Take a journey into regenerative design with Common Object

"Regenerative design is about creating a system or a product that gives back more than it takes," says Justin Beitzel. Beitzel is co-founder of Common Object, a design studio that helps organizations take steps toward sustainability. The studio operates out of both Baltimore and Grand Rapids. 

Fernando Ramirez is the studio's other co-founder. The two graduated from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD). After working for several years as industrial designers, they became partners in forming a regenerative design studio, born out of their mutual passion for design that benefits local people and the environment. 

Ramirez emphasizes caution in using the term "regenerative." Both partners want to avoid transforming regenerative design into an overused buzzword.

"We're seeing that shift of buying with your values a little more," says Ramirez. "And yeah, we just want to make sure we can be as transparent as possible and rather than say "regenerative," say "the journey to regenerative." 

The journey to regenerative design

To give clients a tangible example of what regenerative design is and how it works, Beitzel and Ramirez created a "farm-to-furniture" brand, Okaterra. The brand launched fully biodegradable chairs using waste wool, hemp, and plant-based leather materials. 

"Over 200,000 tons of wool is thrown away every year. Or burned. Because there's no market for it. So we're using it as stuffing for the cushions," says Beitzel. 

But regenerative design is about more than the materials. It's about supply chain transparency. For example, how do you find and source waste wool? How do you know if your other materials are truly sustainable?

Okaterra launched fully biodegradable chairs using waste wool, hemp, and plant-based leather materials.

"It's not just about saying, 'We use materials that are grown from the earth', right?" says Beitzel. "Because you can grow things from the earth in a really awful way. Or you can spread fertilizer everywhere and make a mess of a space. So the first thing we did was seek out people at the root of what we were looking for and who carried our same values."

Partnering with sustainable suppliers

After six months of searching, the pair found Melissa Smith, who runs Willow Creek Farm in the Philadelphia area. When Common Object started working with Smith, she had 200 sheep. Smith also uses regenerative practices of rotational grazing. 

"So it's literally going to somebody who we can trust and fully see that they're committed to a regenerative soil and regenerative ecosystem, and then seeing how closely we can get to that material" says Beitzel.

The pair also exercises the same diligence in finding other suppliers. For example, they use salvaged wood from Fallen Lumber in Baltimore. Cambium Carbon certifies the wood and assigns it a carbon value. 

"So it's really about partnering with people who we can see," says Beitzel. "I can literally drive down the street and see where they're getting their wood." 

"One of the principles that's really guiding us is thinking through regional supply chains and supporting local," Ramirez says. "It's working with the farmer to grow the raw material. It's the person who's touching the process. And it's the person who's going to make it at the end. So we're really thinking about it as a whole system, right? It's a product, but we have to think through the whole system in order to make it."

Regenerative design at scale

Beitzel and Ramirez are taking what they've learned about regenerative design principles and supply chain transparency to larger companies. They also apply a regenerative process to community projects.

"About a year and a half ago, we would get a pat on the head," says Ramirez.

But now that they have tangible products and processes, their work is getting more serious interest and attention. Some companies and organizations hope to bring small pieces of a regenerative design ethos into their production. 

"Maybe it's not the whole chair, maybe it's just one element," says Beitzel. "What we preach is, we need to create products that can scale with the farmers that we're working with."

Beitzel and Ramirez understand that they're not going to be able to support an entire industry with the small handful of regenerative farmers that they've found. 

"But if we start with small wins," says Beitzel. "Maybe it is using wastewater or supporting this one farm that can have a big impact."

Regenerative design, community, and storytelling

Since transparency is at the heart of regenerative design, Beitzel and Ramirez make a point of sharing what they've learned with the public. For example, Ramirez led a training session at the Cook Arts Center in Grand Rapids.

"We'll actually build a class out," says Ramirez. "We take input from the community, but we'll build classes out for the kids as well. To kind of design a product that goes right back into their community. So they have like these little monuments in there that kind of create pride around that."

The pair also plans to speak at NeoCon this year, an annual interior design conference held in Chicago in June. They plan to attend as part of the Haworth DesignLab

"One thing we want to make sure people know is that what we're doing isn't conceptual, right?" says Ramirez. "It may be an experiment, but it's not a concept. We can actually make everything we've done with the materials we use; we could actually produce products out of the processes we use."

The future of regenerative design

Beitzel and Ramirez see the future and potential of regenerative design. They envision a world where there's transparency in the supply chain. And they want to see regenerative design processes get to scale. 

"That's what we're kind of working on now," says Beitzel. "What are the next steps for this?"

The pair continues to look for partners to build with. They're also working on finding the funding to scale their work. 

"We really believe in it," says Beitzel. "We're doing that work to find the connections."

Laura Bergells is an executive business communications coach from Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can connect with her at LinkedIn.

From furniture to shoes, from arts to education to even policy creation, design is everywhere you look. Designed in Michigan, a story series coming out of West Michigan, is devoted to sharing the expansive role design plays in Michigan's past, present and future. It is made possible through the support of Kendall College of Art and Design and Landscape Forms.
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