Google Design Lab in California

Companies like Google "have an obligation" to be more sustainable says Ivy Ross

Influential companies should be leading the development of sustainable products, according to Google's vice president of hardware design Ivy Ross.

Ross said that large companies including Google have a crucial role to play in reducing global carbon emissions because they have the power to change the behaviour of other companies.

"When you're a big company, you have an obligation to be more sustainable," Ross told Dezeen. "You can push the factories to go that extra mile."

"We feel accountable because you can sit here and complain about things, but design is at the beginning," she added.

"Electronics is one of the worst offenders in terms of waste"

The amount of waste that is created from new product launches every year worries Ross.

"In the tech world, electronics is one of the worst offenders in terms of waste," she said.

"I think pounds of electronics are dumped each year."

Ivy Ross
Ivy Ross spoke to Dezeen at Google's headquarters in Mountain View

One of the main ways to make the tech industry more sustainable is by focusing on making hardware that can be used for longer periods of time, according to Ross.

"It's about how do we design so you don't feel like you should or have to buy something new every year? And really making the software that changes every year and becomes helpful," she said.

Companies should develop software not new hardware, says Ross

Ross believes that focusing on software developments, instead of making new products, is key to implementing this change.

"Hardware is the form or the carrying vessel, but we can live with that form longer, and now with software and AI, that's where the newness can come from."

Ross continued: "We are in a unique position being a software company to start to act on that. As software allows us to do more helpful functions, you can just upload that without having to buy the product over again."

Ross' product design team is investigating ways to use more sustainable materials in Google hardware products in the Design Lab, which was designed earlier this year at its Mountain View headquarters. Among the latest products is a Nest Mini speaker with fabric made from recycled plastic.

"We have been known for our use of fabric and now we are using like one water bottle to make 2.7 of the Google Nest Mini products," she said. "I think we will save like 12 million water bottles over the life of the products that we're using it on."

Google committee dedicated to sustainable efforts

Google's knitted fabric also gains its colour during the extrusion – the process that upcycles plastic elements. This means that the fabric doesn't need to be dyed, which drastically reduces the amount of water used in the making of the material.

Ross' team also uses a specification sheet that helps measure the impact, success and failings of new works.

"When we finish spec-ing out a product, it says what is good for the earth or sustainable about it, what have we not done that we could've done, and why didn't we do it, so that we can understand what we need to unlock for the future," she said.

Google has also created a committee to focus on its sustainable efforts. "It's like the cog in the wheel, which companies need to have to be able to go to and unlock things or to be kind of ahead, figuring out what's the next thing we need to do."

Read on for an edited transcript of our interview with Ross:


Bridget Cogley: What does sustainability mean to you?

Ivy Ross: In the tech world, electronics is one of the worst offenders in terms of waste. I think pounds of electronics are dumped each year. When we think of sustainability, it's not just using what's there but it's how we then create a better world going forward. We look at it through three lenses: one is designing for longevity, another is for repairability and the third is with materials.

We started talking about this three years ago, and we're excited that this year is the first year we have real innovation in that sustainable arena, which is our fabric. We have been known for our use of fabric and now we are using like one water bottle to make 2.7 of the Google Nest Mini products. I think we will save like 12 million water bottles over the life of the products that we're using it on.

We banned plastic bottles from Google's castle

When we realised that, we looked around and said oh my god that's probably how many plastic water bottles we use in Google's kitchens, so we banned them all from the castle. We said we got to walk our talk. Basically we used to have plastic water bottles. We banned them from the kingdom probably two months ago. You've got to walk your talk because it hit me that if you look at Googlers around the world, everyone goes to the fridge and takes a bottle.

Bridget Cogley: Can you tell me more about the Google Nest Mini fabric?

Usually, when you make a material you dye it in water and it pollutes a ton of water – and that is the problem with the garment industry. What is exciting about this fabric is that not only does it use recycled consumer bottles – where they chop up the plastic and they extrude it – but the way this is made there is no dying process in the water and the colouring process happens in the extruder.

This year, now being made of plastic bottles with no dyeing, the product looks exactly the same. It was really hard because usually when you dye fabric you give the factory a colour chip and they just dye it to match. But because it is done in the plastic extrusion process, and they knit together the yarn, it's not weaving. It took a lot of back and forth because it's the proportion of dark to light. You're creating the colour through the knitting so it's a lot harder.

All of our products in Nest use a bit of recycled plastic but a lot of companies do that.

What I love about these kinds of things is that as the team goes through it together, the excitement is like the Little Red Engine That Could; "I think we can I think we can".

I remember standing up at a directors offsite and we were so close it was about eight months ago, and we were on the edge if we were actually going to be able to produce it and use it for the launch this year. Technically we either couldn't get the colour match correct in time or we couldn't get enough quantity. There were a number of factors.

So I put a plea out to the audience; everyone got really excited. I said understand that what we are talking about is using plastic bottles and being able to get rid of 12 to 14 million, but we really need all of your help. It was so great standing up last month and being able to report that we did it collectively.

Bridget Cogley: How do you go about making change in Google regarding sustainability?

Ivy Ross: We [the design team] are at the beginning of the process, but it is absolutely a collaborative effort because it takes the engineers and the head of operations and everyone along the way to not go with the path of least resistance, which is the path you know, but go stay a little bit in the unknown. With the Google Nest Mini, there is no coating and no pollutants, so it is like this is an iconic first one out. It is like birthing a child that you get so excited about. It has raised the bar for everyone here.

All of our products in Nest use a bit of recycled plastic for the housing but a lot of companies do that. What we want to keep pushing on is what is the innovation beyond that. When you're a big company, you have an obligation to do that. You can push the factories to go that extra mile. The team is on a roll and now it is like what can we do next? What's next for hardware is diving into those three lenses.

Design is about solving problems and this is the biggest problem of our lifetime

Now we actually have a spec sheet that the designers work with when we finish spacing out a product that says what is good for the earth or sustainable about it, what have we not done that we could've done and why didn't we do it, so that we can understand what we need to unlock for the future. So it's making all of that information visible. I'm really excited that everyone's embraced it. Design is about solving problems and this is the biggest problem of our lifetime.

Consumers are starting to show and vote on 'I just don't want a shiny or matte object, give me a reason to buy that' and that's good. In the future, designing for longevity and repairability is crucial. It's like how do we design so you don't feel like you should or have to buy something new every year, and really making the software that's where it changes every year and becomes helpful.

That hardware is the form or the carrying vessel but we can live with that form longer, and now with software and AI that's where the newness can come from. As software allows us to do more helpful functions, you can just upload that without having to buy the product over again. We are in a unique position being a software company to start to act on that. We can still deliver newness but we're doing it because of the new aspects. Once it's in my hand, it's like what does it do for me?

Bridget Cogley: There has been a lot of concern about privacy and data collection recently. What is Google doing about this?

Ivy Ross: Google is on it. It is truly a concern about how do we do it better and best and deliver, and also give value and function. Everyone's on it and it's serious and its being looked at it from all aspects. It is one of the three pillars. We have to figure out how to find the right balance and make everyone feel secure and be secure.

We feel accountable

This kind of technology is a fairly new invention. So I don't think anyone or any company has ever meant any evil. It's not about that. So all I could say is everyone's on it. And it's serious. And it's being looked at from all aspects. I sit in meetings where we brainstorm different ways to new models of how to treat it.

Bridget Cogley: I'm still sceptical. How can we implement real-world change in human behaviour?

Ivy Ross: You know, we feel accountable. That's why with this whole sustainability thing, we feel accountable because you can sit here and complain about things. Design is at the beginning but we need our partners all along the way.

A year ago we formed sustainability as a separate group. It started with volunteers, and now it's a real thing. A group that is focused on sustained sustainability. And they are the core. Like I have someone from design on it, everyone put someone into the committee, and then if we need help, the team comes in and we work together.

So it's so exciting to see that it's this. It's like the cog in the wheel that companies need to have to be able to go to and unlock things, or to be kind of ahead of it figuring out what's the next thing we need to do?  I was thrilled when Google announced that by 2022 100 per cent of our products would be using recyclable material. And then the carbon footprint, which we've already actually met for 2020. The future of being sensitive and solving these problems. It's problems no one could have predicted necessarily or understood until people started to work with things.

Bridget Cogley: What is your process for developing products?

Ivy Ross: I have a whole research group and we love going into people's homes and talking to them.  We have to start understanding context, which you can't understand unless you get in people's homes and see how are they using it. That's when I get excited about the intelligence of these machines is them being sensitive. Like, they'll never replace people, for me or relationships for me, but them getting more sensitive would be lovely.

It's not about outsmarting someone, because that's where we get panicked when we hear that. Because we're all questioning our own intelligence, right. So it's not like 'oh, smart technology, so what am I stupid?'

We are killing ourselves by killing the planet

But you want sensitive technology that senses where you are in your life, your needs, the context or what room you're in. That's where we're moving when you talk about so I have another way to answer your question after sustainability and caring about this incredible planet, because, you know, we are killing ourselves by killing the planet. Some people don't realise that. But is this idea of sensing and sensors and using sensors and technology, again, where appropriate, to sense so that you can better serve.

I mean, it's all in service if you start to think about it that way, and that's the way the industry is going. It's not like making something because we can, it's really about serving; how can we serve humans? I think machine intelligence; it's what we use in Google Maps, and people don't think about it because otherwise how would it know where we are and how to best guide us? It's actually a really great asset. You know, if used appropriately, it's always about how you use it. So I feel really good.

Google created something called the empathy lab a few years ago. Everyone in different groups in Google studying this now. Because we have the best intentions, but it's learning, you know, we're learning together on the fly, how to solve these issues and how best to serve. So it's exciting because my team gets to form, function, service, context, all in one thing.