Greener By Design: Why and How Innovation Matters

Greener By Design: Why and How Innovation Matters

"Innovation is design that creates change."

That is how Adam Lowry, the co-founder and "chief greenskeeper" at Method cleaning products, succinctly but broadly laid out what innovation means during our second-annual Greener by Design conference, taking place today and tomorrow at San Francisco's Palace Hotel.

Lowry took the stage with Angela Nahikian from Steelcase and Joseph Fiksel from Ohio State University's Center for Resilience to talk with GreenBiz.com Executive Editor Joel Makower to talk about the ways that innovation -- especially green innovation -- is a boon and a challenge to the product design process.
Method's Adam Lowry, on the big screen at GBD09. Adam Lowry
Nahikian described the method that Steelcase -- which has long been an innovator with green designs -- uses to make change as "radical innovation." In addition to taking the "back yard view" of how Steelcase can minimize the impacts of their own products, the company also looks beyond their own back yard.

"If we're able to help a client reduce real estate by 20 percent, we are still in a thriving business, and at the same time did significantly positive things for them, that's one kind of the impact we can have," Nahikian said. "The radical part is scale," she added: Steelcase can use their scale to aim higher and broaden their positive impacts.

From Wal-Mart to Microsoft to Terracycle, the companies at the event are across-the-board industry leaders that have already embraced green practices. As a result, much of the discussion on this morning's panel addressed how to expand impacts beyond what Nahikian calls a company's "back yard."

For Lowry, whose company sells innovative but what he calls "low-interest" products -- namely, household cleaners -- Method's customers are both the primary target for green innovations, but also one of the biggest obstacles.

"One of the conundrums that we've run into is that often we can innovate further ahead on Cradle to Cradle principles than the consumer will accept," Lowry explained. In part because cleaning products are almost banal, Lowry said changing customer behavior is the hardest part of the job.
GreenBiz.com Executive Editor Joel Makower (left) talks with Steelcase's Angela Nahikian, Joseph Fiksel from Ohio State University's Center for Resilience, and Method's Adam Lowry. © Della Calfee.
The case of triple-concentrated laundry detergent is a well-known example in the green world; although Method developed the first such products on the market, Lowry says consumers are only slowly catching on to these highly concentrated products. As a result, the company is hindered in how far forward it can push.

"Our mantra at Method is that one innovation gives you license to do the next," Lowry said. What's next? He hinted at a next-generation detergent design that completely reimagined the cleaning process -- a Cradle to Cradle certified cleaning product that would require redesign not just of the cleaner formulation, but of the washing machine itself.

But if it's taken shoppers this long to get up to speed on triple-concentrated detergent, a revolution in washing technology is likely years away.

Even though shoppers are sluggish to adopt these technologies, companies and governments are increasingly aware of and concerned about these impacts.

"One of the most important needs is the scale of our consumption," said Joseph Fiksel, executive director of the Center for Resilience at Ohio State University. "Companies are increasingly aware of this, but most individuals are not yet." As a result, Fiksel sees companies and governments being the source of much of the advances in environmental innovation.

"Consumers are not the ones that are going to lead the way to a sustainable lifestyle," Fiksel added. "If you can find ways to attract, inspire and delight the consumer, and by the way also have an environmental benefit, then that's the way to do it."
HP's Voodoo Laptop case, exploded. INSERT ALT TEXT HERE
Rounding out the morning's innovation panels, two of Hewlett Packard's designers talked about how HP has took these ideas to the heart of their design processes.

From printers to high-performance desktops, HP has developed a grid of green metrics that cover everything from design to supply chain to end of life issues.

One example highlighted by Sam Lucente, the vice president of Integrated Design at HP, involved reducing the size of a new printer product by a matter of millimeters. That reduces packaging needs, allows for more products per pallet and per truck, and can have a significant impact on the kinds of scale at which HP sells printers.

Following on that point, Mark Solomon, a principle designer at HP's Innovation Program Office, showed off HP's high-end Voodoo laptops. The machines, which are primarily aimed at high-end gamers, are "insanely thin" and made entirely of carbon fiber. But the challenge HP faced is that, for the Voodoo brand, the company wanted to go green without screaming green to potentially uninterested customers.

To that end, the company simplified, reduced and designed for reuse, starting with the box. With no logos, no branding and very little clutter, Solomon showed pictures of alternative uses for a laptop box, whether as a keepsake organizer or desk declutterer.

The Voodoo laptop box, Solomon said, "was a key study to show how we use design as a tool to make an appropriate sustainability effort, through the brand, and we achieved it without screaming it out."

We'll have much more from Greener by Design. If you're on Twitter, you can follow our tweets @greenbizmatt, my colleague Jonathan Bardelline is @greenbizjonathn, and the hashtag is #gbd09.