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Sustainable Design

Published June 17, 2021

Show Us What You're Made Of

Featuring: ASID, Humanscale, Mindful Materials and Studio O+A 


By Halee Miller

Staff Writer

What if every time you went to the doctor’s office they tested your toxicity levels? What would show up? How does it even get in there? Why aren’t we as concerned about the toxicity in our blood as we are, say, our cholesterol or blood pressure? The toxicity of materials in our everyday spaces and products should shock most — a top reason why leaders in the commercial design industry are dedicating their careers to using design and innovation to make change.


Earlier this month, Mortarr’s CEO and Co-Founder, Abby Murray, convened industry leaders for a conversation on sustainability, toxicity and material transparency.

"We have to learn new ways of doing business," she said. " A Gensler study stated that of the energy consumed in the U.S., 49% is consumed by the built environment. Yes, half. Between the construction of buildings and the usage of said buildings, the built environment takes a toll on our environment. Where do we even begin to make change?"


Panelists included Jon Strassner, Director of Industry Partnerships at the American Society of Interior Design; Verda Alexander, Co-founder and Artist in Residence of Studio O+A; Annie Bevan, Executive Director of mindfulMaterials; and Jane Abernethy, Chief Sustainability Officer for Humanscale.


Strassner and Alexander joined Murray in facilitating the discussion. The two are also the co-hosts of Break Some Dishes, a podcast that brings together voices from inside and outside the sustainable design industry. Both passionate about finding solutions to the environmental crises that our planet faces, they seek out unique and mold-breaking creatives that are making a real difference in their sustainable efforts.


mindfulMaterials is a platform for manufacturers to share their products; information on their human health and environmental impacts included. First having to meet the criteria to even be named a “mindful material,” all the products on the platform leave consumers to make their own informed product choices. Bevan is passionate about healthy materials and collaborative change. 


Humanscale’s groundbreaking work is making the workplace a healthier and more comfortable place. As a manufacturer of ergonomic office products, sustainability and using healthy materials is at the top of their priorities. Abernethy said that 60% of their products add a positive impact on the earth. She calls the journey of actually manufacturing for a cleaner world an exciting, but challenging one to be on.

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What is Material Transparency?

Put simply, it means that manufacturers are fully disclosing the material content of a product  — every single one. Abernethy said that consumers being informed about a product’s ingredients is as important as a food package having a detailed nutritional label on the back. She stressed the importance of manufacturers taking the initiative to track down the “recipe” of each material they use in their products, and most of all, share that information with consumers. 


“Well, we don’t eat our desks, so why should we care what they’re made out of,” asked Strassner. 


“You can have other types of exposure to chemistries, even if you’re not eating them, when you touch them [surfaces], you still touch your mouth,” said Bevan.


Abernathy added an interesting point. “It’s really clear when you look at something that’s a bit worn, those particles have gone somewhere, it doesn’t stay in the product the way you might be thinking when you first purchase the product.”


Justly, consumers want more than just transparency about the chemicals in their products — they want toxic chemicals eliminated all together. “We’re just going to take a guess and assume that you don’t like to consume formaldehyde and acetaldehyde either,” says Bevan. “The industry needs to make a change, we can’t continue to just ask for transparency, we have to focus on getting better now.”

“It’s really clear when you look at something that’s a bit worn, those particles have gone somewhere, it doesn’t stay in the product the way you might be thinking when you first purchase the product.”

— Jane Abernethy, Humanscale 


Regulation of material transparency isn’t as easy, or complete, as one would hope. There are a lot of grey areas, meaning manufacturers can get away with sneakily adding chemicals and not having to disclose it, according to panelists. 


“We all just assume that the desk we’re sitting at is safe,” said Strassner. “The truth is, we have this agency called the EPA who has come out to say, ‘We don’t regulate the use of chemicals.’” 


Abernethy explained how her team at Humanscale keeps material transparency at the forefront. First finding the formula of each material they use in their products, finding out every ingredient used in it’s “recipe”, adding up every ingredient in all of the recipes, and then sharing all of that information with consumers. 


Alexander shared her personal experience with material transparency.


“When I was first diagnosed with a thyroid disorder, my doctor said you have to go throw away your couch, throw away your rug, throw away your mattress — buy vintage,” she said. The reason for this advice was that those products contained polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which are harmful chemicals that weren't regulated at the time. Years later, they were eventually banned in her home state of California, but not nationally. “I’m getting angry … there’s not enough regulation,” she said.

"I'm getting angry ...  there's not enough regulation."

— Verda Alexander, Studio O+A

Bevan took the conversation a step further saying that a healthy material is more than just being materially transparent, and shared mindfulMaterial’s Five Buckets of Sustainability — Climate Health, Human Health, Ecosystem Health, Social Health & Equity, and Circular Economy. 


“Filling one of these buckets'' inevitably helps fill the rest. “There’s a social responsibility here,” said Strassner. 

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Don't Lose Hope

The growth of sustainable efforts in the industry is on the rise. Manufacturers, suppliers, designers and builders are becoming more inclined to make products and build projects in a more sustainable way. Professors are even adding sustainability practices and initiatives into classwork. “This new generation cares so deeply about the environment, they’re going to push for even more change,” says Murray. 

Pick One Thing

So where do you start? Panelists advised picking one thing — one product, one material, one project. Put one foot in front of the other. Seek progress, not perfection. Demand regulation and transparency. Engage corporate support and community. 


“If we all lift at the same time, if we all continue to take action where we can, ask the questions, say that it matters, and start making decisions differently, it will drive change throughout the entire value chain,” said Annie Bevan.

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Jon Strassner

Director of Industry Partnerships, ASID
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Annie Bevan

Executive Director, mindfulMATERIALS
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Verda Alexander

Co-founder and Artist in Residence, Studio O+A
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Jane Abernethy

Chief Sustainability Officer, Humanscale
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