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In this episode of The Big Question, we ask Pamela Gill Alabaster, Mattel Head of Global Sustainability, and Michelle Lee, IDEO Play Lab Managing Director… How might we lead the way in designing for a new socially responsible generation?

We’re exploring how we can implement sustainability in a heritage brand with over 70 years of history – one that has produced some of the most iconic toys in the world. How can we shift consumer behaviors, overcome organizational blockers and empower us to take action?

Pamela and Michelle discuss how their shared passions for the health of the environment and the joy that can be expressed through play, creates a radical new field of design that can lead the industry forward to a better future. 

Pamela Alabaster: I also think that our brands have this huge opportunity to use their trusted relationship with consumers, to invite them to be part of the solution, to use their platforms to help educate consumers on what better looks like. By living a life that's more informed, you make better choices for yourself and for the planet.

Detria Williamson: We live and work in a world of interlocking systems, where many of the problems we face are dynamic, multifaceted, and inherently human. We believe that design thinking can help solve these problems, to provide answers, but big answers can only be found by asking big questions. Welcome to The Big Questio, an IDEO podcast. I'm your host, Detria Williamson.

I'm Detria Williamson, alumni of IDEO, and so excited to bring you today Michelle Lee, managing director of the Play Lab at IDEO, and Pam Alabaster, head of global sustainability at Mattel. We're today to explore the big question, how might we lead the way in designing for a new socially responsible generation, really leaning into Mattel's position as one of the leading toy companies in the world? I'm so excited and happy to have you both. I'm a fangirl of you, Pam, and everything that you've done, and Michelle, it's just an honor working alongside you. I'm super excited, why don't you first introduce yourself?

Pamela: Well, good day to you, Detria. Great to be here with you and Michelle. Pam Alabaster here and was just going to say-- I was going to repeat my title, but in fact, you've already introduced me as such. I'll introduce myself as advocate for the planet and for the next generation, mother of three, launched young adult children, and a two-year transplant in Los Angeles, originally from New York.

Detria: Pam and Michelle, I know you all have a long history together. Talk to me about-- how did you meet?

Pamela: Well, I first met Michelle on a project that we did with IDEO, which was a circular design training for our Mattel teams. Michelle and the IDEO team led three workshops where we introduced the concept and principles of the circular economy and circular design to our brand, design and development, global supply chain, and finance teams. We're very simpatico and we share a common aim at really equipping organizations with the knowledge and skills to help create a better future.

Michelle Lee: Yes, our partnership with Mattel goes back decades over time and this partnership has come to include not just [unintelligible 00:03:13] the next hot toy, but also exploring bigger challenges together. When I first met Pam, I was really excited that Mattel was making a commitment to sustainability and hired a leader in the field. She has really great expertise in this area and her passion for sustainability is really contagious, but I also know that changing the trajectory of a 70 plus-year-old giant in the toy industry with iconic brands like Barbie and Hot Wheels is no easy feat.

We're really excited to partner with her to transform the way that Mattel thinks about how they produce and deliver play experiences to kids around the world and also how they lead other industries and other companies in this journey that we all have to take together.

Detria: Well, I mentioned that I'm a super fangirl of both of yours. Pam, I actually think Forbes in 2018 referenced you as one of only 46, I would say, women's leaders in sustainability. I just want to thank you because we're so proud to be among you. Michelle, I'm a fan of your background, just your engineering background and product design from Stanford, you've also worked in aerospace. I just think it's really important for our listeners to just hear the joy that we're about to leap into with both of your expertise and backgrounds. Given the roles that you each have, how do we actually maintain the joy that play brings around such an important and deep topic?

Pamela: It's actually a fairly profound question in a lot of ways. If we really and truly want the next generation to thrive, they can only do so on a healthy planet. It's critical that we align our purpose with our behavior and our actions. At Mattel, we design innovative toys and experiences and inspire, entertain, and develop children through play. Each of us honestly shows up at work actually virtually these days to deliver on a purpose and a mission. It's our North Star and it keeps us directed and motivated to do better. I'm really proud that that North Star, that purpose for our company really guides everything we do.

Michelle: This has really been a fantastic areas working alongside Pam because her experience of Mattel and my experience coming from a play background and championing play at IDEO and beyond really stresses importance of joy. I think we both understand how key joy and play are to everything that we do. It's often something that's missing when we address important heavy topics like sustainability and climate. Too often people go into these discussions with feelings of heavy obligation or hesitancy to change. Sometimes there's often a big feeling of guilt that gets in the way of actually moving towards action.

Joy is key to all of this, and because we come from backgrounds where we have really studied play and joy, we know that this is crucial to this discussion. I'm glad that we're bringing it to sustainability as well. I know that it has a place beyond just making toys.

Detria: It's really interesting to hear you, Michelle, use that word guilt. Is that something, Pam, that you have found or experienced in your role?

Pamela: There's a notion of "I can and should do more," but there's also the reality of you're moving an organization forward. There's a notion of progress not perfection. The way I look at it is I'm in it for continuous improvement to continue to move the organization, a big organization, multi-billion dollar organization, in the right direction and to bring as many people along the way with me as possible.

Detria: Michelle, would you say that you're finding even with some of our other clients or also just within the industry as a whole that this is a challenge and that this feeling of guilt persists across different companies and that it's industry-wide?

Michelle: Absolutely. If we get caught up in guilt, it's really hard for us to shift to "Oh, how do I stop apologizing or defending what I've been doing?" to "How do I actually think about how I can be a part of the solution and how I can start making positive change in this area?" Guilt along with what Pam was just saying, this striving for perfection, often are what cause a lot of paralysis. I love that Pamela throughout our whole time working together continues to stress progress, not perfection, because we just need to make a step forward.

We all need to join hands and be like, "We're going to do something about this." Try a few things, experiment, take on this challenge head-on. What I like to refer to as a playful mindset it's what kids do. They see something out there, they don't get daunted. They don't stop to feel guilty or dwell in negative emotions. Oftentimes they jump in and just try something, and I think that's so important in this instance. Hearing Pam just echo that mantra over and over again, progress not perfection, I think gets us in the right mindset to approach all this with optimism.

Pamela: I love that idea of how kids approach daunting challenges. They do it in a fearless boundless way and as we get older, we put so many more obstacles in front of ourselves and kids don't do that. Having a child play attitude towards problem-solving is a really refreshing idea.

Detria: You all are already where we need to go and our listeners will really appreciate hearing about this shift that we need to make in various mindsets around circular economy and how do we go beyond the need to, and embrace the spirit of want to. It is, it's a lot to take on particularly because we know that the industries we're leading, particularly you Pam and Michelle, are surrounded by this big emotion that we want joy, that we want to experience, and primarily with kids. How might we shift this mindset? How do we start to do that?

Pamela: When I hear you say the words need and want, I actually think a little bit differently. I think about the confusion that exists between needs and wants. For years, marketing messages have told us we need this or that to have a cleaner, sexier, more fun, happy, fulfilled life. We've been told that the good life is about accumulating stuff. The expression "He who has the most stuff wins" and that success and happiness had really been defined by wealth and possessions. I think that Gen Z really gets now that experience can trump consumption of stuff and importantly, they know and see that our planet does not have the resources to sustain us at the current consumption level, let alone serve a growing population middle-class in the same manner.

In response to the question you asked, I think that we need to shift from a what we want to what we need and to be more thoughtful about our consumption of stuff and really use the same marketing tools that we've had for generations. Do you remember smoking was sexy and meat was manly? To really reframe what the good life is and to really shift the paradigm around what consumption has been and GDP, gross domestic product, has been for the past 60 years.

I think in order to make this shift happen from the want to need, citizens have to be more informed about where our stuff comes from. What is it made of? How is it made? Who are the people that made it and what happens to our stuff when we're done enjoying it? I think that once we can understand as individuals, as citizens, as consumers the whole life cycle of our stuff and the impacts that are created along the way, it'll be easier to embrace the want to be part of the transition towards the circular economy because we all understand the difference between what we need and what we want.

Detria: How brave. I just want to recognize and honor just your bravery, Pam, as a leader, because that really is a brave new way forward I would even say in the role that you have, when you're ultimately driving consumption, but what you're doing is driving responsible consumption. Really to use your word reframing what good looks like. Michelle, I would love to hear and learn your interpretation of this.

Michelle: First off, I love what Pam is saying about how do we redefine consumption and turn it into responsible consumption. I agree that Gen Z is really leading the way in so many of these conversations. I'm going to take this question in a slightly different direction, and I'm actually going to move this shift from need to, to want to and shift it from what is the consumer feeling to what are organization's feeling because I think we definitely have this job in front of us of how do we shift consumers from a mindset of wanting something to what do you actually need.

There is also a mindset shift of how do we help organizations go from this feeling of obligation that we need to adopt this circular mindset that it's being imposed on us to actually, this is a challenge that we're really excited about, that we want to take on. Gen Z being more responsible and demanding that companies really take into account the impact they're having on the world, that's going to be one of the things that's weighing on organizations who are trying to make this change. We also see a lot of impending regulations from government that are really asking companies to take more responsibility for true environmental costs that they're putting on this planet.

We're also just seeing the world itself that we know that there's growing consequences of pollution and global warming. All of these are weighing on us and being like, "Okay, we need to do something different. It's all on your shoulders." These pressures only get you so far. They might spark that initial action, but a lot of this comes from a negative space. Again, we talked about guilt before, but these feelings can weigh you down and make it really tough to keep going.

In those workshops that Pam mentioned that we've run with Mattel, it's been an opportunity for us to really stress the importance of approaching circular design with a spirit of optimism so that instead of fearing change, how can we actually see this as a really incredible opportunity to disrupt the industry? A chance for us to ask big questions, kind of going back to the theme of this podcast. Start with those big questions and then dream of new ways to approach our work, see this as a real chance to experiment and to try something new.

Again, this resonates with that mindset of play, something that both Pam's teams and our team really love and are so familiar with and something that again is what propels young children to take on a world that they don't understand, not with fear, but with just curiosity and enthusiasm. It's not an obligation for kids to go out there and learn and grow. They do it with a lot of excitement and curiosity. It's driven by themselves with a sense of agency.

I think one thing to [unintelligible 00:15:18] just because I know when I talk about kids in play, a lot of people look at me and they're like, "Oh, well child's play." That's usually about simplifying something. We're talking about something really meaty, which is global warming and sustainability. Like why are you bringing child's play to this? I love that Pam's laughing because I think you hear the same things as well. The truth is that kids actually thrive in complexity. They love games that are full of challenges that force them to try something new.

I'll give you an example of my kids who love to play the basketball game HORSE because rather than just shooting your standard jump shot or layup, they get really excited to try new inventive ways to get the ball in the basket. They challenge each other to match their shot and the more difficult the shot, the better. They push their skill. They come with new ways to play the game and even if one of them is close to winning, I love when one of them is one letter away from winning the game and they're like, actually let's play horses with an apostrophe to add a couple more steps to the game because they want to do better. That challenge is so great and it's what invigorates them to keep going.

What if we approach sustainable design in the same way? What is the joy of challenging ourselves to push our skills, to come up with new solutions that the whole process was so engaging that we never wanted to end? Even when we came up with good solutions, we kept pushing to see if we could come up with one better, just one-up each other, like over and over again come up with better solutions. That mindset of play would move us from approaching circular design from this perspective of "we need to do this" to one of "we want to do this." Why would we not do this? This is what gets us excited and gets us to wake up in the morning and be excited to jump into our jobs. How much further with that mindset?

Detria: I want to go back to something that both of you were touching on, which is really around these challenges. I think, Michelle, the words you were using are these challenges. What have you both learned are the biggest challenges or barriers to driving this shift? It sounds like Pam and Michelle, you're both looking at it through different angles. Are the challenges and the barriers the same in driving this shift?

Pamela: I don't know. Maybe there are two words for describing the same thing. Maybe you could say obstacles, whatever. I think that they exist however you want to label them. They exist across the entire system and value chain. It's from the consumer's lack of knowledge and understanding where their stuff comes from and where it goes to the companies that really still design products with end of life that is intended for landfill. One of the things I was going to offer on what Michelle had just said is the move from need to want to. Also can be inspired and motivated by a win.

When a company has something that they do that is moving the organization towards the circular economy and they see evidence of it and they feel success around it, it inspires more behavior like that and more risk-taking and more challenging changes. I think there are also realistically pragmatically downstream challenges with waste infrastructure, for example, where we don't capture nearly enough of the single use waste that we generate a society. Some of that is because the materials don't have a perceived value that MRFs and waste management organizations take the time to collect, sort, separate, and invest in the side because they don't think there's any value.

I think we also see, and Michelle had touched on it before, extended producer responsibility type policies, approaches that are making producers pay for the waste they're generating, which I think creates a whole new set of incentives for companies to design differently with recovering in mind. There are carrots and sticks in this system and there are definitely challenges, stakeholder challenges, systems challenges, but I think there's a way to overcome all of it.

Michelle: To build off of what Pam is saying, I love this thought of part of the challenge is how do we educate people because we generally don't know where our materials come from anymore? We just buy it off the shelf and then when we throw it in the trash, where does it go? It just disappears. We don't have a view of that whole ecosystem. In approaching a challenge that's big, it really requires understanding more about that system and what are the different players and how do we look beyond silos to work together?

I love that Pam, when we have brought together groups for these workshops, she's very careful in choosing who she brings in and makes sure she is bringing people from across the organization, or even if it's a workshop with a packaging team, making sure it's packaging from across different brands so that we have those perspectives and the ability for people to work together to come up with common solutions.

I think one other piece too, that's a huge obstacle is that a lot of us got to be successful based on being able to work within constraints. Often when we come in and talk to different organizations that always comes up. It's like what about cost? We've worked so hard to bring these processes to be as efficient as possible. Now if you're talking about doing it a different way, it's got to cost more, talent is another issue. All these people are hired and trained for specific processes.

Now if we have to figure out how to work with recycled plastics, that's a whole another way that we have to train people to work. That can feel daunting as well as just how do we even deal with other stakeholders in this system like the retailers and the demands they have on how a shelf needs to look and how we have to meet the demands of a retail shelf. Of course, there's the consumer who may say that they want more environmental products on the market, but at the same time they don't want to pay more or they're expecting a certain size for a certain price value. A lot of education throughout the whole system, a lot of working across that system.

The other thing that Pam said that I think is just really right on is, how do we find the solutions that are working and highlight those to inspire other people? That's something that's been so great in how we've brought in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation too, in terms of helping to feed us with some of the inspiration as we go in and work with these teams at Mattel and surfacing where other companies have already rethought the system and are showing that it is possible to succeed.

That even a lot of the sustainably marketed products who are on the market right now are growing faster than their conventional counterparts and costs are being reduced in new ways, relationships are being built in new ways with consumers. Where if you have a model that is about refilling, reusing, or subscription, you've suddenly created all these new touchpoints to relate with your consumer. All these are benefits that could actually take you to new levels.

I think how do you turn those constraints, hold those, know that they're probably still [unintelligible 00:22:23] you have to work with them, but move them to the side for a little bit to just give you a chance to dream big and come up with some of these really interesting solutions. Then once you have those solutions, amplify them so other people can see that there's a way forward.

Detria: You both have essentially highlighted this high grand need to redesign many things. Pam, you mentioned the need to really redesign what is it that we call value. Michelle, and you talking about this need to reeducate different communities and key stakeholders. Where does our supply chain fit into this? Does the supply chain need redesigning in order to meet some of these ambitions you're both referring to?

Pamela: For sure. I think we could expound on this for probably an hour, but one important shift that has a lot of proximity to what we do with toys is we need to see a dramatic increase in capacity for recycled content, whether that's mechanically recycled or chemically recycled plastics. Today the demand from consumer good companies, all of the big CPG companies have made significant commitments around their use of recycled content, plastic bio-based materials, et cetera. The demand totally outstrips the supply and as a consequence, the materials carry a two to three-fold premium over conventional bad actor virgin resin.

While making products with renewable feedstocks recovered from waste is one way to support the circular economy, as more companies that use PCR plastic, they make commitments. As their commitments to using them and their products grow, I have to hope that we see increased capacity for these materials to grow in a correlating way. There's a whole host of other things. If you want people to understand where their products come from and who made them and how they were treated and the wages they were paid, if they were wages, et cetera, also demands greater, not only transparency, but traceability in our supply chain.

Today most companies see to have visibility or oversight to tier one direct suppliers. If you think about something like cotton, there's multiple stages in the cotton value chain and very few companies have visibility all the way up to who grew that cotton, whose farm was that cotton grown and picked from. That's important. If you're inviting consumers and wanting consumers to see and have more involvement and engagement in where my stuff comes from, you have to also understand yourself where it comes from.

Detria: Michelle, are you seeing that again, just not only through our work that we're doing with Pam, but are you seeing, in general, this overarching need of how do we redesign our supply chains?

Michelle: Oh, absolutely, because again, it is a huge issue that affects every part of the system that all these pieces come together in a way. If you change one thing in one part of the system, it could have this crazy butterfly effect where you just have no idea what down the line, it might change for how something can then ultimately be recycled or disposed of in a responsible way. I think Pam just named a lot of really great ways that we can start going deep and what are some of those questions that we need to answer.

For those who are just starting out, I think one thing to keep in mind is that we just need to ask the questions. We need to get curious. We need to challenge assumptions the way things are currently being done, and that can happen at every stage of the supply. In some of the workshops, we've pointed out that when you're sourcing materials, how do you really ask, could you be more thoughtful about using bio-based or fully recyclable materials?

In design, is there a way to make your product out of a single material or make it easy to disassemble so you can send every piece into the proper recovery stream? In manufacturing, do you think about durability and having something last longer so that they can be kept in use for a longer period of time versus being a quickly disposable item? All those pieces come together and as you start asking those questions, you can keep going, just keep going deeper. Okay, if you could use more bio base, where would those come from? What would you then do with them after use?

How do you get that spirit of curiosity in there to ask those questions to not just take the current processes at face value and then get to some of those bigger challenges that Pam was raising in terms of, now that we know that, how do we make sure that we can actually dispose of this and know that it's going to end up in the proper stream? That there is a market for those goods once they've been recycled, and that they'll come back and have value in our marketplace? It's called the circular economy for a reason, economy is a huge part of this. It can't just be a pipe dream and just doing good for the environment, it has to also make sense where it's economically sustainable.

Detria: Well, both of you, being clear leaders in the toy industry, have no small challenge ahead of you. We talked about some of these big words associated with the great impact that you're driving, words like guilt, words where companies might feel overwhelmed, not know where to start. Given this huge impact that you all are driving and having as leaders in the toy industry, how do you ensure that those do not feel intimidated by the transition that you're driving of a circular economy future? How do you take down the feelings of guilt and feeling overwhelmed and just intimidated by all the needs that you all have shared need to take place? As a leader in the toy industry, how are we essentially embracing that there needs to be a circular economy of future?

Pamela: At Mattel, our transition toward the circular economy is actually happening in lockstep with our ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and its impact on climate change. A couple of thoughts related to that question. The first is through education and a common understanding across the organization of what we can do together, basic understanding of key concepts like what is a circular economy and how do I design better for it?

We're equipping the teams with the tools they need to be part of this transition so that they're not-- We're inviting them to not stand on the sideline, but to be part of this transition and to use their platforms, their roles, their functions within an organization to help move us forward. I have to say that we have an amazing group of creative and talented and passionate people who really want to be part of this transformation. That really excites me and it makes my job certainly easier.

I also think that our brands have this huge opportunity to use their trusted relationship with consumers to invite them to be part of the solution, to use their platforms, social media touchpoints, whatever, to help educate consumers on what better looks like and going back to responsible consumption. Also, by living a life that's more informed, you make better choices for yourself and for the planet. It's actually what lured me to Mattel was the notion that we could use these trusted, amazing, beautiful, and beloved brands to drive environmental and social change. I'm really fortunate to have that opportunity.

Michelle: Yes, I'm sitting here silently nodding to everything that Pam is saying. I love how you're looking at this as a leader and really treating this as an opportunity to be truly inclusive and bring other people in to help move this forward. This is a lot to have on one person's shoulders. I think that's one of the reasons we've been so drawn to be an active partner with Pam and her team, because I know that when someone comes in and they're brought in as the head of sustainability and it's a first person to hold that role, there's a lot of expectations and a lot of hoping that that person can wave the magic wand and make it different. We know it's not possible with one person to do it all on their own.

Really, how do we find our allies within our or organizations, but also external partners who are the people we're going to help us champion this moving forward? How do we help get everyone up to speed? Which has been a big role of these workshops to give people even the language and the foundation to start talking about the circular economy, and then empower them to step forward and help us identify opportunities in each of these areas because Pam and I aren't the experts in each part of the value chain. That's where we need people come in and help us understand what they're seeing as opportunities and how they can help us move forward.

Then I'm just going to echo Pam's mantra because I love it so much. Progress, not perfection. I think that's one of the really great ways to get people not get bogged down and just keep going forward. We're not going to get it right the first time, but we're not going to get anywhere if you don't take that first step. How do we start moving towards that road towards progress, knowing that at some point we'll get a whole lot closer to perfection if we can at least start the journey?

Detria: Pam and Michelle, thank you so much for today's discussion. It's so needed. Again, I'm so proud to sit amongst two women on this call, having this conversation and really serving as leaders in this space. Pam, thank you for the reminder to and the need for society to actually reframe "what is the good life" and the need to invite everyone into this transformation, and that it does not just sole on one company, one leader, one family, one community, but your invitation for everyone to come into this transformation.

Michelle, it was super important to hear you say that we all need to challenge our own assumptions and to ensure that we're actually asking the right questions and the need to know and find your allies within your communities, within your companies, and not only find them, but to use the knowledge that you've gained and empower them. I want to thank both of you today for this terrific conversation that I know our listeners will love. Thank you so much.

Pamela: It was a real pleasure. [laughs]

Detria: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Pam, I want to ask you a question because you're actually, you're to taking on a lot. There has to be a big question that perhaps keeps you up at night or do you sleep well? [laughs]

Pamela: Actually, I'm a champion sleeper. [laughs]

Detria: Good.

Pamela: Usually, when I wake up, it's in the middle of the night and it's 2:00 or 3:00 AM, and it's remembering something that I need to make sure I put on my to-do list for the next day. For where we are, I take comfort in the fact that this is a journey of continuous improvement and incremental steps forward count, especially when a company is really in its journey, and the notion of transformational change is just unrealistic.

What I do worry about is that we're not really going fast enough and that there really isn't-- I'm not saying this specific to Mattel, but I think in society at large, I don't think there's a shared sense of urgency. We really do need multiples of incremental steps forward and to really embrace the transition as if our future depended on it, because it really does.

Detria: Is there actually a big question for you as a leader right now. Taking your Mattel hat off, is there a big question for you with where you are, what you've learned, the change in impact that you're driving with a brand we all know and love? Is there a new big question that you ask yourself?

Pamela: In fact, I do ask myself the balance of power in the world today and what informs us as citizens, I think is shifting and even where trust resides. For decades, media NGOs were the really trusted sources. Where I'm going with this is I feel government is not to be trusted. Media has become partisan as well and not to be trusted. What is the role today for a modern corporation to be a drive, a solutions driver for some of the bigger challenges that we as society face? I think the landscape of institutions and their roles in society are changing. I think it's a huge opportunity. I think people are now calling it conscious capitalism, but I really do feel there's huge value in corporates really leaning in on this opportunity.

Detria: Pam, that will first sure be our next conversation. I'm passionate as a leader about the need for trust and design's role in that, because it should be done with intention, with parity across communities, across companies, brands. Welcome back is what I'd like to say to our part two. Thank you so much, Pam. Thank you, Michelle, for your time today.

Michelle: Thank you so much. Really enjoyed it.

Pamela: Yes, very inspiring. Thank you.

Detria: The Big Question is brought to you by IDEO. To find out more about us and how we create positive impact through design, head to ideo.com. Then make sure to search for The Big Question in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else podcasts are found. Make sure to click subscribe so you don't miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at IDEO, thanks for listening.

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Combine the outlook of a visionary with the rigor of a high-performing athlete and you’ll begin to get a sense of IDEO ALUM Detria Williamson. She has spent more than 20 years as an innovative brand experience marketer who gives companies a brave push forward, bringing the discipline and mindset needed to create new brand ecosystems while building on the resonance and value the brand already has to its audiences.