In the second part of our Circular Thinking series, GDR’s Alex Sbardella talks to Theresa Millard, the driving force behind the Kohler WasteLAB, about her own sustainability epiphany, the value of waste and why she thinks WasteLABs will follow the same path as innovation and tech incubators by becoming core components of successful businesses.
Earlier this month in the first part of the Circular Thinking series we highlighted the brands and retailers who are signalling their sustainability credentials by upcycling their waste. One of the standout examples we highlighted is global kitchen and bathroom brand Kohler Company’s WasteLAB, which was set up with the specific purpose of converting its industrial waste into useful new products.
I was recently lucky enough to chat with Theresa Millard, sustainability and stewardship project manager at Kohler and co-founder of the company’s WasteLAB.
In this second article in the Circular Thinking series I want to share with you how the WasteLAB is beginning to change Kohler’s culture of waste management and the four key things she taught me about waste and sustainability innovation.
A sustainability awakening
Millard, who is British, originally trained as a ceramic artist. She moved to the USA in the 80s during a recession in the UK and joined Kohler in 1988. Over the course of her career she worked in both artistic and industrial design, but it wasn’t until a trip to Costa Rica in 2005 that she became interested in sustainability. She was there to study biomimicry – design inspired by nature – and came away with a new perspective on sustainability and systems. “I really started to question the ‘take-make-waste’ mentality in man-made systems. There’s no waste in nature – the trees drop their leaves; the leaves feed the animals; the animals feed the soil; the soil feeds the trees. Everything is part of a natural cycle of growth and decay.”
Changing the culture of waste management
When she joined Kohler’s environmental leadership team in 2007, the role of sustainability was still growing. “In 2008, you couldn’t work full time on sustainability – it just didn’t exist as a function”. However, by 2011, she was devoting more and more of her efforts to environmental initiatives. It was then that the idea for WasteLAB was born. “In nature, growth and change starts from abundance. I thought, ‘What do we have an abundance of?’, and the answer was waste products from our industrial processes.”
It took two years of testing and experiments, working closely with her Kohler colleague (and husband), technical designer Jim Neiman, to understand what material was available and how it could be used, then another several years to understand the business case and to secure funding and set up a physical space at Kohler’s facility in Wisconsin. In April 2019, the WasteLAB launched its first product – The ANN SACKS Crackle Collection by Kohler WasteLAB. Despite spending nearly fifteen years in the field, she’s not finished yet, and is currently focused on the next generation of ideas and issues for the WasteLAB to tackle.
Here are four things we learned about waste and sustainability innovation from Theresa’s journey:
1) All Materials Have Value
“If you look at people who have absolutely nothing in the world, they wouldn’t throw away the things we do. But in business we treat waste as something different – it’s a liability, something to be managed – and we just don’t approach it with the same energy as new product development,” says Millard. “But what if we apply new product development processes to waste? The results are just so much better.” Rather than looking at the issue of waste at the end of the design process – “far too late”, thinks Millard – think about planning for the end at the start. “We encourage people to think about these issues at four life cycle stages: Sourcing, Production, Use, and End of Life. You have to consider the whole thing.”
2) Speak the Language of the Business
Sustainable innovations only work if a business can actually execute them, and as with everything else, that means building a business case. In order to secure funding, the team calculated the value of materials, energy and labour that was going into the landfill as avoidable waste – and how many new sales they would have to generate to cover it. “This helped communicate the commercial and ethical opportunity”, says Millard.
For Kohler and the WasteLAB, that was enough, but our view at GDR is that other organisations which are less engaged on sustainability issues at a corporate level might also want to consider the publicity value of being a leader on these sorts of issues – or the negative impact of being out of step with consumer attitudes.
3) Promote Knowledge Sharing
Millard sees three main areas of innovation for the WasteLAB to explore: financial sustainability; advanced materials development; and engagement and knowledge sharing within and outside the business. Of these, she thinks knowledge sharing is the most important: “At the start, we had lots of polarising debates – more negative than positive, to be honest. But debate is good; awareness is a big part of the change we’re trying to achieve, and asking people for help or feedback inspires them to consider these issues in a way they wouldn’t before.”
This is true outside of the business too: “We can have more impact by sharing things like our ‘design for environment’ methodology with the wider community – if you’re actually serious about being a sustainable business and making a global change, you have to be more open.”
4) Embrace the Complexity
Although right now single issues like plastic waste or gender equality are getting an outsized amount of consumer and corporate attention, Millard cautions being too narrow in your focus: “The UN has 17 sustainable development goals, and they’re all interlinked, so we think the broader view is important. We’re really trying to take a look at our impact, across the whole lifecycle of our company. We’ve been a family-owned business for 145 years, so we have to think about what we want our legacy to be, as well as what we have the authority to change.” In addition to focusing on UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 (“ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”) through Kohler’s work with the WasteLAB, the company also emphasises goals six (“ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”) and seven (“ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”).
The future of waste and sustainability innovation
From chatting to Theresa, I got the sense she was genuinely passionate about the issue of waste and has worked hard to bring her colleagues with her on that journey. Creating a sustainability-focused incubator like the WasteLAB within the business is a smart move, and one that has obvious parallels to the ‘labs’ focused on technology or innovation we saw so often five to seven years ago. At first, those labs were intended to inspire change, and lead the business on what were seen as “fringe” topics. But as innovation and technology became more and more important to core operations, we saw many separate labs fall away – their jobs complete as their functions were integrated directly into mainstream departments. Millard sees a similar future for the WasteLAB and the issue of sustainability: “In ten years, we hope implementing waste streams into product innovation will just be business as usual. But for now, we’re a living case study, and a catalyst to get people to think about what they’re doing, and what materials are flowing through their operations. Kohler’s on a journey – but we haven’t solved it; in fact, no one’s solved it. I think we’ve just scratched the surface.”
We’re excited to see where that takes Kohler next.