The Power of Sustainability-First Design

For many companies, social responsibility seems to come as an afterthought. But if product developers are onboard, it can become the core of a business.

Lauren Giordano / The Atlantic

Paul Dillinger is a fashion designer straight out of central casting: hipster skinny, sporting a knit hat, happily hunched over drawings and his sewing machine alone in his studio.

But in 2012, as senior director of design for Levi Strauss & Co.’s Dockers brand, he decided to attempt something far from typical: the production of an apparel line that took environmental and social sustainability into account at every step, from raw-material sourcing to product durability to the human rights of the workers who stitch the garments.

Dillinger’s efforts resulted in the Wellthread line, launched in 2014. It included a number of innovations (such as a dye method that used less salt, water, and energy than normal processes) and demonstrated how much more effective it is to consider sustainability at the design phase rather than trying to tweak or retrofit a product that has already been made.

But what is most interesting about Dillinger’s work is not just the improved sustainability of the end product, but how that product led to profound changes in how the company does business.

One feature that Dillinger set out to improve was the trouser back-rise seam, which he believed could be made more durable. He came up with a complicated design that took seven different stitching and assembly operations rather than the usual three, with additional materials needed as well. He sent the specs to one of Levi’s vendors in Bangladesh, who did a prototype and came up with an understandably higher price than the norm.

Dillinger was ready to accept the higher cost. But when he met with the vendor to review the prototype and got into a discussion about the purpose of the new design, Dillinger told me:

They said, “Oh, you're just trying to make it stronger? Why don’t you use the tandem needle chainstitch?” This is a very obscure machine—I had never heard of a tandem needle chainstitch machine—that effectively delivers greater durability and flexibility and is performed in a single operation.

For Dillinger that was a big “aha” moment: Suppliers weren’t just executors, but critical partners. Because of that experience, Levi’s started including suppliers in its seasonal innovation workshops, which it hadn’t done before. Dillinger:

Rather than the prescriptive answer coming from Design, this was an opportunity for a well-designed question to be presented instead, to let the wisdom of the community of makers surface the best answer. That is totally contrary to the normal cognitive processes involved in apparel design, which is to say that the designer is the source of the answer. Here, the designer becomes the source of the question.

Motorola has also launched some product innovations that have led to bigger change. For example, in 2009 the company launched the first phone ever made with recycled plastic. It wasn’t easy to develop: Bill Olson, Motorola's director of sustainability and stewardship, told me that the vendor they selected to prototype the polycarbonate plastic was reluctant to use a material it wasn't familiar with and didn't know how to handle. “They left some of the plastic out for a week, so it was full of moisture,” Olson told me. “The molded parts that resulted were not usable. We sent a team of engineers to the site to ‘help’; they were confined to the lunchroom and not allowed to see the molding operations, but the vendor got the message and the second batch worked perfectly.”

The W233 Renew phone launched in 2009 to positive reviews and sales. But Olson told me that the real power was not the success of the product, but proving that a sustainable material met the same technical specs, didn’t cost any more, and had a great story. “Customers were excited by the idea of making plastic from recycled water bottles without any product compromise,” he said.

AT&T made an interesting decision when it came to thinking about environmental impact: It decided that the best way to promote sustainability wasn’t to focus on a single product, but to promote consumer understanding of its whole portfolio. AT&T now gives all of its branded handsets and tablets a rating of 1 to 5 stars based on a set of 20 environmental and social criteria.

Gary Duffy was part of the AT&T team that developed the ratings. “It’s better for us to impact the millions of phones that we sell every year by a little bit,” he told me, “than to have one phone be this environmentally ‘green’ phone.”

Similarly, Sarah Krasley at Autodesk—a company that makes software for designers across industries, from buildings and heavy manufacturing to entertainment to home decor—decided not to issue one “green” line of software, but added a sustainability component to their core products. She told me: “We figured out that where we can have the biggest impact is if we put dashboards and analysis capabilities in our software that help those hundreds of thousands of engineers who are using the software think about sustainability while they're in the design process.”

Krasley said that designers often consider sustainability as an afterthought:

The thing is already designed or a prototype is out and they do a life-cycle assessment on it and they say, “Okay, we'll do better next time.” It always just happens too late in the process. So we thought, “What if we can catch some early? What if we can just put a dashboard in front of them that shows them, ‘Here are the downstream impacts of the design decision that you're making now, and here might be some other things you could try that would lessen particular impacts.’”

One cautionary tale about the importance of embedding sustainability into the design process is the runaway success of Keurig Green Mountain’s K-Cup. Its inventor now claims to regret the waste that his innovation has sparked, and the company is accelerating its efforts to develop fully recyclable solutions, which need to take into account not just materials, but the capacity of municipalities to recycle those materials, and the likelihood that consumers will actually do so. (Disclosure: I’m on Keurig Green Mountain’s external advisory panel on sustainability. Yes, we talk about K-Cups a lot.)

Burak Cakmak is about to take on an important role helping designers consider sustainability from the get-go. Cakmak was recently appointed dean of the Parsons School of Design, having worked in corporate responsibility and sustainability at Swarovski, Kering, and Gap Inc. Upon his appointment, he told that sustainability is “one of the key societal issues of today, and we need to find a way to really make it part of all of the curriculum, and clearly talk about it in terms of ‘What is an intelligent design approach?’ or ‘What is smart business practice?’ rather than trying to put it in a box to label it as, ‘This is the sustainability module that you need to go through; once you do that, you do something separate in other courses.’”

Indeed, Cakmak, Dillinger, Olson, Duffy, and Krasley show the power of design in driving positive change. Their role is not just to make cool new stuff, but to inspire broader and deeper changes in how a company thinks about what stuff it puts into the marketplace.

Speaking of inspiring, next we’ll turn to another function that should inspire, but often has the opposite effect: human resources.