Design too often focuses on creating a need rather than responding to one. This isn’t always bad—we never knew we needed iPhone apps, for example—but often, it is, as anyone gazing at stovetop potato bakers, underwater cellphones, and ultrasonic dog deterrents on the pages of a Skymall catalog can attest.
Aspiring designers hope for a life of creating solutions but often find themselves creating more stuff. Such was the case for Mark Siminoff, a former designer at a global design and innovation consultancy. Though the company talked a lot about sustainability, Siminoff and many of his colleagues had become increasingly disillusioned by how much of their work seemed destined for landfill. At the office, he found himself talking with a couple of friends about the ridiculous quantities of waste they were generating—which was definitely not what they’d signed up for when they decided to become designers.
The three friends had something else in common—all had recently welcomed new babies into their lives. I resisted calling this article, “Three Men and Some Babies” but this shared experience of fatherhood was really the turning point. As diapers became a fact of their daily existence, so too did debates on disposable versus cloth which quickly led, says Siminoff and his fellow designing dads, to an epiphany: "This is a huge problem." Followed by, "this is a tremendous market opportunity."
The trio realized that designing a better diaper, says Siminoff, would be “the coolest design project we could work on.”
The stats on diapers are devastating: The average child generates close to 10 pounds of dirty diapers per week. California alone uses 3 billion diapers each year; the United States 18 billion. All of that goes to landfill each year where each diaper will take between 300 to 500 years to decompose in landfill (and yes, this holds true for even those so called "eco" diapers).
Armed with this information, the men set out to do as they were trained: Design a solution to a problem. They began by asking, as Siminoff explains, “What’s the least we can do from an impact standpoint and still have the greatest benefit?”
They explored existing alternatives to disposable diapers. “The issue wasn’t what to do for the three percent of people using cloth,” says Siminoff, but for the disposable majority throwing away that staggering amount of diapers each year. They discovered that many of the things that we think are recyclable or compostable are not. That the cost and energy associated with cloth tend to diminish most of its environmental benefits over disposable. That conglomerates like Proctor and Gamble were putting little effort into research and design for disposable alternatives. That some people let their babies go diaper-free but that was not a reasonable pursuit for most. And so Earth Baby was born.
This wasn’t about creating the iPod of diapers (as a designer friend of mine was once asked to do). The designer fathers just wanted to find the best solution to the problem. So rather than design a brand new diaper, they found a company, Nature Baby Care, founded by a corporate lawyer-turned-environmental-activist, that was already making compostable diapers in Sweden. Thorough research convinced them that this company’s product—100-percent chlorine free, made from biodegradable materials (mostly of polyactic acid plastic made from non-genetically modified corn with absorbent material from forest certified wood pulp)—was environmentally responsible. But this was only half the battle. Earth Baby needed to find a way not only to make these diapers a convenient, affordable option for parents, but a way to guarantee that they wouldn’t end up in the landfill like their disposable competition.
Siminoff and his partners developed a service model so customers could not only get diapers delivered, but also get them picked up and composted—guaranteed. Each week Earth Baby delivery trucks bring diapers—as well as a small selection of other compostable (of course) baby products like wipes, bibs, nursing pants, and training pants—and then return to pick up the used product (which parents place in bio bags) and bring it to a composting facility where they turn into compost in as little as 14 weeks.
The complexities of designing this model—How many delivery trucks? How large a service area? How many scheduled pick-ups and drop-offs?—was the biggest challenge. On the first day out it took five hours to deliver to 17 families; today, Earth Baby averages about 20 deliveries an hour.
Just over a year after launch, Earth Baby now serves 686 customers in the Bay Area, and is adding approximately 50 to 60 new ones each month. Siminoff is unsure if major players like Proctor and Gamble or Kimberly Clark are working on their own version, but he’d welcome the competition. He and his collaborators are for now just taking pride in what they’ve accomplished this past year.
“After more than twelve years of designing consumer products (all of which were destined for landfill) and diapering my two children, I felt as if I had contributed more than my fair share of harm to the environment,” says Siminoff. “It's incredibly gratifying to know that all this diaper changing and awareness that EarthBaby has inspired is making a real and measurable change for our planet.”