Leftover colored and scented wax. Wooden shipping crates and pallets. Aluminum trimmings and punch-outs. Scrap colored polypropylene parts.

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April 2021

These were among sixteen top waste products materials by Newell Brands manufacturing plants in an Earth Day Design Jam challenge. “Our plants do very well with minimizing waste, says David Allen, Senior Manager, Innovation and active member of the re:newell team, which promotes sustainability in product development and packaging. “They have sustainability goals as well as financial incentives to do everything they can to reduce the waste stream, including through recycling whenever possible.”

“Waste is a natural consequence of manufacturing,” says Laura Leenhouts, Innovation Manager. From another perspective, waste is only waste when it has no purpose. Find the purpose, and waste turns from a liability into an asset, ready to be made into something new, useful, sometimes clever, sometimes beautiful. That’s the principle behind circular design, which sets the goal of continued useful life for materials, minimizing or eliminating waste altogether.

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For the second year, the re:newell team planned the Design Jam to focus Earth Day attention on sustainability, inviting Design team members from across the country to collaborate in response. “We’re really designing how we’re going to design,” said Nate Young, Senior Vice President of Design & Innovation, in introductory remarks.

“Sustainability needs to be fully integrated into everything we do, part of our everyday work.”

The re:newell team identifies its goals as building awareness of the need for sustainable design practice, offering resources to enable it, and making connections with other sustainability teams to support and amplify the efforts of each. Ahead of the 2021 event, re:newell worked with the manufacturing plants to identify waste materials options and document their properties and limitations. The team developed resources to support the day’s work, including an expanded set of Sustainable Design Strategies; it also coordinated with the global sustainability team to assure the highest value results.

After an introductory video that emphasized the sustainability imperative, seventy participants were given profiles of the waste products that are candidates for new lives. Teams organized around seven of the Newell Brands Business Units, from Baby to Writing; each team included both designers who regularly work with that Business Unit and designers who were drawn to it for the day. Each team was multidisciplinary, each designer contributing from a unique professional perspective.
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Each Business Unit team quickly developed its own work style and personality. Some relied primarily on visual collaboration tools, some were quiet with active chat streams, and others played music and talked throughout the day. Teams shared observations from parallel industries and personal experience in sustainability; they reflected on how sustainable design supports brand stories across the Newell family. Some made sketches, quick prototypes, and digital renderings to feed creativity and idea sharing.
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At the end of the day, 67 concepts were visualized to show how to turn waste into assets. Not every one will ultimately prove viable, but each can inspire similar thinking across the Newell organizations. “You’ve presented so many things we can see coming to life,” said Jason Kehrer, Director of Innovation. “Harvest away: that’s the takeaway for everyone. Integrate this thinking into your work.” To support cross-pollination, members of the corporate Sustainability & Social Compliance Council were invited to the report-out; its members coordinate activity acrossNewell businesses and communicate progress to goals both inside and outside the company.

David reflects on the event, “Last year we were in a very crazy time, and Design Jam gave people an alternative to solo remote work. This year, it was clear to me that our leadership supported the event because sustainable and circular design is really important to the organization. The quality of the thinking, the quality of ideas also showed progress in our understanding of the challenge. People were, very organically, talking about systems and sustainability.”

“The quality of the thinking, the quality of ideas also showed progress in our understanding of the challenge.”

“It was rewarding to see how sophisticated the thinking has become in the team, moving past recycling to look at opportunities for repair and reuse,” Industrial Design Director Chris Gurr agrees. “This year’s event was intended to encourage the team to think about circularity, to go beyond the product and look at the design of the surrounding systems. Connecting the two ends of a linear development process, Design and Manufacturing, is an important step on our journey to circular development. We had excellent input from our plants to identify their top waste streams and highly creative responses from Design for how to make new use of it.

“I love seeing thought leadership from Design,” Chris continues. “However, Earth Day this year was about going further and building a stronger more consistent network throughout Newell. Our goal is for the business to use the same tools and speak the same language when it comes to sustainable product development. Engaging across different functions and Business Units for this year’s Design Jam was testament to that ambition.”

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