Vol. 38 No. 3, p. 16
"When a designer sees a problem, they say 'YES!'” was a philosophy Victor Emoli, IDSA, now the dean of the School of Design at SCAD, instilled in his industrial design students. This design-oriented mentality got me to thinking about all sorts of problems, big and small. And there is no problem more massive than the fact that the industrialized world, fairness in society and the environment seem to be at odds with each other.
The Germination of an Idea
In summer 2003, I traveled to London to do an internship at JAM Design and Communications. The projects the JAM team worked on that summer were wide-ranging, from designing a bar at the Chelsea Football Club for Audi to architectural bus tours for Channel 4. As Jamie Anley, co-founder of JAM, often would say, “We are helping brands build a bridge to contemporary culture.” This experience gave me a new insight into the need for companies to communicate their brand values.
We would often go to the rooftop of the JAM Studio to have lunch. The view of London’s skyline was amazing. One particular evening toward the end of my summer experience, I was the last to leave the office. On the way out, I went up to the rooftop to see the city in the evening.
Thinking about this impossible contradiction of people, planet and profit, an inspiration struck me. I envisioned a network of creative companies that would collaborate and compete to donate a portion of their proceeds to helping people and the planet. As they evolved, they would move closer to the goal of bringing the triple bottom line of profit, people and planet into alignment.
When I returned to Savannah the following semester, I felt inspired by this vision, but also felt an immense responsibility to not let it go to waste. So much so that by the time winter break came around I told my parents and family that I thought I should drop out of school to create a company that donated a percentage of it’s income to societal and environmental causes. And that they should all drop they were doing and join me. Understandably concerned, the parental units urged me to finish school. I finally came around to the point of view that I’d have a better chance at successfully creating a company with a triple bottom line mission if I had a degree first.
So I went back to school with the resolve to apply everything I learned toward creating the International Design League. It’s funny how the ideas that stick with you seem to send you reminders at every turn. In spring 2004, everywhere I looked people were wearing the Lance Armstrong Livestrong bracelets. Of course, the business world has been supporting nonprofit initia-tives long before it was on my radar. One great example is Newman’s Own. According to the Newman’s Own Foundation, the company has contributed $500 million to charities since 1982.
In summer 2004, my team from a Procter & Gamble–sponsored universal design class was awarded an internship. One of our projects had identified the elusive unmet user need of cleaning on the go. My team’s solution was the stain patch. P&G’s better solution was the Tide to Go Pen. As proud as my teammates and I were to have contributed toward the creation of a new category of consumable on-the-go products, it was also scary to think of how many of these pens would wind up in landfills or into an imperfect recycling system. This got me to think that the holy grail of universal unmet needs is to figure out how consumable products can be sustainable. I also began to imagine the amount of good that could be done when giving a percentage of sales to people and the planet for products that are sold on a global scale.
Just as the contradictory question of how consumables could be sustainable was on replay with me, I had the opportunity to hear William McDonough lecture. At the time, I remember being enthralled by the concept of cradle to cradle production systems as opposed to the cradle to grave model that is closer to the reality of the lifecycle of our products.
By the time graduation rolled around, the wisdom of getting a few years of industry experience before starting a company won out over any thoughts I had of starting the International Design League (IDL) right away. I wound up in New York working in the toy and licensed-products industries. The years ticked by. I always looked on with fascination as companies like Toms Shoes came onto the scene. Toms’ one-for-one model has a simple straightforward message, drawing a connection between customers buying their own shoes and giving a corresponding pair to a child in need.
In 2015 I became a dad for the first time and moved with my family to my hometown of Cincinnati. The IDL was officially getting started. My old boss became our first client. With a new location and new bills, the wisdom of holding off on making a commitment to nonprofits won out for the time being. So we went at it one project at a time. We’ve been designing toys, products and packaging for clients for four years now. Hard to believe! We also have some in-house projects we work on, like an illustrated children’s book and furniture designs.
Finally, at the beginning of 2019, the IDL made the commitment to contribute 3% of its revenue to the Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati and 3% to the Green Umbrella Regional Sustainability Alliance. Habitat is committed to giving hardworking low-income people a hand up. All across America, individuals and families struggle to find affordable places to live. Habitat seeks to remedy this injustice by providing low-income people the opportunity to realize their dreams of homeownership. The Green Umbrella is the leading alliance working to maximize the environmental sustainability of greater Cincinnati. It is driving collaboration to fuel measurable improvements in key areas of sustainability.
Sustainably Produced Products
Designers shouldn’t have to feel guilty for creating new products. Even before the Industrial Revolution, mankind was creating objects with form and function. As designers, the problem-solving creative process is in our DNA. I think industrial designers are uniquely positioned to shift the reinvention of industry and the wave of innovation we need to see with the materials and manufacturing of our products.
We are starting to see the tipping point come into view, where renewable energy sources like wind and solar are becoming cheaper than traditional fossil fuels. Similarly, we need to aim for sustainable materials to become cost-competitive and widely available. In order for sustainable best practices to grow, manufacturing companies, governments and scientists all need to engage in a global design challenge to make sustainability accessible to all.
Leaders like McDonough and Braungart are doing great work to eliminate harmful chemicals from our human-made world. Whether it is the Cradle to Cradle certification or something similar, we need a universally implemented system for grading the life cycle of products that is even easier to understand than the nutrition facts on the back of food packaging. The process of recycling needs innovative breakthroughs to close the loop, so that technical materials are upcycled infinitely without carbon dioxide emissions or pollution. Simultaneously, we need a second process for collecting and composting used biological plant-based materials. Unfortunately, biodegradable bioplastics to date have not worked, because they require very high temperatures to decompose.
Many companies are already making great strides toward sustainably producing products. Unilever, Seventh Generation, Patagonia and Adidas come to mind. Lego has committed to transitioning to plant-based plastics by 2030.
Achieving a harmony of the triple bottom line—profit, people, planet—may seem like an impossible task. However, we all share an urgent responsibility to move toward that goal. Part of the IDL commitment to Habitat and the Green Umbrella is to always remember to consider people and the planet as we create.
We all need meaning in our work, and we all want to make positive impact. As designers, the easiest and seemingly wisest thing to do is to stay in your lane and avoid the loaded topic of sustainability. But there comes a time when we must make sure that wisdom is not fear in disguise. It is going to take all of us to achieve an alignment of the triple bottom line. If you have a seed of a triple bottom line idea, I hope you can let it grow.
—Tom Riddle, email@example.com
Tom Riddle is a founder and CEO of the International Design League. Prior to starting the IDL in 2015, he was a designer in the toy and licensed products industry, working on brands like Fisher Price, Marvel, Star Wars, Skylanders and Angry Birds. Tom has a BFA in industrial design from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).