How to Design for the Environment and Build a Career You Love, From 2 Female Engineers

Sponsored by Kohler Co.

Photo Courtesy of Kohler.

Photo Courtesy of Kohler.

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May 29, 2024 at 4:14PM UTC

In addition to customer satisfaction, Kohler Co. — a manufacturing company you probably recognize from your home and kitchen appliances — is committed to two things: creating sustainable products and helping their employees build sustainable careers. 

Olivia Fritz and Mandy Montazeri, two senior project engineers and members of the Women@Work employee resource group, are proof of Kohler’s commitment to sustainability in work and practice.

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They also know that sustainability isn’t just about choosing the right materials or collecting (then abandoning) data. True sustainability requires understanding the environmental impact of a product’s entire life cycle (from raw material extraction to manufacturing, use and end of life), applying product data to future design and communicating across teams to ensure that best practices are being met. 

“Our sustainability initiative is not a selective approach,” says Montazeri. “We embed this into the business deliverables for ongoing projects so that every team is involved.” 

“Almost every decision made at Kohler can be tied back to sustainability, even if you’re deciding between two of the same materials,” Fritz adds.

Montazeri and Fritz recently shared their insights at WE19 — the world’s largest conference for women engineers — and sat with us to further discuss how Kohler “designs for the environment.” Read on to find out how Kohler’s leading the charge in the sustainability space and the support women can look forward to at the company.

How do Kohler’s core values fit into the company’s sustainability initiatives? 

Mandy Montazeri: One of the things our team is trying to focus on is showing that sustainability is not an additional part of the business — everything we do and every decision we make has a sustainability lens to it. It aligns perfectly with Kohler’s core competencies driving continuous improvement with data and delighting our customers with open transparent data sharing. Internally, we try to stay away from this vague concept that’s hard to understand, and create education materials and tools for different functions within the business to show how sustainability can help them achieve their goals. 

Olivia Fritz: Kohler’s mission is to contribute to a higher level of gracious living for all those who are touched by our products and services. How will we live graciously if corporations don’t take responsibility for their environmental impacts? This is imperative not only for the success of the business, but to our future quality of life. 

At Kohler, we have data to understand sustainability and it helps us drive that lens into our decision making. Not every project that appears sustainable is. For example, if you have crushed up toilets, and you make a trash can of this grinded material, the energy you put into this process is likely more impactful to the environment than making it out of plastic. So actually having the data for the overall impact of the full product life cycle helps us make better decisions that are aligned with people, planet and profit. 

How is Kohler leading the charge in the sustainability space?

Olivia Fritz: We have data to support the decisions we make and our team has created tools to support product development teams make decisions that reduce environmental impact throughout the product life cycle. If you look at where the impacts really are, they may not be in our manufacturing operations but in the work of our suppliers or the consumer use phase, so we take those ideas and data and use it to help empower teams to make better decisions.

Mandy Montazeri: Our sustainability initiative is not a selective approach. We embedded sustainable design practices into the business deliverables for ongoing projects so that every team is involved. Teams and businesses are held accountable for the results of these processes so it’s not just one team pushing the effort. This differentiates Kohler from other brands in the space because the effort is beyond us and underscores our processes, our documentation and our deliverables. 

Kohler also has the capability to create Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) – a customer-facing transparency document- on demand. Most brands in our space offer EPDs for high volume products, but because of Kohler’s investment in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), we have the capability to create this document for over 10,000 different products. 

Olivia Fritz: We also have our transparency documents third-party verified as proof of following the right processes and procedures. We are the first plumbing manufacturer to have this for our material disclosures (Declare Labels).

Photo of Montazeri and Fritz at the WE19 conference.
Photo of Montazeri and Fritz at the WE19 conference.

How do engineering decisions — from materials and aesthetic to function and manufacturing — impact the sustainability of the products we use every day?

Olivia Fritz: If you’re comparing different materials or suppliers and don’t understand the data behind greenhouse gas emissions or water usage or toxicity of one material compared to another, how are you supposed to make a sustainable decision? Every decision made at Kohler can be tied back to sustainability, even if you’re deciding between two of the same material because one may be sourced in China and the other here, so the environmental impacts can differ.

Additionally, we hold “Design for Environment Innovation Strategy” sessions where we bring the product development team together to look at the life cycle of a product and ask prompting questions to help them think about the things that affect the sustainability of the product. This is an opportunity for everyone to brainstorm cross-functionally, ideate creatively and compare these products to whatever the market would purchase if it weren’t for the new product being developed.

Mandy Montazeri: The information we get out of Life Cycle Assessment is not always “typical” sustainability. The scope of the data is beyond our own suppliers or operations. Factors like lifetime of material sets used in a product or whether those materials can be used for a second life, disposal of the components, serviceability, ease of cleaning, maintenance and upgrade, all play crucial roles. These choices are tied to sustainability and they are included in a list of features that can be looked into to create the most sustainable product from start to finish.

How did you get tapped for the WE19 presentation?

Mandy Montazeri: We did a presentation on a similar topic last year and we had really good engagement and feedback which led to doing the same type of presentation for this year, too.

What support does Kohler offer for women at work? (specific programs, benefits, etc.)

Olivia Fritz: We have business resource groups (BRGs); Mandy and I are both a part of the Women at Work BRG. In general, we’re allotted 20% of our time for personal development. There are tons of initiatives that come up such as clothing drives, stewardship activities, STEAM tours, and lunch-and-learns that employees are welcome to organize and participate in. 

Being able to create your own brand and really hone in on what you’re interested in can lead to valuable development opportunities. One example is when my coworker and I, who also graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wanted to give a presentation to our local SWE group chapter. I emailed our VP of Engineering to see if I could get some funding and she said, “Yeah, go ahead! I fully support that,” and that type of thing is a really good sign of the leadership and support we have here.

Mandy Montazeri: We have an internal mentorship program as well, which is partially developed by the Women at Work BRG. Having that mentorship to talk about professional or personal development plans has been very helpful for me.

The culture is moving forward really fast at Kohler and from my experience, it’s about what you bring to the table. I have never experienced any differentiation because of my background or gender; for everyone, your voice is heard and you’re appreciated for what you do. 


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