Growing up in Saskatoon, Canada, Jane Abernethy not only had an abundance of space but also the type of parents that always encouraged her to be curious and value beauty – which naturally, led to a passion for design. But this passion also led to a dilemma: if she became a product designer, would she be partly responsible for the environmental impacts of mass consumption? With further thought, she realized this responsibility was really an opportunity. Trained as an industrial designer, Abernethy worked for almost a decade in very traditional product design on a range of products from national mailboxes to sporting goods to healthcare. She strived to make each project as sustainable as possible.
In 2007, she landed at Humanscale, a design company focused on ergonomic office furniture, where she was vocal enough about the importance of sustainability that she was eventually asked to lead a sustainability project. Abernethy became Humanscale’s first Chief Sustainability Officer, where she now oversees an entire department that strives to ensure the company’s positive impact through both its products and operations. We spoke to her about some of the key lessons she’s gathered while working at this critical intersection of sustainability and design.
In what ways do you feel that your experience as an industrial designer has served you in your current position as a chief sustainability officer?
Some of the most crucial skills developed working as an industrial designer are essential in my current role.
- Scoping a project – In sustainability, we’re often suggesting that some process or material be changed for a better alternative, so we need a good understanding of why it’s being used in the first place.
- Creative problem solving – Coming up with better alternatives takes a lot of creativity, brainstorming and evaluating the feasibility of solutions.
- Communicating – Although sustainability can be technical in its way, simplifying the information, even sharing it as a story, makes the work much more inspiring and exciting for those we work with.
- Getting buy in – Much like pitching a design concept, any sustainability improvements need support from many people in different departments.
- Follow through – Also like a design concept, the original pitch is only the start of the project. A great deal of work and tenacity is needed to see that the intent is kept.
What does planet positive mean to you? How do you see this idea manifesting in design?
To me, the words planet positive means we’re going beyond reducing our negative impact and leaving the world better off. Without thinking about it, we might assume that manufacturing products must have a negative impact, and that the best a manufacturer could hope to do is reduce this impact. I think we can expect more.
The effects of decisions in design, manufacturing practices, and the overall influence of the company can be calculated, usually shared as the measure of negative impacts (footprints). With the guidance of academics and NGOs, the measure of positive impact can also be measured (handprints). When a product has more handprints than footprints, it’s net positive.
In June 2021, Humanscale had 26 products (over 60% of its product line) certified climate positive through the Living Product Challenge – meaning the world is better off each time these products are made.
Where do you find inspiration? Can you point to a few products/projects that you are most proud of?
In 2018, Humanscale launched Smart Ocean, which was the first task chair on the market made with recaptured ocean plastic (fishing nets). When we started working on it in 2016, we really didn’t know if this material would work. We knew it was the most harmful kind of ocean plastic since it can ‘ghostfish’ for decades after being released, wreaking havoc on the marine ecosystem. Discarded fishing gear accounts for about 20% of ocean plastic, so it’s a huge problem. We initially partnered with Bureo, who were a great supplier, and have since expanded our program to additional suppliers and products.
Each Smart Ocean is made with almost 2 pounds of recaptured fishing nets, so each time the chair is purchased, we need to clean up the ocean by that amount. This product changes the role of manufacturing from doing harm (aiming to do less of it) to being a small part of the solution to our environmental challenges.
Nowadays, sustainability can have many different interpretations and applications. How do you go about bringing a diverse team together around a common vision?
As designers and manufacturers, we’ll need to respond to our customers’ priorities. Some might be passionate about an endangered species, others might be concerned about toxins in products, still others are reducing their climate footprint. It may seem an infinite number of different concerns, but they generally fall into a few overall categories. For example, the UN SDGs groups these into 17 categories. The American Institute of Architects has put forward a materials pledge that uses the 5 categories of human health, social health and equity, ecosystem health, climate health and circular economy.
Of course, aligning our product development teams to these priorities is a different challenge. It can seem strange for a designer to see what avoiding toxic ingredients has to do with avoiding child labor, and what that has to do with making a part repairable. Tying these different asks back to established frameworks and remembering the range in customer priorities helps us keep a holistic approach.
What are some key takeaways you’ve gathered while working at the intersection of design and sustainability over the last decade or so? What advice would you have for young designers looking to pursue a similar path?
- It’s important for us as designers to understand the influence of our decisions. For example, if we design a product with a shiny class A surface, it’ll likely need to be packaged with a protective plastic film to protect that surface. That film will be discarded immediately, but continue to exist for many decades, possibly in the environment. If our customer is asking for packaging without single use plastic, we need to design for this from the start.
- The skills you’re refining for innovation can be pointed toward sustainability. Most of our sustainability challenges can be reframed as design challenges, and the tools of understanding the problem, brainstorming, evaluating concepts, even prototyping and testing are applicable.
- Collaboration with a wide range of people and departments is essential. We may set a sustainable direction in the design phase, but decisions in engineering, sourcing, quality, logistics, and other departments need to support the product being more sustainable for our design intent to become a reality. The work done after design is set makes up the biggest part of both the effort and the impacts.
- Tenacity is your secret weapon.
There is a lot of talk now that sustainable practices alone are no longer enough. What does ‘going beyond sustainability’ actually represent – for both designer and company alike?
First, we need to understand what our impacts are now, as a baseline. For products, this usually means doing a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), where we model all the impacts – from extraction of raw materials, transportation, processing materials, using the product to disposal. The LCA tells us the products’ footprints.
Second, we reduce those footprints as much as possible. Possible changes could include shipping more efficiently (ex. rail instead of truck), sourcing more recycled content, sourcing material closer to the manufacturing facility, increasing durability, changing factories to renewable energy, and replacing materials containing toxins. These kinds of activities can drastically reduce footprints.
Third, the much smaller (but still existing) footprints now need to be accounted for by creating more good in the world than the small remaining footprint. For this, we’ll need to influence the world outside our usual business activities and create handprints (ie. positive change of which we are the cause, measured in footprint units).
What do you hope to see for the future of the sustainable design movement?
When we peel back the layers of causes of our sustainability issues, we eventually find that our economic model is based on constant growth, and we live on a finite planet. This can even be quantified. The earth’s ability to replenish in a year is tracked. Human consumption is tracked. And we can see how quickly we use up this year’s resources. It’s called Earth Overshoot day, and in 2022, it fell on 28 July.
What makes me hopeful is that I see a lot more appetite for addressing sustainability issues – from individual consumer choices, to corporate practices (not just marketing), to legal requirements, to investment firms. General understanding of sustainability is increasing, and there’s much more demand for sustainable design than ever before.