Sustainability as an innovation challenge.
How companies make their offerings or design their services has always mattered enormously to margins. The effects on the environment, less so.
Persuading firms to go against their apparent self-interest and decouple their growth from their environmental impact has always been a major challenge. Until now.
Many are questioning the health of their organisations, social systems, and business models. Many are looking to protect themselves from extreme weather, resource shortages and price spikes. Many are looking to shore up their reputations with activist investors and consumers who expect more from brands.
By treating sustainability as the next innovation frontier, tomorrow's companies are driving competitive advantage and creating new value for everyone.
You can too. But where would you start?
- Start with Why.
Sustainability involves changing mindsets about the way things are done.
When leaders use brand purpose as a lens for innovation— building it into a few key objectives and outcomes expected across the business, it helps teams focus their investments on initiatives that deliver both financial and reputational returns.
Unilever is a brilliant example of this. Former chief Paul Polman, once said,
"What we firmly believe is that if we focus our company on improving the lives of the world's citizens and come up with genuine sustainable solutions, we are more in sync with consumers and society and ultimately this will result in good shareholder returns."
His Sustainable Living Plan, his signature achievement at Unilever, has since 2010, made substantial gains on the UN SDGs- from cutting its environmental footprint in half, enhancing livelihoods for millions and improving the health and lives of over a billion people.
- Assess your impact.
80% of all environmental impacts are a result of decisions taken at the product design stage. Non-upgradable, un-maintainable, ir-reparable, in-compatible, non-dismountable, non-bio-degradable, non-recyclable products are all design decisions.
It's far easier to build a sustainably native brand from scratch than it is to transition an existing one.
Yet taking a systems view of the value chain, can help you question the implicit assumptions behind current organisational or industry practices to identify ways to trim operational waste, use expensive resources more efficiently and even create new markets and IP.
- Design for Circularity.
The world doesn't need more products. It needs better products, better brands and better messaging.
What if we think of everything we design like software? That can constantly be improved based on data and feedback.
- What if instead of just selling your product, you could think of product as a service? Rent the Runway - rents designer clothes to people in need of a smart outfit for a one-off event.
- What if you could redesign key parts of your product to last longer or make it easier to repair? Durability is a key competitive differentiator and provides a strong rationale for premium pricing as we’ve seen with luxury home appliance company Miele.
- What if you could redesign key parts of your product and manufacturing process to maximize recoverability and recycling of materials? Adidas’s six year partnership with Parley for the Oceans uses plastic waste to make textile thread from which Adidas manufactures its shoes and apparel. Their partnership reduces the amount of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
The greening of business isn't simply a marketing challenge. It is primarily an innovation challenge. It requires the mobilisation of collective intelligence like never before.
In a remarkable essay for the Financial Times, Arundhati Roy writes,
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine our world anew. This is one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it”.
Which will you choose?
Get in touch if you want to apply Circular Design Thinking to your product, business model, service, or brand.