The Many Roads To Sustainability
Rock, paper, scissors?
It becomes frustrating to sit in the audience of a panel when the topic is something you are particularly passionate about. The desire to participate in the discussion is overwhelming. But those are also the best training exercises in listening. When you can’t interject, you have to let the words pass through your mind and digest them. You can agree, or disagree, and then evaluate. Question your own stance, while strengthening and broadening your own point of view.
This was the struggle going on in my mind while sitting at the Rock Paper Scissors panel hosted by the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator. The three-panel members represented three very different, very mega brands with very major ambitions facing their sustainability efforts. Ed Thomas from Nike, Jill Dumain of Patagonia, and Candice Reffe from Eileen Fisher were each fully saturated brand ambassadors, and fully owned the sustainability efforts of their respective companies.
The audience at an event like this is inevitably self-selecting, and all of the people in the room were, at the very least, conscious of this movement towards a more sustainable way of operating, leading to a more ethically respectful future. Aside from this common thread, I would guess that every person in that room would define sustainability in a different way, and that their individual or professional efforts to live that change were each unique. The more I listened, the more I learned this was just as true with each panelist, on an individual level as well as on a brand level.
Collaboration vs Competition:
There was a lot of talk about competition versus collaboration, which was stated either as an opportunity (inspirational) or obstacle (excuse-making). And through this conversation, each brand began taking on a distinctive persona and place in this journey. Their attitude towards collaboration reflected their confidence in their brand’s abilities. Ed used the example of polyester being accessible to everyone in the world, but what Nike, for example, does with the same polyester as Joe-Sneaker-Maker is what maintains Nike’s position as a leader in the industry.
And with that confidence comes the attitude that the threats of collaborating (based in fear) are not nearly as big as the threats of not collaborating. Sustainability has to be coupled with innovation, and that means bold moves, which means fearlessness. And to take the meaningful risks, the mission has to be shared by the whole company, from the top down.
What it looks like to me is this:
DESIGNED LIFESTYLE ACTIVISTS
Patagonia, with a history of environmental activism and awareness ingrained in their brand
This is built into the company from day one, and the mission is shared also by a large contingent of their customer base.
Accountability: Non-Profits, and their own customers
PIONEERING, PROCESS DESIGN STEWARDS
Nike, with the athlete at the center of their process, is technology- and science-driven.
The CEO is incessantly checking in on these efforts — this is the roadmap to the company’s future.
Accountability: Their CEO — mostly internal (except maybe ethical questions about factory workers’ conditions)
ASPIRATIONAL EMPOWERMENT INGENUE
Eileen Fisher, tied to their causes, the empowerment of women, is driven by people’s stories, and how their supply chain can impact lives positively rather than harmfully.
They have to convince the CEO that this is the right direction to go.
Accountability: Themselves. Questioning the human impact, and the environmental impact as a by-product of their culture of human concern
Beyond the history of the brands, it is also the leadership and the people on the team who define their positioning today versus 30+ years ago. What kind of individual does each brand attract? What is their style? That will 100% inform how they approach the problem solving involved with design.
Jill Dumain, with over 25 years at Patagonia, knows the product and the materials inside and out but is also an advocate for changing consumer habits. Buy less, but buy better. So her mission extends beyond the production room and beyond the sales shelf and into the lifecycle of the product.
Julie Rubiner, a designer from Eileen Fisher, jumped into the conversation briefly to state honestly that this is new territory for their team. Sustainability wasn’t on her radar or part of her mission when she joined the company, but it has evolved into an intrinsic part of their design process and her personal pursuit. Candice explained that Eileen Fisher, as a value-oriented company, attracts people who want to be engaged in the causes they believe in. So they are predisposed to taking on an extra challenge in the design parameters when they feel they can make a difference. This is admirable company culture and a hopeful beacon for how other large companies can begin to tackle these issues.
Sustainability does not have to have been a part of corporate culture from the beginning for it to make business sense to modify your company’s best practices now. We’re not talking about yesterday. We’re talking about today. These new systems are put into place one day at a time, one decision at a time.
It Starts With Knowing
For designers, shoppers, business leaders, we make the choice to know. We make the choice to be aware. And once we are aware, we can begin to deconstruct existing processes and redesign them. It is so easy to make excuses and see only obstacles. But that is also what is inspiring about this moment. Designers solve problems. It’s what we do. Sustainability, in all its forms and meanings, might be the great design challenge of our era.
The panel ended with the story of Ed’s grin. Around a problem-solving table for LAUNCH with reps from Nike, NASA, and other world-changing organizations, the NASA rep asks him what he’s grinning about, these are serious issues on the agenda. His response: “I’m sitting at a table with the person who put a guy on the moon. And brought him back. Anything is possible.”
These moments make the insurmountable seem achievable. Designers, anything is possible. Optimism will always live in the endless power of design. I hope that makes you grin.