Sustainability isn’t easy. It’s tough to implement, and the costs can be even more difficult to quantify, which is why it has taken so long for businesses to embrace the mission. Having developed many a new product over the years, I’ve observed, with a touch of cynicism, the evolving discourse around both the emotional and economic benefits of sustainability. Some of my cynicism stems from the overt greenwashing that has surrounded so many products, doing nothing but cloud the debate, confuse consumers, and ultimately slow the progress of economically viable sustainability. In many ways, it has actually sullied the term “green” to the extent that it pains me to use it when discussing sustainability with my clients.
It pains me to use the word “green” when discussing sustainability.
That being said, designing for sustainability requires a passion and commitment to think differently, as demonstrated by now-storied brands such as Patagonia, Method, and Interface Flor. However, for the majority of multinational corporations, manufacturing products as varied as chemicals and office furniture, introducing sustainability is a stickier proposition. Such companies are applauded for the “good” that they do and equally demonized for the ?bad.”
Doing More Good, Rather Than Less Bad
I suggest adopting the framework behind William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle: do “more good,” rather than “less bad.” For example, corporations such as GE have invested billions of dollars in solar and wind energy and are actively engaged in building a technology infrastructure to help tie these systems together. GE recognizes the infrastructure technology convergence will create more efficient transportation systems, energy-efficient buildings, and it understands the interconnected information network that will enable it. It is taking the long view and actively positioning itself as a sustainability leader on both the technological and economic fronts.
Yes, we might criticize GE for countless other activities that fall into the “doing bad” category, just as we could spend time condemning Walmart for generating a litany of horrendously designed and manufactured products developed in Asia, all the while driving brands to low-cost offshore production. Alternatively, we could focus on Walmart’s recent steps to integrate sustainable practices across their business infrastructure. The retail giant has implemented ecofriendly packaging strategies, optimized delivery routes, and cut carbon emissions. The planet benefits, as does Walmart: These moves have saved the company millions of dollars.
The Economic Boons of Sustainability
Key voices behind the sustainability movement have long identified the economic benefits of adopting sustainability as a required core part of business strategy. However, until recently, much of these practices didn’t resonate with Wall Street.
Sustainability is now integrated into the core business strategy of most major corporations.
Books like The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism identified innovative sustainable opportunities in the 1990s, and now new momentum is being provided, as experts from the global economics field join the discussion, including such economists as Michael Porter. In a recent Harvard Business Review article , Porter extolls the value of ethical responsibility and points out that sustainable practices driving efficiencies are key to business strategy in the future.
In order for sustainability to go truly mainstream, it will need the economic and political muscle of multinational corporations to lead and drive the big changes forward. The good news is that we have reached an important inflection point, where sustainable practices are now integrated into the core business strategy of most major corporations, and this is true globally.
This progression creates an exciting opportunity for design and innovation to impact the dialogue. Over the next decade, as infrastructure technologies combine, this will become one of the growth opportunities for design to help solve complex product and service systems, making sustainability strategies compelling to business and consumers. The opportunity is there for those who choose to lead.
[Top image by JD Hancock]