Your top sustainable innovation questions answered

In August I delivered the Sustainable Innovation Masterclass as part of Edie's webinar series. This generated a great debate and a lot of questions from attendees, that we simply didn't have time to answer in the allotted time. This blog revisits and answer these questions as a way to keep the debate going. Do chip in and let us know what you think.

Your top sustainable innovation questions answered

01 “If sustainability isn’t necessarily recognised as part of the challenge by the client, or part of the brief, how can innovators and designers credibly promote the sustainable agenda to an audience that may not understand it? Especially when the ‘it always costs me more’ comment comes up!” (Ed Adamson)

This is tough to do in practice, though not impossible. I’ve had success through ‘sustainability by stealth’ which is to shoe-horn sustainability benefits into your project but call them something else; that way sustainability is just good business. Using the ‘S’ word can turn clients off as you say or research badly with customers, yet many people do respond well to their products being lighter, easier to transport or cheaper to run (all sustainability benefits as well). In addition, many marketers today want their brand to be positioned as caring, conscious and purposeful (also all potential sustainability benefits). None of this overtly mentions the ‘S’ word.

Cost constraints are often a client perception that we do need to break-through; the sustainable options sometimes cost more (i.e. a straight swap of a ‘green’ for a ‘brown’ material where you are paying the full environmental cost), sometimes they cost less (i.e. using less materials to make the same thing). This needs to be tackled case-by-case.

02 “Do you have any good examples of where organisations have managed to overcome the internal pressures for short-term measureable metrics?” (Anna Jakobsen, EY)

Short-termism is a barrier to sustainability across the piece. There is an important trend towards long-term approaches to innovation, that counters the short-termism you mention. A lot of this is scenarios-led, or uses futures techniques like forecasting or backcasting, etc, to try to unlock long-term value. Forum for the Future are strong proponents of this approach while WBCSD recently published interesting work promoting this too.

Admittedly a lot of this remains strategic or conceptual in nature, though the automotive industry is one of the best sectors that turns this into practical innovations: think of all the futuristic concept cars you’ve seen and though few ever make it directly to market, the thinking from 10 years ago is now embedded in almost every vehicle designed today. I have experience of this type of work In Electrolux where we did ‘Primary Design & Development’ projects focussed on +7 year time frames, while Philips had a strong track-record of far-futures projects using techniques like design probes. No sign of short-term metrics in these projects, for sure.

The key to all this is to have a balanced portfolio – or Pipeline – of innovation from short-term (satisfying immediate metrics) to more long-term ones too (which may longer-term metrics). Many companies seperate short and long-term innovation in this way, Nestle notably calls this Innovation vs Renovation. Rumour has it that Apple works on an innovation pipeline where they know what they will launch for the next 7 years.

03 “You mentioned the paint project had two stages that took 40% of the time. Can you provide more details as to how innovation helped here?” (Paul Sawko, OCS Group)

You can have a look at the paint recycling innovation we came up with here. The video shows the whole project process; which I hope you find interesting. In essence we found that manually pouring and scooping paint – often done with a spatula from IKEA! – was the least efficient, most time consuming recycling step. We use suction technology via a giant industrial vacuum cleaner to extract paint from cans in a revolutionary new way. Our solution is easier, faster, cheaper and safer. All messy fun.

04 “How important are brands to making sustainable innovation a success… big brands vs small niche players?” (Ed Adamson)

In my view big brands are better at mainstreaming sustainability, while smaller niche players can disrupt. More revolutionary innovation is not likely to come from big, established, dominant, incumbent brands, it will more likely emerge from the start-up and entrepreneurial community, but that doesn’t mean big brands don’t have an important role. They can help normalise new sustainable behaviours, products and technologies and make them acceptable for people – for instance, compare big vs small plastic recycling approaches of Coke ‘Love Story’ campaign vs the amazing Social Plastic program from Plastic Bank, or sustainable clothes care innovation of Ariel’s Turn to 30 to change clothes washing habits vs the revolutionary washing technology from Xeros.

05 “What kind of innovation would you advise a government in a developing country to adopt in reforming its waste management sector?” (Sedoten Agosa-Anikwe)

This is a tough one to answer without knowing more about the specifics and the context. As generic advice to might be helpful to adopt a conceptual model or framework to waste management, such as Circular Economy, waste hierarchy  or zero waste. I’d imagine you have limited budget and resources to innovate too, so have a look at Open Innovation (OI) processes, where you can draw on the wisdom of the crowd of a wider group of innovators – which is what we are doing with the UK-GBC’s Innovation Lab or what Coke did with OpenIDEO on household recycling. As with any OI process, the key will be to manage the quality of that. Drop me a line with any further specific questions.

06 “What areas are you seeing the most exciting innovations happening? And what one innovation are you most excited about in the world of sustainable business at the moment?” (Jon Khoo, Interface)

Two recently projects help me answer this. I think food waste is one of the most exciting areas and imperatives for innovation at the moment. Seeing the plethora of new things launched almost daily – surplus food trading platforms, dynamic pricing mechanisms, charity collection and redistribution to the poor, supply chain collaborations, new product made from waste, ugly veg campaigns, commercial kitchen waste reduction tech, etc – is super exciting and also really understandable to everyday people. That helps demystify sustainability as well.

As a specific innovation, at the moment I’m obsessed with fridges and think the opportunity to rethink and redesign the way we cool and chill food is almost unlimited (refrigeration is the top Project Drawdown area too). Again there are and will be many sustainable fridge solutions but I don’t half wish I’d created the ‘Save Food from the Fridge’ project from a couple of years back – a magical unfridge concept.

07What type of people: skills, level and attitudes, are key for sustainable innovation to be prioritised?” (Anonymous)

I’d say sustainability innovators need some or all of the following:

  • Perseverance and patience: Its not easy to innovate and the default is often to defend the status quo. Its hard to get new things to market and the failure rate is high.
  • Curiosity: it helps to be interested in new stuff
  • Scepticism: a healthy questioning (though not cynicism) of the way the world works today is good, George Bernard Shaw famously said, ‘all progress depends on unreasonable people’
  • Empathy: Ultimately you will be designing new things for people so you nee to connect with them
  • Humility: I find that egos aren’t great for innovation and certainly not for sustainable innovation – it’s a collaborative process. Knowing and respecting your limits is healthy and helps you seek help at the right time
  • Purposefulness: A desire to make the world a better place (as well as make money) is usually at the heart of sustainability-led innovation

08 “What is the best way to get Innovation teams to consider lifecycle assessment as part of future design when budget and time is tight?” (Anna Frizzell)

I used to work in the LCA team at Philips, so have plenty of experience on this and would recommend you do three things:

  • First ask why you want the team to use LCA (the answer is to improve the product, right?) I don’t see LCA as separate from design, otherwise you will just be counting stuff. LCA is a tool to do eco-design or compliance at the very least, and it’s the design bit that matters.
  • Start simple, probably with a streamlined/abridged LCA model if budget and time are limited. I’d say don’t get hung-up on the methodology or accuracy in the first instance’ you can build that over time
  • Finally, its good to realise and acknowledge that design decisions about your product are unlikely to be led or driven by environmental priorities. Its usually about making something better for your customers and your business – which we often forget in sustainable innovation. In that sense try to connect your LCA results or process to some other benefit or customer driver. I’ve heard this called, perhaps inelegantly ‘linked-benefit’ strategy, which means linking eco- to better. Lifecycle costing or total cost of ownership are an example of this where customer benefit from eco-design too.

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