The next level: Designing products to meet your goals

[Editor's note: This is the second post in a three-part series on sustainability innovation from the Network for Business Sustainability. Check out the first post: Don't fear the word "incremental": Take small steps for big gains.]

In my previous post, I described three stages of innovation and shared tips, validated by research, for conventional companies to make incremental changes that drive innovation. Called “stage one” changes, these incremental advancements to products and services improve environmental and social impacts while reducing costs and increasing profits.

But organizations can achieve greater gains by making larger, more strategic shifts. After studying the research, we at the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) determined that a firm arrives at the second stage of sustainability by making a major, transformative change in purpose. If stage one is about optimizing current operations, stage two is about creating new markets by being sustainable first.

Stage two: Beyond reducing harm

Stage one companies exist to sell a conventional product or service, and their sustainability goal is to minimize negative impacts on people or the environment; in other words, to reduce harm. Stage two firms, however, focus on creating environmentally or socially responsible products and services that make money. Their business model is built on the premise of doing good. For instance, a company might design a portable cooking stove that turns any material into heat for cooking and then use the sales from developed countries to provide discounted stoves to customers in developing countries.

In its report, Innovating for Sustainability, NBS identified 38 practices for driving sustainable innovation. One major practice that product developers and designers can use to move their companies from stage one to stage two is to design green first.

Three-dimensional image of the ladder of success by Vadim Georgiev via Shutterstock.

Next page: How to design green first