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Design for Sustainability and Triple Bottom Line Thinking

Sustainatopia Boston 2015:

Diana Sierra on Design for Sustainability and
Paul Hickman on Triple Bottom Line Thinking

Diana Sierra on Design for Sustainability

One of our favorite panels at the recent Sustainatopia conference in Boston was entitled, “It All Starts With Design.” That sentiment rings true to us at EarthShift Global, because our team members have spent substantial time working with product and packaging designers to develop our EarthSmart and PackageSmart life cycle analysis (LCA) tools, and we understand that the sustainability of any manufactured product is largely dependent on design-related decisions, and the ability to get them through a company’s approval process.

Panelist Diana Sierra, a renowned industrial designer and social innovator, put her finger on one of the most challenging aspects of the design-for-sustainability challenge when she spoke about the need to present decision-making information to executives in a language they understand: money. “Make sure externalities have a dollar value assigned to them,” she counseled the attendees. “If something isn’t on the balance sheet, it doesn’t exist.”

She cited as an example an electric gum massager for babies, developed for Playtex. By making its batteries removable, at slightly increased up-front cost, the device’s end-of-life recyclability was increased and the risks of improper disposal reduced.

This type of decision-making is exactly what LCA is designed to facilitate – and such analyses can also get at related issues, like ensuring that battery removability doesn’t jeopardize the life of the batteries by allowing them to get wet. If battery life is reduced by half, the environmental impacts could be much worse than disposing of the entire unit after twice as much use. As one attendee noted, decisions like these can pose a special challenge for the engineering community as they require probabilistic thinking about downstream events.

More broadly, Sierra (whose portfolio includes work for Michael Kors and Nike, and social innovations for emerging economies like her BeGirl underwear, now seeking Kickstarter funding eloquently urged designers to apply four factors to their work: Empathy (“walk in your user’s shoes…if you don’t make a connection early, you will do it wrong”), Resourcefulness (“how can you make something work with stuff you have in your drawer?”), Collaboration (“solutions need to work in the context of the user – ask what they need”) and Perseverance (“an idea is one percent of the project…execution is where success comes in”).

Paul Hickman on Triple Bottom Line Thinking

We were also mightily impressed by panelist Paul Hickman who talked about the true triple-bottom-line approach of his Urban Ashes enterprise. Urban Ashes salvages wood from Detroit-area buildings and trees and uses it in picture frames and furniture, which are sold nationally and produced by a workforce drawn heavily from the disabled and people transitioning out of prison – having the dual impact of “reclaiming trees and reclaiming lives,” as the company website puts it.

Hickman noted that about 4 billion board-feet of used wood is thrown into landfills or burned annually in the US, while at the same time, hundreds of thousands of ex-prisoners are released into the world without prospects or opportunities. “These are literally wasted lives,” he said. “We want to have a direct impact on them, in part by helping them mix with people who are not ex-felons.”

Bravo to Mr. Hickman, and to his employees!

And if you have a story about a company or organization that’s putting principles into practice effectively, please let us know - we’d love to help spread the word.