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Looking Back: Tom Newhouse on Design for the Environment and Collaboration

Tom Newhouse

When Tom Newhouse of Thomas J. Newhouse -Design began his career in industrial design in the 1970’s, sustainable features were not easy to market to customers. While industrial design leaders such as Herman Miller and Steelcase had been operating their businesses with a sense of environmental and social stewardship from their beginnings, their practices were not the norm. “It was a battle for a while to design—to even mention to a client—that something was going to be greener,” he said. “’It’s going to cost more,’ they’d say, ‘And nobody cares!’ Mention it to the marketing department, and they’d balk.”

Since that time, however, Newhouse has seen the idea of “Designing for the Environment” grow hand in hand with the sustainable business movement—and the work of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. “It started to be—and this is pure triple bottom line thinking—potentially profitable to be greener,” said Newhouse.

At the time WMSBF was founded in the early 1990s, Newhouse had already dedicated not only his design practice, but his lifestyle to reducing his impact on the environment: his home and studio, designed and built in 1978 by Tom and his wife Jill, was conceived to be as energy efficient and low-impact as possible; much like the objects he was designing. The idea of business collaboration, especially in the field of ecological design and sustainability, pulled in Newhouse. “Sustainability cannot be accomplished alone, the whole society has to pull together to make it happen,” said Newhouse. “The Business Forum is the same sort of idea, but with the opportunity to network within West Michigan about sustainability. That local-mindedness—that’s what intrigued me.”

“The main idea was to learn from each other,” continued Newhouse.

Soon after the first initial meetings of the Forum, several members consolidated their efforts as the WMSBF Design Work Group, later becoming the Design Committee. With a focus on continuing and developing the idea of sustainable product development in West Michigan, they worked to design a guide that could provide a tangible tool for product manufacturers and designers to be more sustainable.

The result of this brainstorming and collaboration was the West Michigan Sustainable Businesses Forum’s “Designing Products with Sustainable Attributes” guide. First released in 1999, following up the Concise Self Assessment Guide to Sustainable Commerce, this guidebook provided an environmental impact matrix [EIM] through which a product could be comprehensively graded on its design from a life cycle thinking focus, taking factors such as raw materials specification and energy use, hazardous materials generated from manufacture, recycling possibilities for the product at the end of life, and even worker safety into consideration. The end result of such study would be a quantitative score that product designers and companies could use to benchmark the impact of their products.

While today, many software systems can assist with doing life cycle assessments and developing such analyses, the WMSBF Environmental Impact Matrix was an important development at the time for quantifying environmental data about products and companies. Over time, “Designing Products with Sustainable Attributes” has been utilized by many businesses and shared through numerous organizations, including the Network for Business Innovation and Sustainability and the University of Illinois.

“In some ways, these tools were rudimentary, but not for the time they weren’t—we were that early in adopting these concepts,” said Newhouse, who served on the committee when the Matrix was developed. “Our little old West Michigan forum was turning out stuff as good or better than what anybody else had going on.”

According to Newhouse, the spirit of collaboration around sustainability that allowed such collaboration to happen is an inherent, important quality that’s unique to WMSBF that allows it to produce results. “I’ll never forget a Nike guy spoke at one of our annual conferences,” said Newhouse. “He was just completely blown away about the collaborative relationship between direct competitors to a sustainable West Michigan. Similar industry leaders, like Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford at the time—they weren’t talking to each other It was anathema in those early days to talk to anyone you were in direct competition with, to talk to somebody at GM when you were at Ford. You just couldn’t do that.”

“Sustainability is a whole systems thinking issue, and we have to apply these changes as a market segment,” he continued. “We’ve been able to do that with the furniture industry in West Michigan, and the recycling industry. Those things happen because all of us are doing these things together.”