're really kind of focusing on like the people on the planet as like, primary, obviously, they want to make a profit too. But the way that they're approaching the people and the planet aspect is something that I think a lot of brands can learn from and is a valuable learning opportunity for like almost everyone, because for the actual harvesting of the seaweed, you know, they're harvesting it in areas where they're growing, it's like a seaweed farm in a bunch of different places across the world. So many different farms, but they're all farming in locations where there would be seaweed growing, and the seaweed growing there actually helps the local like ocean ecosystem. So often, there's like places with a lot of seaweed loss.

(22:32): So they're actually like rebuilding those ocean ecosystems while sustainably harvesting without damaging them. And those places, those coastal communities are often hit the hardest by climate change. And so they're actually opening up job opportunities for like ocean farmers to be able to grow this seaweed for them. And you know, often, you know, these communities would be fishing, or other extraction based, like ocean industries. And so they're giving them like a just transition in that way too. And so I think that these elements of like true sort of like grassroots sustainability, almost that they're bringing into this quite large brand with this quite large goal, are really, really valuable, because you don't often see sustainable companies doing that, because it's not the fastest and easiest way to get rich, sustainability, they're really prioritising, you know, the actual important scientifically backed solutions instead of just coming up with a another greenwashed option. So I really hope that other companies in the future look to them and see that they're doing this and that they're being successful, and that this is like a sustainable path to follow instead of just dismissing it without just because they think that they can't make enough money.

Sam Thorogood (23:45): Emma, tell me where we can connect in with what you're doing through Little Fox Design.

Emma Fanning (23:51): Yeah, so the best place is probably my website, which is just And my Substack, I've really been enjoying Substack recently, best social media platform. Substack is great. I will like praise Substack to everyone I meet. But basically, the Substack is I post like weekly essays and thoughts on sustainable design and climate news and innovative materials and just cool, sustainable design things. So definitely check it out if you're interested in that.

Sam Thorogood (24:25): And I'm a subscriber and I would I would back that up.

Emma Fanning (24:28): Thank you.

Sam Thorogood (24:30): Well, thank you very much. So finally, I'd love for you to share this love letter that you've written to this brand, Sway Seaweed Packaging.

Emma Fanning (24:40): Dear Sway, Thank you for paving a way forward for regenerative materials. Your commitment to a better future is a source of hope for many. It would be a dream to live in a world without plastic. And with companies like yours spearheading the next generation of innovative plastic-free materials, you make this dream feel like a possible reality. Thank you for continuing to fight the good fight, even when so much of the world seems bleak. I look forward to living in a world where seaweed packaging and other innovative, regenerative, plastic-free materials are the new normal. Emma.

Sam Thorogood (25:10): Well, Emma, thank you very much for letting us hear your branding love letter.

Emma Fanning (25:15): Thank you.

Sam Thorogood (25:17): You've been listening to Branding Love Letters and I've been Sam Thorogood. I'm on a mission: equip pioneers like you to bring others onto your journey. Come and find out more at Thanks for listening. Oh, and big thanks to Thomas Thorogood for the music. Take it away, Tommy boy.

Sam Thorogood | Pilgrimage Design