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How to Measure Design’s Handprint on the Environment

It’s not just your footprint that counts with environmentally sustainable design. Today’s definition of good global stewardship also examines your handprint. “Handprint” measures a company’s commitment to social responsibility— what it is giving back to communities, employees and the environment. It goes beyond fair trade, ethical work environments, and eco-friendly materials.  We are in the midst of an evolution from “Environmental Responsibility” to “Social Responsibility” that’s driving purchasing decisions that drill down to the way products are designed, sourced, made and contribute to a net positive future. This expanded definition of sustainable design demands more than doing less harm or using fewer resources from the environment,  it demands that architects, designers, makers, and manufacturers work to restore, regenerate, replace and repair. Here are four metrics to measure your  carbon footprint and handprint: 

 1.Sustainable Operations:

Zero Waste Bistro, featuring Durat, at WantedDesign Manhattan
Zero Waste Bistro, featuring Durat, at WantedDesign Manhattan

For more than a decade, consumers have been ditching the disposable mindset for products in the marketplace with permanence and sustainability. This change in consumer values forced companies to take a long hard look at their environmental impact. The word “sustainable” became a marketing buzzword used loosely to mean “green.”  Today, many companies prioritize their carbon footprint and are going next level by creating zero waste production methods and circular economies. To understand the concept of a “circular economy,” let’s look at the restaurant industry where the average restaurant produces over a ton of waste every week.

As a solution to all of this restaurant refuse, a group of innovative chefs from Helsinki created The Zero Waste Bistro, a dining experience installation at NYCxDESIGN.

At the Zero Waste Bistro, chefs from Nolla, the first Nordic zero-waste restaurant in Helsinki, present food that is sourced, packaged and produced to create zero waste.
At the Zero Waste Bistro, chefs from Nolla, the first Nordic zero-waste restaurant in Helsinki, present food that is sourced, packaged and produced to create zero waste.

Zero Waste Bistro explores the themes of circular economy, new material innovations and sustainable design.  Presented by the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York   and co-curated by Finnish designers Harri Koskinen and Linda Bergroth. It introduces the food philosophy of Helsinki-based Restaurant Nolla, the first zero-waste restaurant in the Nordic region. Chefs Luka Balac, Carlos Henriques and Albert Franch Sunyer are working to make the restaurant industry healthier for the planet with a zero-waste model. This circular economy follows the philosophy of refusing, reducing, reusing and (only as the last resource) recycling .

Restaurant Nolla chefs Luka Balac and Albert Franch Sunyer photo credit: Nicholas Calcott
Restaurant Nolla chefs Luka Balac and Albert Franch Sunyer photo credit: Nicholas Calcott
“It’s time to rethink the way we live, the way we eat and the materials we use. Our seas are filled with plastic waste. In the US alone, over 58 billion disposable cups are discarded and sent to landfills every year. What if all of those cups were reusable, compostable or recyclable? What if our everyday packaging was made of plastic-free materials, reducing plastic pollution and toxic microplastics in our soil and water supply. What if we collectively committed to only buying products that we love and that will last a lifetime? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves as a society. With Zero Waste Bistro, we’re proposing a future that reduces waste and helps to regenerate our natural environment, making it livable for generations to come; a future that’s already here if we make the right choices,” says Kaarina Gould, Executive Director of the Finnish Cultural Institute. The Zero Waste Bistro is constructed of Durat surfaces, sustainable solid surface material which contains recycled plastic and is 100% recyclable. 

2. Healthy Material Selection:

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Materials literally become a part of us just by passively living with them. It’s a scientific fact that the items we live with shed and emit into the atmosphere, the built environment and we absorbing these small particles.  Paints, varnishes, particle board, plastics, carpet— there are numerous substances in the common household that slowly release toxins that end up in our bloodstream. This underscores the importance of well-made design using healthy materials that are good for us and the environment. 

Lapitec, a “sintered stone” is one example of healthy surface cladding that goes beyond its performance by embracing sustainability and stewardship. Lapitec designed a product that incorporates technology to help clean the air with its proprietary Bio-Care technology “baked” into the slab that breaks down pollution.  Lapitec reacts with UV light to break down pollution.  100 square meters of Lapitec can break down the equivalent CO2 of 28 trees. 

Launched in Europe, many of these sintered stone manufacturers build sustainability into their brands through the manufacturing, recycling and reclamation processes.

3. Wildlife Preservation:

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Companies that advance both conservation and business objectives not only reduce their carbon footprint but make a “handprint” by protecting and fostering mother nature. New England lumber mill, Hull Forest Products, permanently protects over 13,000 acres of forestland through the family land trust, Hull Forestlands L.P.  The company removed the possibility of development to ensure that its working forests will remain a source of timber for generations to come. “Wood flooring that hails from well-managed forests is a great way to bring a sustainable material into your home. Not only does wood contain less embodied energy than any other floor covering, it’s also good for your home’s indoor air quality. Solid wood floors also have an exceptionally long service life, and they sequester carbon. While our working forests are growing the timber that we use to make our wood flooring, they are also providing wildlife habitat and other important ecological services,” says Hull Forest Products.

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Hull Forest Products invites the public on wood walks to learn about sustainable forestry. Participants can walk recreational trails created during a 2017 timber harvest and observe enhanced wildlife habitat. 

4. Net positive Effect on Our Global Community:

Net positive means to give more than you take. Net positive products give more back to nature and society than they take.  Companies that make net positive products do detailed calculations to understand a product’s full environmental impact.  They take into account materials used, energy consumed, emissions caused, a product’s social impact, packaging, and transportation. We as consumers have the power of net positive consumption when we shop: We can buy a normal product that decreases natural resources; buy nothing and natural resources stay the same; or buy a net positive product and natural resources increase. 

To better understand how companies can commit to a net positive effect, let’s look at the company, Tales by Trees, a net positive art and design startup. The Finnish company aims to be a model for how to achieve both a product line and a business model that is completely net positive.  

A minimalist sculpture made from sustainably grown Nordic birch designed by Finnish designers Elina Helenius and Saara
A minimalist sculpture made from sustainably grown Nordic birch designed by Finnish designers Elina Helenius and Saara

The brand will introduce new designer collaborations and net positive designs in 2018 in categories including decor and wall art, home textiles, jewelry and books. Each design will be developed to support the company’s net positive model, increasing natural resources and achieving a measurable benefit to the natural environment

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A minimalist sculpture made from sustainably grown Nordic birch designed by Finnish designers Elina Helenius and Saara Renvall

The company makes data available for each and every product it develops to both the general public and the environmental science community.

“Almost everything you buy decreases natural resources, even those you usually consider green products,” says  Founder Markus Pyhältö. “When people talk about sustainability, they typically only think about material use. We wanted to go beyond that and take into account everything that goes into production, including energy use, emissions and transportation. When our customers buy these items, they are not only getting elegant art and design, but they’re also rebuilding the planet.”
With each introduction, Tales by Trees hopes to give its customers an opportunity to combat climate change and biodiversity loss with simple, but impactful designs.

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Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc is a freelance writer living in Orlando, Florida with many published bylines in magazines, newspapers, and multimedia sites. As a professional lifestyle writer, Karen specializes in art, architecture, design, home interiors and personality profiles. Karen is the writer, producer and host of the streaming series, The Design Tourist (www.TheDesignTourist.com) that brings viewers a global dose of design inspiration with episodes featuring the latest looks and trends from the world’s premiere design events and shows. She also publishes a quarterly magazine on design travel that you can read by clicking the link: https://thedesigntourist.com/the-magazine/ Her journalism background includes seven years on-air experience as a TV news reporter and anchor covering a range of issues from education to politics. Her educational credentials include a Master of Arts in Mass Communications from Northeast Louisiana University and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Louisiana State University. Throughout her career, Karen has written and produced dozens of documentaries and videos for educational, commercial, corporate, and governmental clients and appeared in many TV and video productions as a professional host.

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Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc is a travel host and writer with a popular travel show, The Design Tourist, and a companion lifestyle blog. As a widely published travel journalist and content creator, Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association. She also serves as the Design and Travel editor of the national lifestyle magazine, LaPalme. Karen believes that every destination has a story to tell through its local art, architecture, culture, and craft. This immersive creative exploration begins with authentic accommodations where the narrative of place unfolds through art, accessories, accouterments, furnishings, fixtures, and food. 

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