In a world often consumed by a more-is-more mentality, it's always refreshing to see large corporations giving back to the community. One company who is innovating and advocating change across the world is Kohler, the international kitchen and bath specialists who factor sustainability into all of their products.
Here at Honeycombers Hong Kong, we are passionate about being conscious consumers and looking after the environment. Being a completely digital platform, we run a near paperless office at Garage Collective, we work with the lights off unless absolutely necessary (luckily, we have abundant daylight!) and we use public transport on the regular. Another business passionate about incorporating sustainability into its day-to-day is Kohler, but they take it to the next level by designing innovative products for developing countries, whose new technologies are often implemented into the firm’s retail offerings, such as toilets, showers, kitchens and more. We talked to Rob Zimmerman, Director of Sustainability and WaSH to find out more.
A discussion with Rob Zimmerman from Kohler about sustainable living
Hi, Rob. Thanks for talking to us about such an interesting topic. Can you tell us a little about your current role at Kohler and how that has changed over the years?
I’m the Director of Sustainability & WaSH at Kohler Co. WaSH stands for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene. Sustainability and WaSH at Kohler are closely connected because Kohler’s commitment to sustainability includes designing products with ever-lower environmental impacts, and bringing safe water and proper sanitation to people will deliver significant environmental benefits in addition to positively impacting their economic, social and health conditions.
I began my career at Kohler as a senior engineer for water-efficient plumbing products. As we expanded our sustainability programme, including launching our Net Zero 2035 sustainability strategy in 2008, I moved into a lead marketing role to grow sales of water-efficient products and became involved in setting and measuring our footprint reduction efforts and internal education and external advocacy. I added the WaSH programme responsibility earlier this year to lead development of solutions for people across the globe who do not have access to safe drinking water or hygienic, dignified sanitation.
The brand is known for its innovation, whether that be through design, materials or functionality of products. What does WaSH bring to the table when it comes to global challenges around sanitation?
We have the financial resources, technical capabilities and operational know-how to make a significant impact in the WaSH space because for 143 years we have manufactured high-performing, beautiful plumbing products that deliver water and address basic sanitary needs in the developed world. We are applying this knowledge towards finding solutions for populations at the base of the pyramid who lack basic water and sanitation infrastructure.
Addressing global WaSH challenges requires us to innovate on many levels. In addition to product technology, innovation is needed in business models, supply chain, partnerships, and manufacturing. Not to be overlooked is product design. We’ve learned that no matter where they live or what their economic status, people value product with great aesthetic designs that they are proud to have in their homes.
In 2015 we launched the Kohler Clarity safe water filtration system and have partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on sanitation and waste treatment research since 2013. We have aligned our work with the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals and are working with additional partners. We believe our WaSH business will be strategically important to open access to new markets, so we don’t view WaSH as a charity initiative. It’s imperative we help the world address WaSH problems as a leader in the water and sanitation industry.
I’ve visited Kohler, and what really struck me was the community vibe that resonates through the town – from inside the factory to at the American Club and beyond. How does that community spirit filter through to what you’re working on at WaSH?
In many ways, our WaSH initiatives bring us back to our roots. Kohler was founded in 1873 in a small village in a part of the United States that was very rural at the time. Kohler’s first customers didn’t have plumbed water, sanitary sewers or electricity. Kohler’s businesses helped bring those products and services to Americans and then around the world. While the model and approach may differ, we expect to continue doing that for developing countries in the 21st Century. Our current president and CEO, David Kohler, has said often that: “Business success doesn’t mean much if we don’t leave the world a better place than we found it.”
Tell us about the Innovation for Good programme? What kind of products have been developed from this think tank?
Innovation for Good (IfG) is a programme Kohler associates created in 2011 to apply our expertise in product design, engineering, marketing, and communications to address pressing social needs globally. Today the programme includes annual retreats and ongoing teamwork to explore ideas and test solutions for viability, as well as simulations, trainings, and video screenings to develop associates’ understanding of and empathy for people in developing countries. We encourage more associates to join the work teams because we want all of our associates to understand the world in a more global way.
The first commercial product from IfG is the Kohler Clarity water filter – a simple household water filter removes bacteria and parasites that would otherwise make people sick. It’s being used by tens of thousands of families in more than 20 countries and has recently been deployed in disaster situations such as Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria. Other IfG projects underway include latrine solutions, a handwashing station, food waste reduction, and repurposing industrial waste
If you could share one tip on living a more sustainable life that you believe has the biggest impact, what would that be?
Become a smarter consumer. Demand that any product you purchase is made safely, ethically, and with care for the environment. Consider the water or energy use of that product over its entire service life—efficiency almost always pays for itself. Think about whether or how the product can be recycled or reused when you no longer need it. And only buy products that deliver lasting value to you and your home. And, to conserve water in your home, upgrade your plumbing fixtures. Believe it or not, the biggest water user inside your home is an old toilet.