Creating products that are environmentally sound is not only good sense for the planet, its good business sense. For two reasons, one, consumers are increasingly concerned with the environmental credentials of the products that they buy, and two, the central idea of environmental concerns is the avoidance of wastage. When you’re making a product, such as designing and publishing a game, you’re paying for everything that goes into the box, and then you’re paying to ship it. Less wasted material means less wasted costs and more profits. In this blog I want to talk about the idea of Onwards sustainability, particularly of materials and in relation to production wastage.
What is Onwards Sustainability?
Onwards sustainability is the principle of ensuring that all parts of a product that will end up as waste can be disposed of in a sustainable manner. Its principle is essentially twofold:
· Reduce wastage
· Increase sustainable disposal
Whilst it is important for products to be sustainably sourced it is at least as important that products are able to enter into a sustainable chain of usage when they are in turn finished with. So, although generating a product from recycled plastic is sustainable sourcing if that product then produces micro plastics that enter the food chain it will fail to be onward sustainable. Also, while paper or card and some plastics can be sustainably sourced the combination of plastic-coated card or paper products cannot be recycled onwards and so will not achieve onward sustainability.
Why Onward Sustainability?
While sustainable sourcing is growing in popularity and understanding onwards sustainability receives less attention, possibly because it is often referred to as recyclability and producers of non-consumable products feel that advertising the end of their product’s life to be unwise. However, no matter how responsibly sourced a raw material might be if it is sourced with the intention for it to then become waste it cannot be environmentally sustainable.
Sustainable sourcing can be both complex and controversial, particularly in relation to managed woodlands and recycling percentages whilst onwards sustainability is relatively simple since it refers only to the material in question rather than the potential management and certification of its sourcing.
Controlling the sourcing of materials from a manufacturer can be extremely tough for small Kickstarter creators since manufacturers often have their own supply chains and deviation can be extremely expensive. Conversely, onwards sustainability places the control largely in the hands of the creator as client, so it is something that we can all make a real difference with while benefiting from increased profitability.
The first and best place that a creator can work towards increasing onwards sustainability is to maximize the potential of their production, this takes place in two primary areas, what goes into the box and what doesn’t. What I mean by that second point is, manufacturers have set dies for many of the standard parts of game production, in particular for standard sizes of cards. To explain for those who are not aware, when a game is manufactured, cards are printed onto large sheets and then punched out by a metal die. This die is very expensive and if you’re using any of the standard card sizes, they’re not going to make one specially for whatever number of cards you're asking for. They’re also not going to print someone else’s cards onto the spare space on the sheet, they’re pretty much going to chuck out those left-over cards. Finding out what size of sheet your manufacturer uses early on in the process and tweaking your design up or down by a few cards can both save money and means that you’re creating less wastage. Cards are the most obvious place to apply this process but depending on how accommodating your liaison with your factory is and how much work you’re willing to put into it almost every part of production can benefit from this approach from box printing to the making of meeples. Almost everything that goes into a game is cut from some form of pre-sized raw material, minimizing wastage of that material makes financial and environmental sense.
The first point, what goes into the box, is rather more obvious, but bares thinking about. Everything that goes into your game box you pay for, and then pay to ship. By looking closely at what goes in the box just to be thrown away you can save money and be more environmentally sound, the biggest target for this is punchboard. Punchboard is relatively expensive as a production element, especially in smaller games. Manufacturers have set tolerances for punchboard sets and you should respect those or risk disaster, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to go with the templates they send you based on your requirements. To explain, as a new designer its not unusual to ask for, say, twenty round punchboard counters with a twenty millimeter diameter and have the manufacturer send you a template to drop your artwork into (or hopefully for your graphic designer to drop it into). That template is not necessarily from a pre-set die, and its worth asking if it is. Now, if its on a die already then changing it could be very expensive and manufacturers will offer you pre-existing dies to save on set-up costs. If its not then there’s no issue in moving the template around a little, check your manufacturer’s tolerances and communicate them to your graphic designer, even if you can’t shift things around enough to print your game’s elements themselves more efficiently, you could use that wasted space to put in some little extras that your customers will really appreciate. Again, punchboard is the big target here, but if you get a sample of your game and set it up ready to play, look at everything you’re about to throw in the trash and think hard about how you could get some usage out of it, or give something to your customers using it. The less that gets thrown out the more value you’re giving and the better environmentally.
Packaging is one of the biggest issues for onwards sustainability, since its main purpose is to go directly into landfill. There are two areas that you can look at here, packaging within your game and packaging around it.
With packaging within your game there are some issues here that really aren’t in the power of a small designer to do much about. If you’re ordering a print run from China then cellophane is going to be a feature, this is shifting slowly but isn’t going to disappear any time soon. That said you can still help matters by finding out what the maximum size of a cellophane block they can package cards in, two blocks of 30 cards represent more cellophane than a single block of 60. You can also request things like pull tabs which mean that a cellophane package can at least in theory sometimes remain re-usable after opening for storage, not everyone will use them, but some is better than none in this area. Otherwise, request re-usable bags and packaging wherever possible. Manufacturers don’t like loose elements for their own production line reasons, but anything that can be re-used is good for everyone and is becoming more and more standard.
Packaging around your game is an area that a real difference is available and in your hands. The first place you can help with this is in the design of the box for your game. Again, if your box is a standard size from your manufacturer this might be a cost factor, but if not, look into the standard shipping sizes for whatever carrier you’re planning on using and check what size of packaging boxes are readily available. This is something you should consider doing just for your own costs and sanity anyway since finding out that your box is just a little too big for the standard size postal boxes available when you’ve got a print run of a few thousand completed is no fun at all. Designing your game box to fit snuggly into a readily available shipping box will save you money in packaging, time in packing, and cut down massively on your environmental impact. The sooner you consider the shipping implications of your game box the happier you’ll be all round.
Additionally, pretty much every fulfillment company now offers environmentally sustainable packaging and those that don’t you should ask to provide it. Sometimes it does result in a slightly increased charge, but even that is true less and less often. Request this service, there is really no reason that packaging of this type shouldn’t be made from one or another environmentally sustainable and recyclable source.
Eventually every thing wears out. We can source things as sustainably as possible and make them to last, but they will one day be disposed of. The most responsible thing we can do as game designers is to design something that will be used over and over for as long as possible and that will hold up to the rigors of repeated play, but when they eventually wear out, we should try to ensure that they can be disposed of responsibly. That means as far as is possible using bio-degradable and recyclable materials in production, paper and card are high at the top of that list, though it is worth checking into the recyclability of plastic-coated cards and certain high thickness varnishes.
Ultimately if you’re printing a run of a game, even as a small Kickstarter publisher, you’re making yourself a producer in the chain of sustainability and that puts you in a place of responsibility. Hopefully this has suggested that there are changes that can be made to make both economic and environmental sense, but particularly that they should be thought about as early as possible in the production process, and if at all possible, right at the earliest stage of game design.
Have you seen intelligent changes being made for environmental reasons? What’s the best use of materials in a game that you’ve come across? And how do you think things could be improved?