Member Spotlight
Theresa Millard from Kohler on the need to “fall in love” with materials and capitalize on them for innovation

We recently spoke with Theresa Millard, sustainability and stewardship project manager at Kohler and founder of Biomimicry Granada, about re-thinking manufacturing waste and helping people reconnect with the material world.

As a long-time ceramicist and product developer, Theresa began exploring biomimicry in Costa Rica with Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister in the early 2000s, eventually leading to a move to Spain and founding Biomimicry Granada and the Kohler WasteLAB, which reframes how to tackle manufacturing waste through an innovation lens. Keep reading to learn more about Theresa’s unique three-decade long sustainability and innovation journey.

SB: What project are you most excited about right now?

Theresa: The project that I am most excited about is the Kohler WasteLAB. This project is the culmination of a three-decade professional journey at Kohler that has taken me from manufacturing and product development into the world of sustainability in very tangible ways. In the WasteLAB we are tackling the question of how to address manufacturing wastes from an innovation point-of-view.

Most of the team in the lab come from a creative background, and we like to ask the question, “How might we fall in love with materials, even those that others see as waste?” From this simple idea, we are developing products for sale, investigating uses to tackle larger amounts of industrial wastes and are beginning to build a culture where everyone thinks differently about resources.

I often feel that sustainability can be an overwhelming topic, and it can be difficult to undertake or even get started. The world faces extremely tricky challenges. I don’t want to make light of them in any way, but despair cannot be a solution strategy. In the WasteLAB, we take an optimistic view and are working to elevate the industrial wastes from our manufacturing processes as credible input materials for beautiful, useful and enduring products. For example, we just launched our first tile collection through our sister company: Ann Sacks Crackle Collection.

One cool thing for us in the WasteLAB is the interest we see from people who want to come and spend time with us working with their hands. When I see them touching clay, cleaning tiles or just washing buckets, I see a connection that is innately human, and I want to foster that idea to help people reconnect with our material world.

I know that we have a long way to go, and today our project is very small – but I see that our hopeful and abundant view of the industrial waste challenge is beginning to change the people that we interact with. It is through them seeing waste differently that we will begin to affect real change.

SB: How is social or environmental innovation driving value for your business?

Theresa: The world around us is changing, I believe that all of us want to make a difference – but “how?” is the obvious question. At Kohler, we are committed to leaving the world a better place than we found it. By driving both social and environmental innovation through Kohler Social Impact programs, we are finding that path forward. We are committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and WasteLAB specifically is targeting #12—responsible consumption and production.

In addition, to support goal #12, we have invested in a very large and talented network of associates whose job it is to redefine product and process development so that our customers can reduce their environmental impacts. Through our Design for Environment program, we see a future where every product is better for the environment, and we know that this will translate to increasing value for our customers and our business.

SB: What inspires and drives you to work on sustainability?

Theresa: I’m a parent, and as such, I get to spend a lot of time with my twenty-something kids, their friends and colleagues. I learn a lot from them and am inspired by their passion to make a difference in the world. It is considering their next 50 years that really drives me to step up and find new kinds of models for living. I believe that commerce is foundational in that equation and by bridging my corporate self and my sustainability self, I can really help with their work.

SB: Can you share something about yourself that would surprise us? Any hidden talents?

Theresa: I am a ceramic artist by education and spent the early part of my career at Kohler working in pottery; I love being around the energy and comradery of makers. In 2005, I had the chance to study biomimicry in Costa Rica with Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister. I went to Costa Rica to learn about innovation, but after spending a week immersed in nature where life is literally formed in front of your eyes, you begin to see the world differently. At the time I was a manager in product development, and it became increasingly difficult for me to accept my role as an “agent” of consumption.

During this period, there were so many challenging questions that I couldn’t answer for myself. I eventually opted out of my product development role and turned my world upside down to help me think. With my husband and kids, I moved to Spain to gain a new perspective (and to live near my aging parents in the UK). I began to immerse myself in the world of sustainability, studying a masters with Biomimicry 3.8. Over the last several years, I have partnered in Spain on the formation of two entities: Biomimicry Iberia and Biomimicry Granada, where we are focused on sustainable innovation inspired by nature.

Today, my greatest hope is that we can overlay the energy and passion of the industrial environment with the restorative and regenerative models that we see in nature.

SB: If you had unlimited time and resources, on what type of work would you want to collaborate with fellow SB Members?

Theresa: I’d love to work on how we can better understand the value of materials. I believe they are demoted to a second-class status in sustainability conversations. I am speaking about materials in the broadest sense of the word, from mining and the associated impacts on biodiversity, to the production and preparation of our food, to views on consumption and beyond.

But this is not easy work. Culturally, we have fallen in love with mechanization and technology as a way to make our lives better. Somehow, we have lost our perspective on the materials that make up the fabric of our world.

SB: Why is your participation in the SB Member Network important?

Theresa: The greater SB Member Network can support what we are trying to do at Kohler by asking the hard questions, making suggestions and sharing their stories – both successes and failures. The WasteLAB was initiated as a grassroots, associate-led initiative and we have created the conditions by which “good” innovation can happen. But it is time for us to drive a wider view on this work and extend beyond our own walls in order to promote the kind of change the world needs. We expect the SB Member Network to help us achieve that goal.

SB: Anything else you'd like to share with fellow SB Members?

Theresa: All of this sustainability thinking, debate and work needs to become normal. For example, our hope is that one day the need for the WasteLAB no longer exists because mental models have moved to a place where all materials are valued, and we don’t need a special place devoted to waste.

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