Heart to Heart with Lewis Epstein of Lot21

  • 5 min read
With designing a more sustainable future top of mind, we love learning ways that within the design community we can make a positive impact. After 25+ years of successfully leading Steelcase brands, Lew Epstein is dedicated to helping the design community advance climate action now. We recently sat down with Lew to talk about the launch of Lot21, a new content platform and resource that aims to help the design community decarbonize the world through aggregating, curating, and translating climate content into simple, brief, visual formats designed to inspire. 

Your background and origins are in woodworking and furniture making. How did this lead you to become an advocate for regenerative materials and design?

When you rely on a regenerative material like wood to make a living, trees are no longer taken for granted. You see the critical role that trees and forests play in a biodiverse ecosystem and find your craftsmanship relies on stewardship to sustain this system comprehensively. To help regenerate this vital resource, I’ve participated in reforestation projects for decades. Regenerative design begins with the end in mind. 2050 climate pledges have an end in mind too. By applying regenerative design principles and materials, we can help turn pledges into plans and fulfill more climate action goals by 2050.

There are a lot of companies talking about sustainability however, navigating the validity of their claims while trying to understand the potential impact of certain design decisions can feel overwhelming. How can we combat this?

There’s an understandable frustration today caused by greenwashing. You can hear it in the community’s skepticism and distrust of a company’s claims. It might stem from the language used to describe a sustainable product or service, or from the complexity caused by different measuring and reporting methods that make it hard to compare results. Our industry and community needs to be willing to further standardize how we measure, report, and verify results to build more trust. Without this or another form of alignment, all the greenwashing and skepticism will likely persist.

After a successful career in the commercial furniture industry including various senior roles at Steelcase, what inspired you to launch a startup content platform like Lot21?

I wanted to dedicate my time to climate action in response to the accelerating pace of climate change and to help others in the design community become more easily involved. Many design students and professionals are concerned about the velocity of climate change, but the paths to action aren't easy. Too few have the time to digest climate content and what exists is often scientifically complex, full of jargon, and spread across countless sources. These barriers gave way to the question, “Can we make it easier to stay informed and help advance climate action faster?”

At the same time, the opportunities for greater design involvement and influence keep growing. As more countries, cities, and companies pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050, they’ll require more help than ever from the design community to fulfill their climate pledges and ESG goals. That’s why we need more designers with a seat at the table guiding conversations about decarbonization and it’s why I started Lot21: to help inform, inspire, and ultimately empower more designers across disciplines to advance climate action.

Where did the name Lot21 come from?

Lot describes a place, a large amount, a group of people, and a destiny. 21 is the century in which we must advance climate action. Combined together, the name embodies our mission, which is to help empower more of the design community to decarbonize the world.

How do you envision the Lot21 platform being used?

Lot21 is used for discovering content that helps the design community gain awareness, increase advocacy, and advance climate action across the built environment. Our approach considers where different community members are on their climate journey and our portfolio provides a climate action-oriented resource for design professionals and students to use when developing commercial or academic projects.
Content categories include:
  • Solutions – natural and technological approaches to removing excess carbon emissions
  • Projects – exemplary works from designers across disciplines at the forefront of climate action
  • Resources – an aggregated directory of materials and tools to help decarbonize the world
  • Policy – national and international policies and agreements we need to legislate change
  • Lots – leading initiatives from the thinkers and doers advancing climate action in new ways
These content categories include exemplary works with imagery and brief summaries, as well as searchable directories with a wide range of listings to explore, compare, and apply. In addition, our portfolio provides relevant content for design teachers and students to support learning objectives.

What are your goals for Lot21?

We ultimately want to help inform, inspire, and empower designers across disciplines to advance climate action and we want to gain more seats at the table for conversations about climate change.
By making the three climate action pillars, adaptation, mitigation, and restoration, understandable and actionable, we can adaptlives and environments to changing conditions through climate resilience. We also can mitigate the risks caused by climate change through carbon reduction and work to restore our climate to a safe pre-industrial level through carbon removal. 
What are some ways that designers today who are passionate about affecting climate change can have an impact?

We can think of our responses to climate change as actions on a continuum of ever-better outcomes. You can make an impact by developing a roadmap for a project, team, or entire organization that helps bring others along that continuum. Following such a directional, action-oriented roadmap can make an impact on everyone involved. These opportunities unfold each time we define the problems to be solved in a project brief and client program. Although designers may not be the final decision-makers, awareness of climate-related choices, advocacy for climate-positive outcomes, and a willingness to recommend climate-supportive actions to colleagues and clients can all have an impact. Designers’ power of influence can also focus on policy because policy sets the bounds for how we build. Local codes and regulations, incentives and subsidies, national laws, and international agreements all benefit from hearing the design community’s voice – especially through a unified message.

Looking specifically at the furniture industry, what advice do you have as we collectively look to reduce our carbon footprint?

Today, we can see individual companies making strides toward reducing their use of fossil-based materials, packaging, and energy. Every effort matters. But if more furniture industry members worked collectively with more design community members as
well, we could scale to reduce our carbon footprint faster. This combination of both the furniture industry and design community efforts can draw upon all their valuable individual actions already underway. Once synthesized they can ‘go big,’ balancing ambition and pragmatism.

Granted, such a collective effort requires a lot of coordination and alignment, but it brings together the two sides of the equation, supply & demand. We need them both to guide the transition to reducing our carbon footprint. Transitions can be costly and messy. Committing to working together, aligning around reduction efforts, prioritizing the transition steps, and recognizing the collective gains toward decarbonization at industry events can mark the changes and propel a faster transition.

Where can people learn more about Lot21?

Lot21 is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-partisan organization. Sign up for our free quarterly newsletter designed to amplify the exemplary work of our peers who are advancing climate action. Every quarter you’ll be able to quickly browse relevant, actionable stories and resources making it easier to stay informed. You can subscribe through our web page and follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram for updates and quick reads.


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