The School of International Service hosted Laura Kohler, the inaugural Chief Sustainability and DEI Officer of the Kohler company, for an open-forum discussion on environmental sustainability and corporate social impact on Nov. 9.
Kohler, who has held a variety of executive positions in the company’s philanthropy initiatives, engaged in an inspiring discussion with SIS Dean Shannon Hader about the brand’s commitments to sustainability, inclusivity and social progress as a large company.
Kohler provided a description of the company’s intentions to uphold what she described as “the beauty and quality” of its products as well as its commitment to a goal of reaching a net zero, or a balance between greenhouse gasses being emitted from factories and simultaneously being removed from the air, by 2035.
Kohler thoroughly detailed her experiences realizing the logistical impracticality of the goal, as well as its original mathematical complications. However, the largest obstacle Kohler’s initiative faced was catalyzing a behavioral change in the company.
“The challenge [was] to wake people up and say that we have to do things differently,” Kohler said.
On the topic of behavioral change, Kohler then discussed her specific commitments and goals as the company’s chief DEI officer.
She believes in a holistic approach to DEI, involving consideration of different perspectives based on racial, cultural, gender and ability that she says allows employees to feel, “like more than their day job.”
By promoting a company culture of inclusion, Kohler also hopes to advance some of the company’s main sustainability initiatives, which have manifested into products, such as the Kohler Cleanse, a line of pour-flush toilets and sustainable power generators. These are all produced for and sold to a variety of water-focused NGOs, and her personal favorite, the WasteLAB.
A facet of sustainability, as described by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, is the reuse and reclamation of wasted materials, whether they be food scraps, human waste or byproducts of manufactured items.
In the WasteLAB, tiles for bathroom and kitchen use are created from the dust resulting from porcelain production in factories.
Kohler credits these creations to the inclusion of a DEI consideration that she has helped foster in the company, saying that, “Diverse teams drive innovation.”
As one of three people who hold this position globally, Kohler has gained much of her experience and ideas by interacting with international stakeholders and other Kohler company campuses, noting how a “mindset behavior ship” has led Kenya to culturally and legally ban all single-use plastics, and wishes that the United States would change behaviors similarly with gray water use.
As time progresses, Kohler hopes that her job as a leader in sustainability, and any DEI efforts, will become obsolete. She hopes the practices she promotes will become the norm for large corporations.
“[Avoid] discount[ing] business, because [as students], you’re there to help them see the opportunity for positive societal progress,” Kohler said.
This article was edited by Soumya Sahay, Patricia McGee and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti.