technology profile: sustainability
Believing in Better
At Kohler, living graciously means thinking about tomorrow for the sake of today.
BY SEAN O’KEEFE
IT IS SAID THAT HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS. In 2021, for many around the world our hearts, heads and hands are increasingly invested in preserving the prospect of tomorrow for future generations of today. At global plumbing manufacturer, Kohler, 148 years of product innovation and customer service excellence have continuously been focused on sustainability not as an afterthought but as the fundamental basis for everything they do.
“For Kohler, Believing in Better is more than a platform, it’s our purpose. It’s who we are and how we operate,” says Jonathan Bradley, Product Manager for Emerging Categories. Bradley, who has been with Kohler for eight years, started as a mechanical engineer on the new product development team for sanitary styling lines and worked his way through the ranks to lead new product development in pursuit of the future. “We set the edge in smart home products that combine bold design with practical, effective water conservation to facilitate gracious living.”
Founded in 1873 by John Michael Kohler, exclusive ownership has been retained through four generations of the Kohler family. Most well-known for high-end elegance in faucets, sinks, toilets and tubs, Kohler’s product lines extend well beyond the bathroom into the kitchen and across the residential/commercial line as well. Kohler also makes furniture, cabinetry, tile, engines and generators, and even owns and operates Destination Kohler, a line of premium hospitality establishments across the United States.
“Kohler offers a wide range of products covering an incredible array of choices in color, material, feature and price progression,” shares Bradley. “But regardless of the product, they are all unified by a single level of quality in everything we touch from the kitchen faucet to our AAA 5-Diamond resort.”
"Think of it as the Fit-Bit effect. By being aware of how much water they are using, people begin to care more about how much they use in general."Jonathan Bradley
Project Manager for
Director of Innovation for Good and Sustainability
For Bradley and his more than 35,000 colleagues operating around the world, Believing in Better is about a core belief that their best can always be better. Applied to every aspect of decision-making, Kohler is continuously on the hunt for
meaningful improvement in every regard. From product development and design to sourcing materials, supply chain management and operational efficiency, no stone is unturned in pursuit of impactful advancements in sustainability.
“Product development begins with understanding consumers’ functional needs and aesthetic desires and blending those attributes into our much broader ambition of enabling a better planet,” continues Bradley. To achieve a genuine environmental benefit through product development sustainability initiatives must influence people’s behavior, which begins with awareness.
“As an example, we make smart faucets for kitchens and bathrooms that allow homeowners to monitor water usage,” says Bradley. “Think of it as the Fit-Bit effect. By being aware of how much water they are using, people begin to care more about how much they use in general.”
Kohler’s line of Sensate smart faucets engages voice-activated technology to precisely dispense measured amounts of water on command. These touchless faucets use a motion sensor to turn water on and off with a wave of the hand and work with the Kohler Konnect app to monitor water usage and alert owners about unusual flows or detected leaks.
From micro to macro, Kohler’s H2Wise product line extends the benefits of monitoring water use from a single faucet to the whole home as a simple, single installation smart home solution to water awareness.
“Our H2Wise water awareness system is integrated through the kitchen faucet but tracks the entire house, from the sinks in the bathrooms to the dishwasher, washer or whatever else is drawing water," Bradley adds. “Equipping the consumer with accurate information enables them to make more sustainable choices.”
Like his counterpart in emerging categories, Ratish Namboothiry started his career with Kohler as a mechanical engineer and worked his way to a more imaginative title. Fifteen years later, Ratish is the Director of Innovation for Good and Sustainability for Kohler. While the title is more than a mouthful, Kohler’s ambitious pursuit of genuine sustainability is spreading beyond consumers to improving the lives of the people and communities who lack access to safe water and sanitation, are impacted by natural disasters or otherwise affected by environmental and societal issues.
“Kohler is committed to making a positive impact across the full spectrum of sustainability, from creating awareness about lifestyle behaviors to driving simple innovations that have a purpose,” says Namboothiry. As the Director of Kohler’s think-tank, Innovation for Good, Namboothiry leads a team of entrepreneurial associates drawn from a cross-section of the company’s industries, skills and perspectives. The in-house innovation incubator is designed to explore products and solutions for pressing global social and environmental issues.
“Believing in Better is applied to our decision making across operations, product development and brand positioning, but we are interested in taking it much further than that,” continues Namboothiry. “Kohler is touching people’s lives where they are and helping to build better communities and a better planet. This isn’t something we can do alone. Partnerships and collaborations are essential.”
As a part of the 50L Home Coalition, Kohler is excited to partner with global leaders from P&G, Electrolux and others to reimagine people’s relationship with water. Cities worldwide already face imminent threats of 'Day Zero' when water sources run dry. Currently, 14 of 20 of the world’s largest cities are experiencing water scarcity and two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to live in water-stressed areas by 2025. The 50-liter home project was inspired by Cape Town, South Africa’s commitment to limiting domestic water use to 50 liters per person per day, which helped the city narrowly avoid their Day Zero.
“The 50-liter challenge is not intended to restrict water access, but rather make 50-liters per person more than enough,” shares Namboothiry of the logic behind the mission. “By using readily available products like our Water-Sense-labeled toilets, showerheads and faucets, households can greatly reduce their water consumption.”
One of the Innovation for Good incubator’s first success stories was the WasteLab, which was initiated when Kohler began examining their manufacturing waste streams. In exploring ways to reduce waste, the team turned to nature, where the circle of life within the Earth’s many diverse ecosystems reflects a sustainable circular economy of all living things. In reconsidering the unwanted byproducts of manufacturing processes as new forms of raw material rather than waste, Kohler is exploring opportunities to create something new. The first product to arise from this process is the Crackle Collection, in partnership with Ann Sacks.
Available in an array of bold contemporary color trends, Crackle Collection tiles reuse dry cull, which is a byproduct of the vitreous china process used to make toilets, sinks and bathtubs. These handmade tiles are decorated with a dimensional visual effect achieved with a unique glaze that pools and breaks over the textured surface during firing. Other waste stream material analysis includes investigating the reuse of spent foundry sand, cast-off enamel powder and foundry dust as ingredients in things like concrete, glazes and other types of clay tiles.
THE CRACKLE COLLECTION, IN PARTNERSHIP WITH ANN SACKS. AVAILABLE IN AN ARRAY OF BOLD CONTEMPORARY COLOR TRENDS, CRACKLE COLLECTION TILES REUSE DRY CULL, WHICH IS A BYPRODUCT OF THE VITREOUS CHINA PROCESS USED TO MAKE TOILETS, SINKS AND BATHTUBS.
“To build a better planet, we are focused on improving our operational environmental footprint, designing environmentally friendly products and services to enable our consumers to reduce their own environmental footprint and driving awareness in consumers,” finishes Namboothiry. Enabling environmentally friendly choices on Kohler’s scale of product manufacturing means being a dedicated resource to trade partners in architecture, interiors, construction and installation. As everyone’s awareness of the criticality of the earth’s current condition grows, so too does the need for transparency.
“Kohler recently started developing product transparency documents for some of our plumbing products,” says Bradley. “These are detailed disclosures about products including what they contain, how they were produced, where they come from and associated environmental and human health impacts.”
This kind of information is valuable in the LEED certification process and shows trade partners that Kohler is an open book when it comes to sustainability.
“Through 148 years of heritage, Kohler has invested and reinvested in helping people live graciously,” closes Bradley. “Innovation is a never-ending process. Kohler will continue to Believe in Better and push toward world-changing solutions to tomorrow’s challenges today.”