Mariana Amatullo portrait by Jessica H. Lee, who received her BFA in Communication Design from Parsons the New School for Design.

Mariana Amatullo’s teaching and design practice sits at the intersection of design, design management, and social innovation—one of her primary concerns being the responsibility of (and potential for) designers to get involved in social and institutional change. After 16 years at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, where she co-founded and led Designmatters, the school’s social innovation program. Last year, Amatullo joined Parsons The New School in New York City, where she teaches strategic design and management, and is co-chair of the school’s Management Initiative.

Here, she answers questions about greenwashing, what it takes to have real impact, and how this is not the time for solo, hero designers.

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How can colleges and companies move away from greenwashing and towards actually having a positive impact?

Considering what’s at stake for the future of our planet, my position is that there’s no more time for greenwashing. There’s also a limitation on mitigation—it’s now about adaptation.

A lot of damage has already done, with some pretty dire environmental, social, and economic ramifications; so a lot of what we need to think about in the field of design is around education, innovation, and certainly the design choices we should make around sourcing materials and manufacturing. How might we maximize the agency of design to create novel and viable solutions that take on a systems approach in a volatile and interdependent world? What might we learn from circular economy principles? How might we continue producing products and services that will allow consumers to be more active agents of change, and become better informed agents of change?

Just in the last month or so, there’ve been examples of large multinationals—which haven’t necessarily been associated with sustainability and social responsibility—taking steps towards making change.

Adidas, the world’s second largest sportswear brand, recently announced it will only use recycled plastics in their production of shoes and apparel by 2024, in a push to increase the sustainability of its supply chain. Nothing’s going to happen overnight; the scale of change and investment required is so large (50% of what Adidas sells today is made out of virgin polyester), and companies need to safeguard their shareholders and bottom line. In other words, one cannot escape the reality of incrementalism to transition business models in order to protect profit margins.

Another company that’s betting on a new level of financial commitment, with $1 billion going toward sustainability, is Mars, the candy company—not a company one would necessarily associate with sustainability, but it shows an awareness that sustainable business is good business. Ultimately, for these global players, there is a recognized competitive advantage from a more resource-efficient supply chain.

And then there are the exceptional cases, such as Patagonia. This is a company that has firmly anchored its brand in environmental activism, taking a mission-driven approach to retail success and positive impact that stands out almost in a league of its own. It’s responsible, and despite some of the current U.S. administration policies, we know, and all experts agree, that climate change and the impact of climate change on a warming planet is one of the defining issues of the 21st century.

There’s so much potential for design to impact positive change. Can you recall a few examples of designers having real impact?

There are different types of positive change that designers can make. At the level of professional practice, it’s about taking an active stance as stewards and modeling leadership that can be consequential.

When we think about large multinationals where design is a component of so many parts of business units, it’s fundamental that we seize the opportunity to have experienced designers, ones who really understand sustainability, good practices, and the power of design to bring forth human dignity, at a leadership level and with a seat at the table in the executive suite.

There was recently an announcement that Valerie Casey—who founded the Designers Accord in 2007, a five-year project to mainstream sustainability in the global creative community—has been named Walmart’s head of design, the most senior design officer in its history. For a company of that scale, decisions around sustainability and thinking hard and deeply about what it takes to deliver a continuum of human-centric experiences to customers, have the potential for huge ramifications.  These are the kind of changes that are really encouraging to me.

Then there’s another level of impact that comes from designers who can operate from a place of hard-won technical skills, as well as self-awareness and values. These are the next generation of students who we’re educating, who don’t see sustainability as an either/or. An understanding of ecological literacy and practical lessons in sustainability are embedded across the Parsons curriculum and represent a vital touchstone of our students’ education, no matter what degree they’re pursuing. That means that by the time they graduate, we expect our students to be astute, educated designers who don’t see sustainability as a choice, but as a responsibility, and they have the creativity, knowledge and determination to innovate.

Depending on the discipline, what this looks like may vary. For example, it might involve knowing how to ascertain and evaluate a product’s final impact by calculating factors such as carbon emissions, water use, or waste production; or it might take the form of having the competency to respond to design problems in urban settings, which call for new approaches to environmental resilience and social sustainability.

One such student that embodies this kind of ethos, and who’s been very inspiring in terms of her trajectory, is Angela Luna, who graduated from Parsons with a BFA in fashion design in 2016. Angela is the founder of ADIFF (a play on “to make a difference”); while studying she designed a collection with multipurpose pieces (a tent, a sleeping bag, a backpack), which transform into different configurations. The pieces were designed for socially responsible outdoor adventurers, but it also has homeless populations and refugees in mind. ADIFF is focussed on humanitarian, responsible, sustainable choices, and her vision has resonated with both the necessary financial backers and critical accolades (she was included in Forbes 2017 “30 Under 30” list of innovators). This is very exciting to witness when it comes to designers’ activism and evolving roles in systems change.

When I look back at the truly impactful design projects—especially those by students I’ve mentored in the social innovation space, and who’ve had the most impact over time—there’s a common denominator: those who really accomplish a lot are individuals who show a knack for perseverance, who are driven, self-aware, and mature, and who understand that successful outcomes are rarely the result of a sole, hero designer. You can’t just be talented and creative, produce something quite beautiful, and expect it to get well-executed; there’s another dimension that goes beyond design and creativity, that has a lot to do with character (grit, humility, and patience), and an openness to navigate complexity. A lot of what it takes to have impact requires that sense of fluidity, along with the ability to overcome complex circumstances.

As I look ahead at my ongoing work at Parsons, as an educator and researcher deeply moved by what the design discipline teaches us in terms of our agency as human beings —to emphasize action and be a source of positive change—I am mostly optimistic. There have never been more technical means and tools to enable designers with a sense of purpose to impact contemporary life. And in turn, there’s never been more readiness to embrace that kind of design intent and talent.