The next level: Designing products to meet your goals

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.

Design green first

For companies that make products, one practice for sparking transformational change is tolet your sustainability goals drive your product specs, rather than vice versa. A furniture maker that designs a chair, made from renewable materials, that can -- at the end of its useful life -- be broken down into its component parts and recycled, for example, is taking this concept to heart. Here are some tips to help you design green first:

  1. Reduce waste during use: Sustainable raw materials and recycling potential aren’t the only principles involved in green-first design. Sometimes is the most impactful thing you can do is to modify your product to change consumer use. One of the simplest examples is a low-flow shower head. A faucet manufacturer could spend months reducing the amount of water used in their manufacturing facilities. But if the consumer still uses excess amounts of water while having a shower, the company’s environmental efforts are wasted. Better to design waste out of the product entirely.
  1. Forget what you know: Another way to drive green-first product design? Unlearn what you currently know. Lose assumptions about the types of raw materials you need to make your products or the places from which you source them. Doing things the way you’ve always done them blinds you to radical new ideas.

Case study: Xerox

When Xerox Canada abandoned its assumptions about product design, it came up with an innovative cartridge-free stick molded entirely from solid resin-based ink. The stick requires minimal packaging, which reduces waste by up to 90 percent. The ink stick’s compact size cuts shipping costs – and related greenhouse-gas emissions -- substantially compared to conventional printer cartridges. Not only does the solid ink reduce end users’ printing costs by roughly 70 percent; it also produces high-quality images, even on recycled paper. (Cool bonus: Machines that use the ink stick all feature automatic two-sided copying or printing to reduce paper use. And the printers also come with free software that minimizes paper waste by skipping unwanted pages, like those featuring a single banner ad or logo.)

Here’s proof positive that green-first product design can pay off financially: Since Xerox brought solid-ink-stick printers to market in 1991, they’ve grown to account for 25 percent and 40 percent of sales in Xerox’s two most popular product lines. That success confirms that green-first design can give brands a marketing edge and that a sustainability-first philosophy is a key to breakthroughs in innovation.

For more on the three stages of sustainable development and the 38 practices for driving innovation, check out our report, Innovating for Sustainability.