Cascade Designs

The field of product design is fertile ground for exploring the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the products consumers use everyday. According to sustainability expert Annie Leonard, 99% of the things Americans purchase end up in a landfill within six months.

In the Collaborative Product Design class taught by Jeremy Faludi, students in MCAD’s Sustainable Design MA program use a variety of design tools and techniques to investigate how to move from the current status quo of the product design industry toward a more sustainable approach.

For the fall 2013 section of the class, teams of students investigated real-world products ranging from skateboard decks to counter-top juicers. One team of students was presented with the particularly interesting challenge of assessing the sustainability of Cascade Designs’ Therm-a-Rest Mira sleeping bag and Therm-a-Rest NeoAir sleeping pad and offering up potential redesign solutions.

While the team initially found the idea of redesigning products as complex and well-designed as the Mira and NeoAir slightly daunting, the chance to do an in-depth exploration of a product proved to be a valuable learning experience. The team began by breaking down the product, analyzing its material components, and conducting a baseline life-cycle analysis. The students then used a variety of design tactics—including energy efficiency, lightweighting, material effectiveness, biomimicry, product-to-service, and persuasive design—to further analyze the product and develop recommendations for improved sustainability. Throughout this process, the team consulted with Therm-a-Rest’s category director for tents and sleeping bags, Jim Giblin.

For the final class project, the design team presented their ideas to a group of Therm-a-Rest senior-level executives and engineers via a webinar. One of the team’s suggestions for improving the environmental impact of the product was to explore Nikwax water repellent as an alternative to the commonly used fluoropolymer-based durable water repellent (DWR). After the project was completed, the student team found that Therm-a-Rest had also identified Nikwax as a potential DWR replacement and was in the process of implementing a plan to begin using Nikwax Hydrophobic Down in a variety of its products. Currently, the company is producing five sleeping bag styles using the Nikwax Hydrophobic Down, and has plans to increase the number of Cascade Designs products using Nikwax to nine in 2016.

“It was exciting to see that the company was already working on some of the ideas we suggested and ultimately used a Nikwax product as a DWR substitute,” student Shari Welsh reported. She added, “Being able to work on a real product with people from the company was a unique learning opportunity. I still stay in touch with Jim and it’s been fascinating to see how Therm-a-Rest actively puts sustainability concepts into practice.”

Therm-a-Rest also reported benefitting from participating in the class. “Sustainability as a topic is ingrained in our manufacturing efficiencies, yet is rarely discussed specifically within a product application or with our customers,” noted Giblin. “The student presentation helped us think more seriously about how we can change that. The presentation nailed the established sustainability issues our company has been focusing on as well bringing up new opportunities and offering fresh perspectives.” Giblin summed up the experience by saying, “Overall it was a very helpful process to go through and we would certainly be open to doing it again.”

Student design team
Craig Johnson ’14, MA
Nadine Kümmel, MA student
Kate Mohn ’14, MA
Shari Welsh ’14, MA