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A new era of innovation for a resource-depleted world

It is green, dense and surprisingly light. Fitting perfectly in the palm of my hand, it leaves a light, oily residue on my skin. It is fragrant (just a touch of soft, alluring smell) and textured (it looks like thousands of little worms squished together). It goes against everything we are taught by conventional strategy theory. And it is an amazingly powerful symbol of the new era dawning.

Take a close look. A soap bar? A spinach hamburger? A sponge? Some sort of energy tablet? An eco-macaroon? A new-age vitamin pill? A breakthrough detergent? Before you is the equivalent of not one, not two, but three bottles of shampoo — all squished into one solid bar. Well, this is one heck of a value-driven innovation.

What do we sell when we sell shampoo? What end benefit do the customers get? What is the value? Clean hair, indeed. What ingredient need not be supplied to ensure this desired outcome, as it is always available? Water, indeed. So, why do we pump water, process water, bottle water, package water, store water, transport water, sell water, and waste plastic post-water to wash our hair, when water is the only ingredient that is not necessary to provide?

That was exactly the starting point for Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics, the 20-year-old U.K. brand, when it started working on its solid-shampoo line. The company worked with Stan Krysztal — one of the leading cosmetic chemists of Great Britain — to develop clever little bars that contain an effective, hardworking shampoo base, quality ingredients, beautiful fragrances and require no packaging. Handy for traveling, compact and easy to use, each bar is roughly the equivalent of three plastic bottles of shampoo.

The Lush team loves to talk about it. But what about the customers? Naturally, a number of customers would refuse such a strange-looking shampoo option. My baby brother is one of them. Whenever he visits us in Europe, I have to make a conscious effort to restock his bathroom. “I am a normal person,” he claims. “I like my soap solid and my shampoo liquid, and not the other way around!”

Yet, by any measure other than my brother’s comfort zone, Lush’s solid invention has been a great success since its launch in 2007, capturing rave reviews and a solid (pun intended!) customer following.

But the glowing reviews and growing revenues are not the only business victories for Lush solid shampoo; on the other side of the business continuum, the company is also doing well with costs. As of 2013, Lush has avoided producing, bottling and distributing 6 million plastic bottles globally by selling shampoo bars — count in 2.6 ounces (or 75 grams) of plastic saved per shampoo bar, and multiply that by all the savings in energy and labor costs that would have been incurred designing, producing, bottling and storing the bottles.

Annual water savings from producing the solid shampoos are nearly 120,000 gallons  globally, while transportation savings are beyond surprising: when calculated per wash, transportation costs are 15 times less than those of liquid shampoo. Additional resource intelligence comes in a form of raw-material savings: the bar has no preservatives, as there is no liquid content requiring preservation. And with a scale of 830 stores in 51 countries carrying the product (which nearly doubled from 2007’s 438-strong chain), strengthened revenues and intelligent cost structure for the unusual product are a welcome performance outcome for the once-tiny underdog of the cosmetics industry.

In its unexpected take on resource intelligence, Lush is not alone. OMV, an integrated oil and gas company that supplies 200 million people in Central and Eastern Europe with energy, calls it resourcefulness. This term, which smells of ingenuity in the age of the Great Recession, captures the new essence of survival.

Trendwatching, the leading consumer-trend reporting company, gave the new wave of strategic resource intelligence a catchy name — Eco-Superior. It flagged this trend in 2011 as among its 11 most important consumer demands for the year, and again in 2013 as one that is here to stay.

Here is why, according to Trendwatching: “When it comes to ‘green consumption,’ expect a rise in eco-superior products: products that are not only eco-friendly, but superior to polluting incumbents in every possible way. Think a combination of eco-friendly yet superior functionality, superior design, and/or superior savings.”

Design Hotels elevated the search for innovation for a resource-deprived world to the level of core strategy. A 20-year-old company that represents and markets a carefully selected collection of 250 independent hotels in over 40 countries across the globe, Design Hotels refers to this new strategic effort as Finding Infinity. “We live in the age of sound bites, of short attention spans, of celebrity worship. First-term politicians seem to want only one thing: a second term.”

Is there a vaccine against our collective short-sightedness? For Design Hotels, there is. With a goal of replacing today’s fuels with clean and endlessly renewable alternatives, the company has initiated a “full-speed-ahead-no-time-to-lose movement ... setting a path for a future based on infinite resources.”

Bottom line? A new era of innovation for a resource-depleted world is upon us.

The story of Lush shampoo is one of hundreds of innovations featured in Nadya’s new book, “Overfished Ocean Strategy: Powering Up Innovation for a Resource-Deprived World.” You can download the first 40 pages of the book for free here. Top image of Lush shampoo via misenchanted.

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