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Sustainability: The mother of innovation

by Allan Smith

We are now in the second decade of widespread government and public acceptance of the importance of sustainable living. Companies like Steelcase have pioneered sustainable design and manufacture and long gone are the days when companies adopted sustainability gimmicks because they felt obliged to. Sustainability is well and truly entrenched as an element of corporate conscience and a facilitator of innovation.

My personal journey in sustainable design started almost 15 years ago, when I was working at DesignTex in New York City. We were trying to create a ‘green’ product and we wanted something breakthrough. At first, we thought what could be better than producing a textile that combined natural cotton with recycled polyester? But real sustainability comes from stripping further back to the design building blocks – and starting with the materials themselves.

We had to ask the simple questions. Were the materials safe for long term use and what impact did their production have on the environment? The rest is history and we ended up creating the world’s first commercially manufactured compostable fabric, the William McDonough Collection – with all the colour, quality and performance you would expect. It’s still available today. This product line and new product development process changed an entire way of thinking for me, my company and an entire industry.

Today’s challenge for manufacturers starts with the same premise. How do we create products that look great, perform beautifully, are well priced and leave the earth as well off as when we started – or better? How do you take safe materials, a lifecycle thinking approach and the ability to recycle that product and innovate on a variety of levels?

Lifecycle thinking is fast becoming critical. A new generation of consumers and purchasers shows every sign of demanding it, and they will punish failure where it hurts most – in your sales and profits.

Lifecycle thinking is about understanding the bare essentials of your product and its component parts; designing sustainability features into it on the drawing board; maximising energy efficiency and minimising environmental impact in its creation; and determining its recycling and re-use potential for the end game.

As a result of this process, Steelcase now produces furniture which aims for the highest use of recycled materials, employs the most energy efficient factory and transportation processes, measures and minimises the CO2 outputs in the production process, designs our products to be easily disassembled and labels component parts to show the user how to dispose of them through recycling and re-use.

By making smart choices up front and in the beginning of the product development process, all manufacturers can all make higher quality products that have less impact on the planet and a bigger impact on our bottom lines.