Each month, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.
This month’s guest was Zoë Middleton, Director of Design, Marketing, Product Development, and Account Manager at Fabrique.
Can you share some of your perspectives on the intersection of design and social justice?
Since George Floyd died, people are starting to look for black designers and are discovering that there are very few of them — and even fewer black women. I think there are 43,000 active industrial designers in the US and only 400 of them are black — even fewer are women, of course. We are suddenly seeing commercials and some products that reflect diversity — which is recent and quick — but overall it’s a slow change that is starting to happen, and needs to happen.
Customers are diverse, but design teams are not. Design still tends to be very top down, with white males at the top. Black women are consumers, too, but you rarely see black women leading design teams. Companies are just beginning to realize that they need diversity — not just the color of people’s faces, but a diversity of ideas, to grow.
In your SB’20 Just Brands panel, you talked about racial Inclusion, equity, and justice in the context of product development and design. Are you also working on the environmental side of sustainability?
Yes! We are already making a line of bags out of vegan leather, but this year we became the #1 vendor for Girl Scouts and are making a line of bags and backpacks of recycled plastic. We also designed this special cart for the Girl Scout cookie sale that’s made of all recycled materials.
They didn’t ask for this, but we thought we could make these bags more sustainable at the price point they were looking for.
Making bags out of recycled materials great, but what happens to those bags at the end of their life?
Some of the Girl Scout products — like the cookie carts — are designed to last one year. Ideally, they could take apart these, save the frame, and just get a new bag, but the Girls Scouts are not thinking that way yet.
There are so many hidden costs and logistics to reuse and repair, so we’re not 360° yet. To make this happen, we would need collection and distribution centers that could handle the different materials. It’s not being talked about right now, but we have to go that way. Right now, we can only focus on materials, so these things still end up in landfills. It still comes down to money.
How do you fold sustainability into your pitch when your client isn’t asking for it?
The customer doesn’t really know what they want. As a designer, your job is to come up with ideas and give them options that meet their needs, as well as the story they can tell. You can include sustainable options and the stories that they can tell by choosing those options. You don’t have to push sustainability first — just include it in your design options.
What kind of trends are you seeing in sustainable design?
Sustainability is the future across all brands. Companies tend to think that sustainability requires months of research and innovation, but there are a lot of really simple things that can be done to become more sustainable. For example, reducing a little bit of weight in the product or eliminating useless packaging can save a lot of money and emissions when shipping thousands of products.
End users are demanding more sustainable products, but big companies still struggle to manage their drive to make money and grow along with what consumers are demanding. Part of the struggle is that customers are still not willing to pay much more for sustainability.
Interestingly, COVID has really driven online shopping, which has given much more exposure for the small companies that are focused on sustainability. Small companies feel the impacts of consumer demands — like sustainability — much more directly than big companies, and can respond because they are also more agile. Fortune 500 companies are starting to feel the pressure from these small companies and are beginning to follow suit.
For example, Floyd Furniture in Detroit designs have a sustainable design ethos. I think they even have a take-back and resell model. Ikea is now following suit. Even H&M has initiated a program where they take back clothing and shred them to make new clothes.
Amazon is enormous and they are beginning to push sustainability in packaging — they are calling it ‘frustration free” packaging. It saves money, improves shipping and customer experience, and is more sustainable.
What do you want to work on over the next 20 years of your career?
I want to work in sustainable products! I also want to work with interiors and with kids. There are so many touch points in the system — besides the product itself — where it’s simple and quick to make improvements. Sustainable design doesn’t have to be brain surgery!
But you have to diversify your core design team. If people on your team look like you, they probably also think like you. If you need different kinds of ideas — like sustainability — you need to bring in different kinds of people.
Thank you, Zoë!