Over-Innovation Makes U.S. Firms Suck At Sustainability

The same forces that drive U.S. companies to become the greatest innovators are the ones that make them the biggest environmental sinners. Here are three things they can do to become leaders in sustainability.

My colleague and I are from Denmark. We, along with much of the world, admire the United States? relentless pursuit of the Next Big Thing, its inherent optimism, and its go-getter attitude. Other parts of the world should learn to embrace change the way America does, be inspired by its perpetual freshness of spirit, and, most important, replicate just a fraction of the country's innovation capability. Only in America could brand innovators like Google, Nike, and Starbucks emerge.

But in the area of sustainability, there isn't much to admire about the U.S. and its leading brands. Despite major initiatives by such companies as Walmart and General Electric, the general picture is bleak. The U.S. is by far the biggest environmental sinner, no matter how environmental impact is measured.

Sustainability requires un-American values such as slowness and centralization.

It's difficult to call out specific culprits, when the American economy is based on consumption — the single biggest source of carbon-dioxide emissions. But even the most advanced American brands haven't begun to approach solutions to the issue. From where we stand, they seem oblivious to the world's three biggest challenges: water supply, energy supply, and global warming. But most companies seem to spend their resources working on reuse and minimizing the resources that go into producing goods. But that can only take us part of the way to sustainability. The heart of the problem is that American brands push more and more products on the consumer without mechanisms for re-usage. With ever-shortening product life cycles, the problem is only getting worse.

This is no secret at the management level of top companies. So why is it that even the best American brands, so clever, innovative, and adaptive in all other aspects of business, aren't able to come up with smart solutions to the resource problem that the culture of consumption has created?

The answer is counterintuitive: Our experience tells us that it is exactly because American companies are so amazingly innovative, entrepreneurial, and intensely competitive that they can't find ways to deal with the global challenges. Finding sustainable solutions isn't about discovering new, ever-more disruptive ideas. It requires the opposite, something very un-American: standardization, slowness, and centralization. To most, more ideas are always better. But in this case, the more green solutions we have, the less effective and efficient processes become.

What American brands, therefore, need to do, is revisit some of the deep-founded beliefs about business, their companies? identities and why they operate in a consumerist market.

There are three major changes brands must put in place.


There will be no sustainable consumerism without standardization. It is as simple as that. Companies in all industries need to agree to certain modes of production that allow for recycling. Take the beer industry, for example. In many countries, most glass bottles are reused over and over again, but this is possible only because the big brands have agreed to stick to a certain size and type of bottle.

American brands hate the idea of standardization. But just as America has the worst train and cell-phone systems in the developed world, because such technologies require one shared system, American brands will lose the sustainability battle unless they learn to give up individuality for standards.

American brands must rethink thow they create value.

Slow Down

American consumer brands are notoriously good at making quick changes — spotting a trend and then following it up with a blockbuster product. The time it takes to get most products to market has been significantly reduced over the last decades. But to become sustainable, companies need to take their time and extend their products? life cycle.

Well-designed products simply last longer. There is a lot to be gained by developing a product line that's less R&D intensive and that can be optimized, reused, and even spin off more service offerings. The Volkswagen Beetle is an excellent example of a product that has endured because it was well made to start with. An entire customization and repair industry grew up around that car, and Zipcar now uses the new Beetle as part of its fleet. Certainly, the car-sharing model is one that could have been developed by a manufacturer.

Redefine Consumption

Last but most important, American brands must rethink the very idea of what they want consumers to consume and how they create value. In theory, you can grow in two ways: You can produce more, or you can add extra value to what you already produce. The latter is the way toward sustainability.

Take Starbucks: Despite the company's impressive growth, it has hardly increased the amount of coffee beans the world consumes. Instead, it has grown by finding numerous clever ways to create value in all parts of the value chain — everything from interior design, product innovation, marketing, and services. More American brands must learn that they can minimize the consumption of goods but increase total consumption at the same time.

All this poses a significant challenge to the way American managers have been taught to think and operate. They have to learn that the next innovation frontier is about breaking away from resource dependence, decoupling growth and consumption, and prolonging product life cycles.

Does all that sound un-American? Might it not be even more un-American to dismiss the daunting task of sustaining consumption by making it sustainable?

Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Rasmus Bech Hansen is London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to re-launch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world's most successful CSR initiative.

Jens Martin Skibsted is an entrepreneur and philosopher, who created the Biomega bikes, which symbolizes a new sort of urban mobility. He's a founding partner of KiBiSi, a product design consultancy. His bicycle designs live in the permanent collections at the MoMA, Le Cnap, and SFMoMA. He spoke at Davos 2011 as a Young Global Leader and is an advisory member of INDEX Award, World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Design, and the Danish Design Council.

[Top image by Rahims]

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  • Guest

    In our office we have a sort of running joke of a truism-  "Nothing happens until the pain of not doing becomes greater than the pain of doing."  

    I think you bring a very valid point to the table; the American interpretation of value.It will take time to ween the American idea of value from being "cheaper, faster, disposable and minimally adequate" to "well designed, well made, thought out and lasting."

    Maybe cliche, but Oscar Wilde could have been describing typical American consumerism when he wrote of a man who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Perhaps what we are starting to see is the beginning of the end of the old "Reganomics Business Model."  Hopefully. 

    America may be a go-getter and very into the next big thing, but in general, we are still slow to embrace anything that affects the bottom line with a plus sign unless it comes with a very high cool factor - and then we will still look for the lesser bottom line.  

    A simple beginning solution could be to put what we already have to better use. 

  • Marc Marius Mueller

    I believe that the perception of the problem is slightly skewed here. 

    First of all, I believe that what Hugh said is ver true. Innovation is very much needed to come up with ideas to solve the 21st century's problems. The problem lies within what kind of innovation we talk about. The downsides of innovation mentioned in the article are more because of too much incremental innovation. Too many companies just make slight adjustments to their product lines, making the car slightly faster, the TV 2% bigger, etc. It would actually be the evolutionary and disruptive innovation that would improve things. If we just make things a little better, our problems don't get solved, they might only be less daunting. If we can come up with entirely new solutions to existing problems (even some, that are not even addressed yet on the market), then we can truly tackle these issues. To me, the same applies to what Steven says. R&D is necessary. It only needs to refocus it's direction.

  • Hugh Knowles

    Interesting perspective but I feel this article takes a fairly narrow view of innovation. If you come from the school of thought that says Apple is the most innovative company on the planet then perhaps this would be true. But innovation is not just coming up with new ideas for products.

    If we standardise and slow down we will make slow progress to not good enough. The enormous challenge that we face to ensure that our critical systems (e.g. food, energy) are fit for the 21st century requires innovation on a scale never seen before. Making what is normal now slightly more efficient will not deliver a 6-9% cut in carbon emissions per year starting asap (which is roughly what latest science tells us is required).

    We need to reimagine how we live, work, get about , eat etc. We need to come up with innovative design solutions that completely change transport systems. We need to come up innovative ways to store energy and balance loads. Innovation is required everywhere you look. Many companies require huge innovation to meet their Sustainability Targets. Ask Unilever if they think they will double their growth and half their environmental impact by following the rules above. Sure it might apply in some areas but they require completely new ways of offering services to customers that have a quarter of the environmental impact. This requires not slightly better products but a completely new way of meeting needs.

    I agree that large companies might not be the source of innovation that is commensurate with the challenge. History tells us that radical change rarely comes from those companies that are enjoying success in a system. We need to support thousands of experiments in the hope that as many as possible provide us with alternatives to our current way of doing things.

    Car sharing systems are innovative. Many methods to assist the developing sharing economy are innovative. The systems behind bike sharing schemes are innovative.

    Innovate away but understand that the innovation has to match up to some massive challenges rather than making people want to swap their iPad for iPad2.

  • Steven Arthur Leighton

    "There is a lot to be gained by developing a product line that’s less
    R&D intensive and that can be optimized, reused, and even spin off
    more service offerings."
    I disagree about less R&D.
    I think products that have more R&D more oriented toward sustainability will be part of the solution.
    Products designed that you can buy add-ons and replacement parts for rather than upgrade to the new model dumping the old.
    Design cars and cellphone so we can change the body shape with a new body. New seat covers for cars, glass and screen updates and replacements for cellphones.
    So .. I agree about more service offerings.
    But so often the manufacturer is not interested in servicing their product and does not design to allow for easy upgrade because their revenue stream is tied to selling new products right off of their (Chinese) production line.
    I used to like Subaru for the easy access to service, repair and rebuild the cars .. but they've left that market behind and are just like all the rest of the car builders.
    About your bikes --- they're $1500 and up right? And the gears and brakes won't go on any other frame right?
     So much for standardisation Bro.

  • George I

    You can argue with a few points here, but you one thing right - standardization.  Good luck making that mentality happen here.