The Systems that Surround You

The Systems that Surround You

No man is an island, and no business or product can stand alone. Every business or product is part of a larger system from which it draws resources and to which it deposits by-products and wastes. The most successful businesses are those that understand, appreciate, and leverage the system in which they operate.

Systems thinking offers particular opportunities for eco-innovators. New ecologically-oriented businesses are being created daily from the byproducts and waste of other businesses. Opportunities abound to offer consumers greater convenience and other benefits with significantly less environmental impact by innovating product-systems as a replacement for stand alone products.

How to Think Like A System Systems thinking can be applied at any stage of a product's life cycle from concept development, to raw material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, in-use, and recovery or disposal. To discover opportunities to use systems thinking for your business, focus on three of the most fertile life cycle stages: product concept, raw materials and disposal.

  1. Product Concept. Expand the boundaries of what you consider to be your business, redefining your consumer deliverable if necessary. Through its Asset Management Recovery System, by which it leases as opposed to sells copiers, Xerox continues to meet consumer needs regarding photocopying, but now integrates consumer benefits for managing the recovery/disposal of the product at the end of its useful life. FoxFibre's naturally colored cotton represents a combination of two life cycle phases, raw materials procurement and processing/dyeing to yield a new consumer product concept with superior benefits of a softer hand and colors that don't wash out or fade.

  2. Raw Materials Procurement. In nature, the waste from one plant or animal becomes food for another. By adopting the principle of "industrial ecology", industrial processes can reduce the amount of waste that is generated naturally. For example, in the industrial park at Kalundborg, Denmark, steam from an electrical power plant is re-used by a neighboring oil refinery and a pharmaceutical plant, while the byproducts of these plants help to fuel greenhouses and generate fertilizer-an entire industrial eco-system thrives.

    Beyond industrial processes, the concept of industrial ecology can help to stimulate creativity in the design of products and product systems. For example, Primeboard Inc. (Wahpeton, ND) crafts a low-weight, emission-free fiberboard from the collected organic wastes of the wheat harvesting process. A Dutch designer looking to save space in a housing project has discovered an opportunity to re-use water resources by developing a combination toilet and sink. The toilet uses the run-off water from the sink that is saved in a cistern that doubles as the back of the toilet. The water works twice, at no additional cost. Given that thirty percent of all the water used in households goes to flushing toilets, combining the sink and the toilet into a unique new product system leads to significant water savings.

  3. Disposal. Given a shortage of landfills and increasing regard for the treasures to be found in trash heaps -- million of gallons of oil stand to be harvested from California tire dumps alone -- there is little question that harvesting wastes will become an important theme for innovation in the future. German law now mandates that new houses must be designed with rooftop rainwater collection systems for landscaping purposes. Many other opportunities exist to conserve resources and energy by recycling the waste of one or more products within a system. For example, it may be possible for detergent makers to devise laundry powders that allow customers to water their lawns with the benign, even productive run-off from washing machines.

Organizing for Change To discover systems-based opportunities in your own organization, consider novel types of research and organizational approaches. Use cross-functional product development and marketing teams so as to better interpret information from different life cycle phases and synthesize new ideas. Consider working with manufacturers of complementary products. Reach out beyond your corporate borders to stakeholders in the local community -- think about how your research and development effort can benefit by incorporating learning from the larger environment in which your products fucntion. Bring in diverse perspectives, even children, into the process. Holistic to the core, systems thinking dictates that every employee and citizen has something significant to contribute.


Jacquelyn Ottman is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., a NYC-based marketing consulting firm that advises companies on how to develop and market environmentally sound products. Her book, Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation, is available from the GreenBiz Bookstore. This column is © J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., and is reprinted from In Business magazine, a GreenBiz News Affiliate.