Entering 2020, ASID interviewed a handful of industry partners and ASID Design Impact Award recipients on how to design sustainable, socially-conscious products that positively impact lives, communities and the environment.
We sat down with Patrick Atkinson, CEO of Atkinson Ergonomic Solutions, Inc.; Dixon Bartlett, chief creative officer of Norwalk Furniture; and Gene Wilson, director of merchandising and vendor management for Room & Board and Room & Board Business Interiors. Read their thoughts and advice below.
ASID: How can designers, retailers and manufacturers become even more sustainably and socially oriented as we enter a new decade?
Patrick Atkinson: I think it is critical that designers, retailers and manufacturers should build on their initiative to continue to design products that focus not just on quality, but put a heavy emphasis on physical well-being and safety. In the long run, both employees and customers will repay this awareness with loyalty. It may involve additional costs to ensure greater safety and security, but this will result in a socially-conscious and sustainable business model while providing a steady return on investment.
(Photo: The McKean Cabinet is an example of sustainability in action. The pine for this cabinet is reclaimed wood from roof decking of row houses in Baltimore, with some of the wood panels dating back to the 1800s, according to the company’s website. Credit: Atkinson Ergonomic Solutions)
Dixon Bartlett: In many ways, I think becoming more socially-conscious must be a personal commitment. There are simple things we can do that aren't necessarily being done today, and those things can all add up. For example, one of the big challenges in our industry is what to do with old furniture. At Norwalk one of the things that we face is what to do with the thousands of yards of unused fabric that has outlived its purpose.
Rather than tossing it out, we’ve developed a system of ascending discounts with the age of fabrics that has been very successful in helping decrease our aged inventory. This not only provides a cost savings to our customers, but also prevents it from ending up in a landfill.
ASID: How are you currently designing and manufacturing for the greater good?
GW: Our partnership with the USDA Forest Service and Humanim, a social service enterprise, is creating jobs, improving neighborhoods and reclaiming lumber otherwise destined for landfills. This begins with deconstructing Baltimore row houses to reclaim the lumber – creating jobs for people with barriers to employment. The resulting vacant lots are reborn as parks, and we use the timber to make furniture and decor with a sense of purpose and history. To date, we’ve reclaimed more than 55,000 board feet of lumber (90 row homes) and introduced eight collections using this irreplaceable old growth timber.
DB: At Norwalk, we call ourselves “locavores.” This means we source our materials as close to our factory as possible, whenever feasible, thus creating benefits to our community. Some examples of this include sourcing our poly foam from vendors located within two hours of Norwalk, as well as sourcing reclaimed steel seat springs locally. In addition, many of our exposed wood parts are handcrafted by skilled Amish craftspeople from our local and surrounding communities.
PA: We have several potential products that we are working on, one of which is a self-propelled housekeeper cart. We would love to see hospitality workers lighten their incredibly heavy load, literally. Our Atkinson BedLift can and will become the industry standard for organizations that are motivated to address housekeeper’s musculoskeletal injuries, workman’s compensation claims and the overall physical well-being of employees.
Our premise is simple: create a product that brings value to its purchaser in multiple ways, not the least of which is to enable its prime users (hospitality industry housekeepers) to stand more upright and in a less injury-prone posture while changing up to 20 or more beds per day.
ASID: What are some unexpected benefits of designing with sustainability and social consciousness in mind?
DB: There is an ever-increasing group of consumers who are more and more aware of the social and environmental impact of furniture manufacturing. Also, buy-in from your employees into these practices is also a key benefit. As a company, when you have a clearly defined mission and vision that supports the same values that your employees support, it’s a win-win for everyone and is one of the keys to employee satisfaction here at Norwalk.
GW: Longevity. Life cycle. Helping people and communities. We can be kinder to the environment because we’ve eliminated the need to ship products across the ocean.
PA: We believe every person and every organization needs to be involved in worthy causes and to do their best not to make our environment any worse. Not only reducing and recycling packaging materials, creating a product that uses no electricity, holding accountable all manufacturers and distributors to adhere to environmental and physical safety standards, but also in creating jobs that are safe and allow for a fair wage.
We believe that these basic tenets should be universally accepted and followed. While following such policies may not determine the success of a company or a product, and may not be noticed by the public, it is our philosophy and ingrained in our culture. We want to leave our children with a better place than we may have inherited.