With sustainability still the topic of the century, it’s sometimes tricky working out which products and company practices are genuinely making a difference to environmental impact. Sophie Harper talks to MindClick CEO, JoAnna Abrams, for the lowdown on the platform that’s helping designers make sense of it all …

Sustainability has been the word on the lips of every designer, hotel brand and product manufacturer in the last 10 years – but have we all been so swept along by the concept of sustainability that we’ve forgotten to stop and think about what the word actually means? Every brand on the high street seems to have green credentials or an eco story to tell these days, which is fantastic, but it’s difficult wading through the sea of certificates and awards to work out whose sustainable claims match up to the standards that are required for specific projects. Sound like a familiar problem?

Fortunately, there’s a data platform that analyses and reviews products for this reason, specifically for the hospitality design sector. MindClick is a product intelligence curator designed to make it easy for designers to view the sustainable impact of any product and compare it against other products in that category.

The way it works is that product manufacturers sign up to the MindClick platform and then have their green certifications reviewed and analysed, which is then laid out and given a ‘good, better, best’ rating on the MindClick database. The information available about each product is completely transparent for designers to look over and discover things like carbon output, energy usage and circularity, but in such a way that makes it easy to understand without having to compare ratings from different standards organisations.

The concept for the platform was derived from a system initially made for Toyota by MindClick’s CEO, JoAnna Abrams.

“I started my career in finance and accounting, and went to business school wanting to focus on consumer brands and brand management,” JoAnna tells me. “I worked at Pepsi Co, I worked at Nestle, all of which was great fun and fascinating work. Long story short, I ended up going into the world of technology and was running an interactive agency at the time. I started a company in usability testing, that was about testing the websites of global organisations to help them make better decisions about the content and how users interacted with their brands online.”

JoAnna’s company landed a contract with Toyota, and was tasked with building a rating system to evaluate the effectiveness of automotive websites. “We weren’t only evaluating Toyota and Lexus but also all the US brands, foreign brands,” she says. “The whole philosophy at Toyota is steeped in this concept of continuous improvement based on key performance indicators and how to improve service year after year.”

Referring to herself as a “capitalist tree-hugger”, JoAnna tells me how working with Toyota, and with exposure to the Prius, had opened her eyes to a changing future – and she saw an opportunity and need for brands to be embracing the issue of sustainability.

“We did a lot of consumer research and realised big companies were interested in understanding what was going on in their own organisation, and how they could measure their own profile when it comes to sustainability.”

JoAnna explains that she ended up collaborating with other companies and got into the building products space. “The challenge that they brought forth was ‘we’re overwhelmed with all these eco labels and certifications’, so we built a framework following globally accepted standards to measure environmental and social impacts throughout the lifecycle of a product.”

her background in product manufacture, development and distribution, JoAnna could relate to the whole process. On a chance meeting with a fabric manufacturer at a conference, JoAnna was told of the difficulties they faced getting their sustainable accreditation seen and understood over the vast amounts of greenwashed information out there, which gave JoAnna the idea to create a platform for the hospitality industry that assessed the sustainable claims of products in one, easy-to-understand rating system.

At the same time, around 2013, Arne Sorenson had tasked his teams at Marriott to ‘green’ their global supply chain. “He knew, as the biggest brand in the industry, they had a responsibility to lead the way,” says JoAnna. “But it was early days, and other hospitality brands weren’t ready at the time. So we put together a consortium, called the Hospitality Sustainable Purchasing Consortium, that included the vendors, the architects and design firms, the US Green Building Council, Marriott, purchasing companies, and some sustainability consultants. We took what we’d created for Toyota and brought it to the next level with everyone’s input on this whole system, which was a thorough review and took us about a year to do – of what we were measuring, how we’d prioritise, and the need for verification – which was driven by the vendors themselves so that greenwashing couldn’t happen.”

MindClick looks at everything from manufacturing practices to packaging, and encourages vendors to develop takeback programmes. “We assess how they source their materials and eliminate chemicals of concern – things that go across our nine metrics – and we do this through annual assessment of products and guidance on best practices out there.”

JoAnna describes how people often latch onto a word or term, and how it becomes a trend before anyone’s really thought about its impact or influence. “Everyone’s talking about ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance), but do they really understand what it means? In the past year and a half, ESG has exploded in terms of its importance. We saw an opportunity to help designers and their clients make more informed design choices so the outcome of a hotel could reflect a better story from all factors, including waste reduction, carbon reduction, healthy materials, circularity, diverse equity inclusion and fair practices in human rights. Because we’re now doing this across the industry, we can provide comparative analysis to say how our brand standard is stacking up in relation to other brand standards that are in the same tier of hotels, and what we can do to get better.”

MindClick can provide a full project analysis now, breaking down all aspects of a hotel design’s ESG performance, which has become a sought-after tool. “It was one of those moments where we had really created it to celebrate designers to evaluate their projects and showcase them as heroes, and then it turned into the thing everybody wanted! Now we’re working with owners and operators throughout the industry, because they need to be able to quantify the impact of the choices that are being made – and it’s taken off!”

JoAnna and the MindClick team are now at the point in their journey where their industry knowledge has snowballed and grown so much that they’re reaching out to educational institutes to work with students on their ideas, inspiring further growth and education in the industry. “It’s so exciting, seeing students come out of university now,” says JoAnnna. “They’ve got such great ideas on sustainable design, and this is our opportunity to support them.”

Essentially a facilitator, MindClick is about aiding the innovation of new ideas and the way products are manufactured. “We’re all about connection and collaboration,” JoAnna says. “The conversations we’re having now are really exciting – how do you extend the life of a product? How do you design on-site? How can we make products adaptable? It’s an interesting challenge – no one person can solve this individually, no one country can solve this individually. We’ve all got to collaborate for the shared purpose of wanting to live on a planet that’s inhabitable for all of us – and facilitate the flow of conversation so we can all make progress.”