Inspiration and Strategic Change on the Path to Sustainability
by Jean Pierre Simard
Continuing Education Series
I&S Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through the pages of the magazine. Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this issue's article. To receive credit, see the series of questions and follow the instructions.
After reading this article, you should be able to:
- Explain ways in which a company's
environmental policy can become integrated into its corporate culture.
- Describe the differences between a technical nutrient and a biological nutrient.
- Describe the key elements of the
Cradle-to-Cradle Design Paradigm.
- Identify four key areas of sustainable business activity and how they offer opportunities to develop strategic initiatives.
In today's fast-changing business environment, forging continuity between vision, strategy and daily operations has never been more important. This is especially true in light of the recent revolution in sustainable design. As the need for developing business models and manufacturing processes that sustain environmental health has become crucial to long-term success, many companies are reinventing themselves and searching for new ways of doing things.
This is an important first step. But to be a truly smart, agile, 21st-century company, sustainability must become a core business strategy. Rather than simply reducing waste in a narrowly defined sector of business, an innovative company can work toward making every decision reflect its commitment to sustainability. And that commitment can be expressed in positive terms. Your company, for example, might want to commit itself to designing products that benefit people and the environment, that enrich quality of life in every phase of their production and use, and that grow value and competitive advantage. As we have pursued similar goals, we've learned a few things about strategic change—ideas that we are sharing here—that might help your company move toward a new vision of quality and performance.
Building Company Culture
When environmental policy becomes a part of company culture it provides a reliable framework for integrating sustainability into strategic-decision making.
Change begins with inspiration, but changing strategically requires more. Integrating a commitment to sustainability into company culture is key. All employees, from manufacturing staff to management, must be familiar with the company's environmental policy. They must also see themselves as members of a team committed to a common mission, and interaction between all departments must constantly be encouraged. In this atmosphere of open communication, an environmental policy can become a familiar part of a company's culture, providing a framework for good, strategic decision-making.
Environmental policy influences design and manufacturing in a variety of ways. An Environmental Task Group, for example, might establish objectives and targets, which could range from increasing the quantity of optimized green materials used in products to generating energy savings through the use of renewable sources. This same task group can also serve to help implement an Environmental Management System, one that is ideally built in conformance with the ISO 14001 standard. Meeting this internationally recognized standard is not about compliance; it is to establish a foundation from which a company can continue to be an innovative, environmentally responsible company devoted to enriching quality of life.
As positive change moves through a company, an ethic takes root. In the world of industry, a lean manufacturing ethic can make each small change contribute to overall quality and environmental performance. For a textile mill, thinking lean means eliminating waste in the manufacturing process; it means designing fabrics to minimize the need for backings and coatings; it means spinning processes that save natural resources and eliminate the need for lubricants. And when lean thinking is well-integrated—mapped throughout the entire organization—every process and system becomes more effective, generating value for customers while strengthening a company's commitment to sustainability.
An Effective Product Development Process
A collaborative product development process with well-established criteria assures stability and agility: quality and consistency go hand-in-hand with cutting-edge design and innovation.
The architect and designer William McDonough often says, "Design is the first signal of human intention." That commitment to environmental quality should be rooted in the design process. To stay on course on the path to sustainability, to further integrate intentions into what a company does day in and day out, a product development process should be created to bring new products to market.
A sound product development process allows a company to be sure that it is developing smart, innovative designs that meet a variety of criteria. Before moving ahead in the development process each product must meet criteria within categories such as:
- manufacturing feasibility
- material quality and construction
- design and aesthetics
These and other criteria can then be evaluated at a series of "gate" meetings involving each department, including research and development, design, marketing and sales. The evaluations, and the synergy between departments, assures quality and consistency while also shifting most of the development time to the beginning of the design process, resulting in faster, smoother, more economical production.
One of the prime benefits of the process is agility in the marketplace. While it might seem that the demanding gate meetings could throw obstacles in the path of designers, they actually provide a dependable framework in which fast-paced, cutting-edge creativity can flourish. For small companies built on innovation, that presents a huge competitive advantage.
A smart product development process can generate a new definition of quality.
When strategic change is your game, agility can take you far. In fact, an openness to innovation oftentimes forges partnerships with key players in the field. One such player we have found is McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a scientific consultancy that develops sustainable "eco-effective" products and practices for global clients.
Working with MBDC, we developed a technologically advanced polyester fabric designed for sustainability from start to finish. Based on MBDC protocols, the new fabric is produced with materials and manufacturing practices that are optimized for health and safety. (See sidebar on page 14 for MBDC environmental health and safety criteria.)
Why is this important? How can a synthetic, man-made textile be considered ecologically friendly anyway? Well, most polyester is manufactured using a chemical catalyst called antimony, which is a known carcinogen. Long-term inhalation of antimony trioxide, a by-product of polymer production, can cause chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The polyester fabric we developed with MBDC, however, is made with dyestuffs, auxiliary chemicals and a safe, antimony-free catalyst that meet strict human and environmental health criteria. Unlike conventional polyester, which is often made with materials or backings that make recycling unsafe or ineffective, the fabric is also designed for perpetual recycling. Additionally, industry leaders are exploring ways to establish a take-back program for large-scale polyester recycling. These changes are occurring cost-effectively, with real products in real markets, which suggests the efficacy of sustainable design across a wide spectrum of business activity.
Using the design of textiles as an example, here are some of the objectives a company in search of sustainability might set in the product development process. An environmentally sound, high-quality textile is:
- made from a fully optimized fiber using a new, environmentally safe catalyst;
- designed to outperform traditional polyester in the dyeing process, using dyestuffs and energy more efficiently;
- designed with optimized dyestuffs and chemicals, which replace harmful chemicals such as chlorine, or heavy metals such as antimony;
- produced in a facility where a significant percent of the energy used comes from renewable energy sources that do not contribute to climate change;
- designed to be safely recycled into new fabric at the end of its life, with no hazardous by-products;
- designed for optimal value recovery within closed loop systems.
In MBDC parlance, this new textile would be a technical nutrient, a synthetic material carefully designed for recovery and reuse throughout multiple product life cycles, which can be continually and safely recycled into new fabric after it is used. Along with biological nutrients—materials designed to safely biodegrade after use—technical nutrients are the centerpiece of the regenerative, ecologically intelligent approach to design articulated by the pioneering thinkers architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. The MBDC Protocol is based on McDonough and Braungart's work, laying out the step-by-step process of designing biological and technical nutrients for closed-loop, cradle-to-cradle material flows.
Toward a New Design Paradigm
Designs that benefit the environment at every phase of their use "transform the making of things into a positive, regenerative force."
Developing ecologically intelligent products and cradle-to-cradle material flows is a decisive step for industry. As McDonough and Braungart have pointed out, the cradle-to-grave material flows that characterize conventional industry create a "one-way trip to the landfill" that generates pollution, wastes energy and uses up natural resources. They are quick to add, however, that "the destructive qualities of today's cradle-to-grave system are fundamentally a deeply ingrained design problem, not an inevitable outcome of human activity." In fact, "good design can transform the making of things into a positive, regenerative force."
What McDonough and Braungart call "good design" is based on the laws of nature, which can be applied to the design of both natural and synthetic materials.
"Just as in the natural world, in which one organism's 'waste' cycles through an ecosystem to provide nourishment for other living things, cradle-to-cradle materials circulate in closed-loop cycles, providing nutrients for nature and industry. The cradle-to-cradle model recognizes two metabolisms within which materials flow as healthy nutrients. Nature's nutrient cycles comprise the biological metabolism. Materials designed to flow optimally in the biological metabolism, which we call biological nutrients, can be safely returned to the environment after use to nourish living systems. The technical metabolism, designed to mirror the earth's cradle-to-cradle cycles, is a closed-loop system in which valuable, high-tech synthetics and mineral resources—technical nutrients—circulate in a perpetual cycle of production, recovery and remanufacture."
McDonough and Braungart's philosophy and MBDC's Cradle-to-Cradle Protocol is a positive, principled way of thinking about not only the textile industry but many other markets and industries as well. It easily dovetails with any company's efforts to design products that benefit the environment in every phase of their production and use, and to make sure those products can be safely returned to nature or recycled into valuable new products. Idealistic? Maybe. But it's an idea whose time has come. (See Chart 1).
From Products to Initiatives
A commitment to sustainability drives change through strategic initiatives powered by smart partnerships, products, processes and people.
So what's the next step? Beyond the introduction of a single product, how might a company integrate sustainability into everything it does? We've found that developing a platform for strategic change, a concept we call Eco-Intelligence Initiatives®, allows us to focus on key areas in the design process—partnerships, products, processes and people—that offer every company opportunities for making sustainability a cornerstone of business success.
Partnerships: This is especially critical for small companies whose goal is not necessarily to grow big, but to work with partners to do big things. By sharing knowledge and expertise, a company can expand its reach, influence and impact, developing products that benefit the entire industry and help set up conditions for long-term success.
Products: On the heels of developing its first eco-friendly product, a company can build on its momentum with the introduction of new products that expand the line. These new introductions benefit from, and build on, the success of the first, growing visibility and public awareness. While serving as a public launch, the first product also sets internal standards for a whole new series of environmental initiatives.
Processes: The way you make a product is just as important as what you make. Manufacturers should continually look for cleaner, greener ways to make their products. While eliminating toxic elements from the manufacturing process, also use renewable energy sources to power facilities. In addition, track energy and raw material use and continue to reduce waste at all levels of operation.
People: Stay attuned to community, inside and outside your doors. Consider everyone who works with your company a "partner" who contributes to your success. Only people bring passion to the table and only passion generates commitment. We include in our community our suppliers, customers and neighbors, and the goal of our initiatives is to deliver high quality products that benefit their health, safety and quality of life. People are the cornerstone of business success.
Staying on the Cutting Edge
There's no need to sacrifice color, choice, beauty, performance or customer satisfaction when designing with the environment in mind. Sustainable design is innovative design.
One might think that being passionate about the environment might cause a company to miss a beat in the fast moving worlds of style and technology, but this need not be so. In fact, challenging designers to deliver fabrics valued for their eco-friendliness as well as their aesthetics and performance can stimulate cutting-edge thinking.
Working from the synergistic foundation of a smart product development process, designers are free to think outside the box to bring freshness and energy to the design process. For example, the design process might begin with an "Inspiration Day," which draws on the creative currents surging through your city's galleries, museums, art studios and fashion runways. In a step-by-step process, inspiration can fuel the development of a design concept, and a concept can become an artwork, a textile pattern at the forefront of color and style trends that works within a cohesive collection. Working closely with the R&D team, the focus would turn to selecting fabric, mixing yarns and pushing the limits of construction. And throughout the process, designers might work closely with customers, tuning designs to their performance criteria and aesthetic needs.
Considering human and environmental health criteria does not dull customer satisfaction nor the passion and innovative energy of the design studio. Indeed, what it does is foster great design—and none of the guilt.
Marketing Sustainability and Strategic Change
Leadership provides the stories that let the world know your business is making the world a better place.
None of the guilt. That's one effective way to highlight the benefits of sustainable design and manufacturing. There are many. Saving resources. Protecting the environment. Improving product quality. Generating quality of life. All sound, true statements of fact. All things of which a company can be proud.
What a company cannot be proud of is greenwashing—claims that go beyond what it has accomplished; claims that disguise shortcomings; claims that are patently false have no place in the toolbox of marketers. Developing sustainable products and practices, making a commitment to strategic change—these are undertaken in good faith, and good faith goes well rewarded in the workplace and the marketplace.
Bill McDonough often talks about "doing well by doing good." A company that is truly committed to strategic change will discover that its journey and its leadership will provide it with many stories—examples that can genuinely demonstrate how it is helping make the world a better place. These "big ideas" are finding a bigger and more receptive audience each and every day. And that's a good business strategy not just today, but also for long-term successes in our contemporary economic climate.
Human and Environmental Health Criteria
Victor Innovatex, working with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, introduced a polyester fabric made with dyestuffs, auxiliary chemicals and a safe, antimony-free catalyst, which meets stringent human and environmental health criteria. On a five-point scale, the fabric met MBDC's Level Four protocol for products "designed for optimal value recovery within closed loop systems."
Following the MBDC Design Protocol, materials' human and ecological health are characterized according to the following criteria:
|Priority Human Health Criteria (known or suspected):
mutagenicity (accidental/and or
reproductive and developmental toxicity (teratogenicity).
Additional Human Health Criteria:
irritation of skin/mucous membranes
other (e.g., skin penetration potential, flammability, etc.)
|Ecological Health Criteria:|
content of halogenated organic
heavy metal content
other (e.g., water danger list,
toxicity to soil organisms, etc.)
Natural Systems Equilibrium Criteria:
global warming potential
ozone depletion potential
|MBDC criteria also include value recovery potential, such as the technical feasibility of recycling a material and an energy profile, which evaluates the use of renewable sources of energy in the creation, distribution, use and value recovery process of a product.
Technical nutrient and Cradle-to-Cradle Design Protocol names are a trademark of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry.
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Jean Pierre Simard is director of marketing for Victor Innovatex. Since its start as a woolen mill opening in 1947, Victor Innovatex has grown to become a leading fabric design and manufacturing company serving the contract industry. Its new, environmentally sound, technical nutrient polyester is the first introduction in the company's Eco Intelligence Initiatives®, a new way of thinking that is guiding Victor Innovatex on its path toward integrating sustainability as a core business strategy. For more information visit www.victor-innovatex.com/ecointelligence.