The Product Nutrition Label Revealed: Q+A with Joe Gebbia

Over the next two weeks on the Cooper-Hewitt Design Blog, students from an interdisciplinary graduate-level course on the Triennial taught by the Triennial curatorial team blog their impressions and inspirations of the current exhibition,‘Why Design Now?’.

 

Joe Gebbia is a San Francisco-based industrial designer and self-described “designtrepreneur,” as well as founding partner of the green materials consultancy Ecolect. Gebbia noticed that his efforts to adopt more sustainable practices in his work were constrained by the lack of reliable information about and consistent standards for evaluating the numerous new materials now available to designers and manufacturers. To bridge this knowledge gap, Ecolect’s initiatives include the Product Nutrition Label, a clear and simple sustainability index based on the USDA nutrition label, and the GreenBox, a quarterly subscription service with samples of the best new materials Ecolect can source.

 

Both the Product Nutrition Label and the GreenBox are included in the 2010 National Design Triennial Why Design Now? In February we asked Joe via email to describe the Nutrition Label and GreenBox projects in greater detail:

 

Briefly describe the Product Nutrition Label.

 

As the Ecolect database grew, we became frustrated with the confusion around what makes something “sustainable” or not. It’s a concern shared by designers around the world. Without data to back claims, sustainability is only opinion. One effective way to measure sustainability is through Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA. This tracks a material’s footprint through its development, use, and disposal.

 

The Product Nutrition Label is our way of applying Life Cycle Assessment to materials. There are a lot of companies conducting LCA; what makes ours different is the label format. It provides a framework for comparing different areas of environmental effectiveness: Systems, Contents, Social Responsibility, Chemical Health, Water, Energy, Carbon. In addition, any third party verifications are included. The label also accounts for a qualitative summary of the product/material. On the other side, we allow the manufacturer to list sustainable attributes and share their environmental agenda.

 

How did it strike you to apply the “nutrition label” concept to materials and products?

 

The analogy that framed the project was food products. It’s so easy to compare foods side by side. Food labels are standardized so consumers can select the product that fits their needs. For example, if someone prefers fewer carbs in their diet, they can put two jars of peanut butter side-by-side and select the best one for them. In a similar light, sustainability is also a very context-based thing. It’s not one-size-fits-all. An attribute that is important to my project may not be applicable to yours. So a label allows us to put two materials next to one another and make an informed decision based on our unique criteria. I may care more about water use, and someone else more about recyclability. The NutritionLabel allows us to identify what’s relevant to the context of a project, and optimize the sustainability for that particular project.

 

What are the minimum criteria for a material for it to even be considered for an Ecolect assessment? And do these companies need some sort of deal with you to get the label?

 

The label is a service provided to manufacturers and product companies. There are no minimum criteria, other than having a product to evaluate. Companies with existing LCAs have an advantage, as we can produce a label in less time, given the data is transferrable. We can work with a company at any scale, across any number of SKUs.

 

Once you want to review a material, how do you go about it? How transparent are the manufacturers, or do you do independent testing? And how do you keep the metrics standards uniform for different kinds of materials?

 

We have a partnership with an LCA company in Europe, where this is a more common practice. They are the number crunchers, and we’re able to provide the communication design and marketing. It’s a very synergistic relationship playing off both our strengths. We use industry standard databases, and some custom databases as well. Manufacturers are very important to the process, and their full participation is necessary to produce an effective label.

 

How is the GreenBox subscriptions service going? What are the biggest sectors of potential growth using this kind of outreach tools?

 

The GreenBox is a tool for anyone to curate their own sustainable materials library. Delivered on a quarterly basis, the box provides actual samples of existing and emerging materials. Each material is attached to a card with a summary and integrated hook. However, it’s more than just staying on top of the latest materials because it functions as an inspiration library. Designers can sort through samples for inspiring colors, textures, surfaces, and shapes.

 

We are currently distributing the GreenBox to design firms, corporations, trend teams, universities, and freelance designers across architecture, interior design, product design, and even graphic design. With this service, these groups and organizations can lead the way in cultivating awareness and widespread adoption of sustainable materials.

 

Alan Rapp
School of Visual Arts Design Criticism MFA program