Sustainability Profiles: Designtex

Photography Courtesy of Designtex.

Designtex designs and manufacturers applied materials for the built environment, primarily textiles and wallcoverings. When the company was founded in 1961 in New York City, it was targeted towards interior designers and architects working in commercial spaces. Today, still based in Manhattan, Designtex products are also used in workplaces, healthcare, hospitality, educational, and entertainment spaces. Their product catalog is varied, with over 8,000 materials ranging from wool textiles and birch bark veneers to wood cellulose wallcoverings and architectural finishes.

Designtex also has an impressive, long-standing history of sustainable product design and has been operationally carbon neutral since 2010. Since then, they’ve offset over 27,000 metric tons of CO2 by supporting a variety of carbon reduction projects. Designtex is committed to material sustainability and transparency through its involvement in the Health Product Declaration (HPD), the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, the Association for Contract Textiles, and Circular Economy 100. Knowledge Bank spoke with Deidre Hoguet, Designtex’s Director of Applied Research, about the company’s journey to carbon neutrality and the ways that they continue to innovate and hold themselves to a high standard in the face of challenges.

Sustainability Roots

Long before carbon neutrality was a goal, Designtex was well on its way to material innovation for sustainability. Hoguet told Knowledge Bank: “We really started sustainable practices in our material and design endeavors in the early 90s. Our president now is Susan Lyons, and in the early 90s when she was Director of Design, she began looking at how materials were made and what it would mean to make a sustainable textile. At the time sustainability wasn’t a buzzword—no companies were really doing sustainability reports back then. In 1993 she began working with William McDonough, who went on to write the book Cradle to Cradle. Designtex is in that book. She read articles about him, reached out to him, and that began a collaboration on how to design sustainable textiles. Then we continued to collaborate with him and with Michael Braungart on the chemistry side. So that’s where our product sustainability started, and from there we went on to investigate our whole product offering, and how to make more sustainable choices in the materials, production, and product end of life.”

Carbon Neutrality

After many years of work on product circularity and careful selection of materials, Designtex took on a new challenge. Hoguet was Director of Sustainability and Material Exploration at the time. She told us that before the 2008 recession, the company had been working on material innovation, but amidst the economic downturn they paused on R&D, and instead took that time to look inward at their own business operations, their emissions, and carbon footprint. “We’d been making sustainable products for a long time,” she explained, “but what about our company’s sustainability? So, we spent 2008 and 2009 doing that work and measuring our business impacts. In 2010 we started fully offsetting all of our operations, and for us that means measuring our employees’ commuting and business travel, our offices, our electricity, our production facility in Portland, Maine, and a big part of it comes from shipping our products. And measuring how our operation translates into carbon emissions.” They started to make reductions and improve efficiency in their operations and shipping, and for the areas most difficult to reduce in-house; they invested in carbon offsets.

Photography Courtesy of Designtex.

Material Bank has also started offsetting sample shipments, as well as combining samples from multiple brands into a single box. This means that every time Material Bank users request samples from Designtex, they’re receiving a shipment that has been reduced and offset at every leg of the way—from Designtex’s manufacturing and partner facilities to their warehouse, from their warehouse to Material Bank, and from Material Bank to users.

When a particular CO2-producing activity is offset, it means that the same amount of CO2 produced by that activity is reduced, avoided, or sequestered somewhere else in order to compensate for the emissions. There’s a huge range of offset projects, but they are all federally regulated to ensure that emission reductions occur at the levels claimed and are monitored and verified by third parties.

Community Centered Offsets

Hoguet told us about Designtex’s offset projects, most of which are organized through a partner company based in Vermont called NativeEnergy. “They’re a really interesting organization that’s been working primarily in the US to do carbon reduction projects, a lot of which are renewable energy projects, and some of which they started with Native communities on reservations. We started working with them in 2009, before our first year of fully offsetting our operations. What we like about them is that they aren’t just building renewable energy or putting up a wind turbine or a solar panel array; they build community-based projects that bring other benefits. For example, in Indiana, they were building wind turbines for a school district. The school district wanted to reduce their energy bill, and they partnered to build some wind turbines, but in doing that they also developed a curriculum for the high school students in that district to learn about wind energy. So, it was more than just putting up the wind turbine for the school district’s energy – it was also training the next generation of green-collar workers.”

Photography Courtesy of Designtex.

Through NativeEnergy, Designtex also invested in the Seneca Meadows landfill gas-to-energy plant in upstate New York. These plants are located nearby landfills in order to capture greenhouse gases produced by the decomposing waste before they’re released into the atmosphere and convert the gases into energy that can be sent into the local grid. Seneca Meadows is a large landfill in upstate NY that receives trash from New York City. In addition to building this gas-to-energy plant, Seneca Meadows comprises a restored wetland and nature preserve which is home to over 215 species of birds, along with a LEED-certified educational facility for local schools and the community.

According to Hoguet, these kinds of renewable energy projects in the US are usually local municipal initiatives, but because most municipalities lack full funding to build a plant, or a wind turbine or solar array, they depend on funding from companies that choose to invest in offsetting. NativeEnergy projects bundle together funding from different companies, including Stonyfield, Aveda, and eBay. This is great for Designtex, whose footprint alone isn’t big enough to offset an entire wind farm or solar array, but allows them to invest together with like-minded companies who want to reduce carbon emissions and build renewable energy sources to help combat climate.

Photography Courtesy of Designtex.

Along with other companies that form part of NativeEnergy’s Renewables Portfolio, Designtex has also made a five-year commitment to support a portfolio of new renewable energy projects, including the Forest City Solar Project in Iowa. Through a ground-mounted contiguous array of over 11,900 photovoltaic panels, this project will produce electricity for Forest City, Iowa, but also provide bees and other pollinators with habitats alongside and underneath the panels. According to Designtex: “These habitats are beneficial for agriculture because native plants capture the stormwater coming off the solar panels and channel it into groundwater, improving the quality of soil over the life of the project. This pollinator habitat is developed per an Audubon Society standard.”

Hoguet added: “We enjoy supporting these community-based projects because our company mainly operates in North America—so it’s nice to be able to do things in different areas and to be able to talk about it with our customers in those regions – it has more meaning for them. Even though greenhouse gas emissions from anywhere on the planet ultimately affect everyone on the planet, if we can tie it to a local region it brings more awareness for people in that area.”

Meeting Challenges with Innovation

Hoguet told us about a recent hurdle for Designtex’s manufacturing and printing facility in Portland, Maine. It was on its way to achieving zero waste when China banned most recycling from the US and other countries in 2018. “We have one of the larger format printers in North America, where we print wall materials at a large scale – the scale of entire walls! And we produce films and other products. A wide range of substrate materials, inks, films, and packaging pass through our facility.” The team there had been recycling everything possible– plastic tubes, printer ink, textile waste, cardboard, etc. When China banned recycling from the US, that really threw a wrench into a lot of organizations, towns and cities, whose efforts and recycling programs ground to a halt. Many recyclers in the US used to send all that material to China.” China’s National Sword policy, an effort to relieve the country’s overwhelmed processing facilities, left much of the world—from Australia to Europe to the US—rushing to adjust to this new reality, despite a serious lack of local recycling infrastructure.

Photography Courtesy of Designtex.

Hoguet continued: “At the time, we had been on a path to zero waste in our facility and were pushing hard towards that goal, so our Portland team were really depressed when all of the recyclers told them they wouldn’t be picking up anymore.” But quickly, they started to problem solve. “They went to all of the manufacturers that we work with and started conversations. They said, ‘If we clean these ink cartridges, will you take them?’ And ‘If we pay for the shipping one direction, will you pay for the other direction?’ They did this for every material—they tried to figure out how to get it back to someone who would use it in the US. The Designtex Portland team were so dedicated. I’m proud of how everyone pivoted so quickly despite this huge challenge. And they made it happen by offering to take those extra steps like cleaning or sorting materials in Portland. There are still some things we can’t recycle or find an outlet to reuse, but pretty much everything else can be recycled – so our near-zero waste footprint at our printing facility holds, despite the China ban.”

But of course, Designtex’s ability to bounce back when facing obstacles didn’t come about overnight. They have a textile chemist who screens materials for health risks. They assess suppliers and consider materials based on whether they’re recyclable, compostable, or made of recycled materials. “It’s a testament to the fact that we screen everything that we put into our products. It’s all based on the foundation of cradle to cradle thinking; knowing what our products are made out of, not only for the production, the workers making them and the users using them when they’re sitting on a piece of furniture, but also what happens to materials at the end of life, because if it’s made with toxic ink, you can’t just throw it into the ground or even into a recycling system. Not every product is perfect, but we’re constantly thinking about that circular part, not just for reusing or recycling materials but what those materials do to the environment or to the user—if they’re off-gassing or contain solvents—it’s  all part of the life cycle of the product.” Because Designtex has put in the work in material health and sustainability up front, and they design with circularity in mind, it’s much easier to adapt to changing contexts or make modifications along the way that lead to significant impacts. Hoguet added, “There’s a lot of work to do. We’re constantly looking at other industries, at what’s out there, and trying to adapt and make new materials that work in our world. Our design ethos is beauty plus sustainability plus utility.”