Electrolux Group has been a leader in sustainability since releasing their first environmental policy back in 1991, when the concept of sustainability in construction was still in its infancy. Here, Monica Mazioun, Electrolux Group’s Design Lead for Sustainability talks about the high-impact side of sustainable product development, the way appliances are changing to prioritise end-of-life recyclability – and Electrolux Group’s North Star in sustainable product innovation.

Tell us about your background.

I am an industrial designer by training, and I started out as a furniture designer and maker. I then worked in product design and colour theory education, and – probably because of my short attention span – I have always had the need to move around and change things up quite a lot! Even after I started with Electrolux Group, I had a wide range of many different roles. I do think that, in a poetic way, they have all pointed to my current role as Design Lead for Sustainability – because sustainability is complex, and you need to have good relationships with people around you to navigate it and get through different obstacles and hurdles.

Sustainability is the main focus of your role now. Has it always defined your career path?

It certainly has always been a very strong interest of mine. Even back at university, my thesis centred around EPS and its environmental impacts. And today, almost 25 years later, I am working on reducing EPS and increasing the environmental profile of our packaging. My interest in sustainability has definitely always been there – and clearly has gone a full circle.

Tell us about your current role with the business, and what have been some of the key focal points for you recently.

At Electrolux Group, we strive to think globally and act locally. We're a Swedish company, so we're plugged into that market as well as the global design team, but we ensure that the solutions can be applied here, in Australia, and in APAC. My role is regional and spans the whole of Asia-Pacific.

One of the exciting things I have been focusing on is the recycled plastic in refrigerators. The plastic that is on the inside of the refrigerator, the liner is what we call it, is made out of a plastic called HIPS – High Impact Polystyrene. And so, we have been working with some suppliers for recycled HIPS to increase the recycled material in our products. We've actually successfully launched that in Europe and a part of my role now is to bring that to Asia Pacific, and specifically to Australia. It's a big focus for us because out of all of our products, the refrigerator uses the most plastic, so if we can improve that, we can really have the biggest impact. And it's a long-term commitment. For instance, replacing virgin plastic with recycled plastic is a fantastic idea but it's actually very difficult to achieve because you need to make sure that the quality and the longevity of the products are maintained. Otherwise, it's not a sustainable solution.

Another part of my role is ensuring that we partner with the right suppliers and foster a strong value supply chain. In addition, I work with the digital team, the user interface team as well as the engineers to collectively work out how we can keep on increasing the sustainable profile of our products and encourage customers to use the more sustainable programmes.

What does sustainable design mean to you?

As an industrial designer by training, it is natural for me to put the user at the centre. And that aligns with Electrolux Group’s design philosophy - always remembering to keep the user at the centre. From a sustainability point of view, it’s about looking at the product holistically, and considering where we can have the highest impact. Often it is not the most glamorous option that has the highest impact, but it's the right thing to do – and more often than not we make the decision to go with that option, even if it’s not as marketable.

Diving a little deeper into it, from our own lifecycle assessment, we know that approximately 85% of the environmental impact of our products happens in use. So, the actual material is one portion - which why we focus a lot on recycled materials, because that helps with the resource limitation, and lessening our impact on the earth - but then the bulk of it is in use so our focus has to be on nudging the user to use the ECO mode on the appliances, even though the programme might take longer. What the users might not know, for instance, is that our products – like washing machines – have sensors that allow them to monitor and adjust the duration of the programme.

And what are some of the most interesting product innovations aimed at creating more sustainable households that architects and designers should be aware of?

First and foremost, if architects and designers want to create more sustainable spaces, they should specify products from companies that are actually doing something about sustainability. Of course, that takes a lot of effort because it’s not always easy to tell the difference between greenwashing and genuine environmental commitment. Electrolux Group, for instance, released an environmental policy in 1991. We were one of the first ones to set sustainability targets, and we're one of the first ones to achieve them, too.

But in terms of specific products, while it might seem obvious, I think it’s pivotal to specify products with a high energy and water rating. In addition, there are also other considerations and factors. For instance, one of our vacuums uses up to 70% recycled plastic, and another is a cleaning product that has no paint, which reduces the amount of chemicals used, and – as a result – increases recyclability. So, at the end of its life, when you actually extract this material, it can be used again. It's really important to not only make sure that the products use recycled content but are still recyclable at the end of life.

Now, perhaps a little bit more far-fetched is the concept of the GRO Kitchen. ‘Gro’, which is Swedish for ‘sprout’ symbolises a new direction for kitchen design. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

It’s definitely our North Star in terms of product innovation. It’s a concept for a modular kitchen we have just launched at the EuroCucina fair in Milan, Italy, which essentially reimagines the way people use appliances, and how the appliances can adapt to their evolving needs. It’s based on an idea of components, and you can have as many as you need, but you can also add or remove. For instance, if you are furnishing a single occupancy one bedroom apartment, you might need one or two. But then perhaps another party moves in – you can add another compartment to expand the capabilities of the adaptable kitchen.

But this concept also deals with the idea of food waste as well as creating healthier, more sustainable eating habits. The idea of food waste has been powering Electrolux Group’s innovation in the kitchen appliances and fridge space, and this is a concept that advances these efforts. GRO is based on data from the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet, and aims to help users create more sustainable, greener eating habits by showcasing certain foods – like grains or veggies – on display. We’re all too familiar with the idea of food getting rotten, and wasted, at the back of the fridge – this concept strives to minimise that and make better choices for the health of the individual, and the planet.

Another interesting concept Electrolux Group has been involved with in HyHome. It’s a result of a partnership with AGIG and explores the use of hydrogen gas in kitchen appliances.

The HyHome concept explores the idea of what happens if we use hydrogen gas. Hydrogen gas is pretty exciting, because the cooktops can give you efficiency as well as producing zero greenhouse gases if the gas comes from a renewable source. So, you can combine this culinary experience and this emotional experience of cooking with gas with the environmental considerations.

But what I think is really exciting for us about this partnership, is this meeting of infrastructure and business, the city supply and the creative development. It’s an incredibly interesting junction that keeps the door open to new business models and solutions. And it's really important that we do that – when you bring together two worlds that don't usually interact, the results can be genuinely exciting.