Innovation for Sustainability
When we think about sustainability, we quickly fall back into outdated patterns of thinking. They are shaped by public debate and hinder innovation. At TEAMS, we want to provide you with some brief food for thought on how a change of perspective can lead to new approaches and solutions. That’s why Paul Stawenow, TEAMS Hamburg Senior Industrial & UX Designer has compiled some topics in which a change of perspective can be of great benefit regarding sustainability. Stay tuned— a new topic weekly.
Our economy must become more sustainable. There is no question about that. The continuous competition on which our economic system is based has produced significant innovations. But it has also let to exploitation of people and nature.
So, the challenge is to compete with each other and yet still work together to find sustainable solutions. After all, the shared innovative power is much greater and also necessary to change entire systems.
Right from the beginning, Frosch, a German manufacturer of cleaning agents, has openly recruited partners, including its direct competitors, to pool their know-how in order to recycle old plastic as a valuable material for packaging. To do this, they are using a previously unused source: the yellow sack in which household plastics are collected in Germany. The result was a multi-award-winning plastic packaging, made entirely from recycled household plastic and can be kept in this cycle indefinitely.
We must, therefore, ask ourselves the question: Where does competition end and cooperation begin?
As a global design agency, we are in contact with many companies and are always happy to identify synergies, establish contacts and enable cooperation - for the benefit of all.
Individual Solutions? System Designs!
Thinking in terms of individual solutions often falls short. If you focus on only one user need during the product development phase and serve this need, it may be that you create a great usable afterwards. However, many other user needs (perhaps indirect) and many others are ignored. So when we create new products, we always have to look at the system in which it is embedded.
Does it sound complex? It is! Above all, it is a question of attitude: Are we ready to accept this complexity curiously and to dive in, with all the consequences? Are we prepared to admit when our own competences are exceeded? Do we want to work together?
The Australian Tony Rinaudo went to the Sahel in the 1980s to help the population, where extensive deforestation during a period of famine had impoverished the soil. He approached the problem with an obvious solution: he planted trees. And failed. Then he noticed that the sparse, scattered bushes in the landscape were actually the stumps of felled trees, which, thanks to their intact root system, were sprouting again. Through consistent pruning, he drew new, vigorous shoots from them, which became new trees.
However, his new main task was to convince the population that the pruning technique would bring the trees back and increase yields again, even if the trees would cause arable land to be lost. To this day, entire areas of land have been greened in this way. For his commitment, he was honoured with the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2018.
Tony failed with the simple, short thought-out solution. Only when he accepted the natural conditions, worked together with the population and included all components of the system, did he succeed.
The EPEA Hamburg, innovation partner for environmentally friendly and recyclable products, starts where our expertise ends and analyses product components, materials and supply chains according to the Cradle2Cradle principles. Because often the core problem of environmental pollution is hidden somewhere in the early supply chain.
With this knowledge from our network and our proven TEAMS process, truly sustainable product solutions are created that meet the needs of both users and the planet.
Strategic Necessity? Strategic Advantage!
In recent years, many products showcased on the shelves are advertised as sustainably produced. The public debate of recent years has undoubtedly played a large part in this: sustainability has long since become a decisive factor in purchasing decisions for many customers.
Many companies are in the process of making their products and activities more sustainable. A higher initial investment, usually leads to higher profits, as in many places costs can be cut or more value generated.
However, this only offers a temporary strategic competitive advantage because the competition will follow as quickly as possible. A strategic advantage through a unique selling point quickly becomes best practice, and thus a strategic necessity to survive in the market.
ACG Glass, the world's leading flat glass manufacturer, has had a large part of its portfolio Cradle2Cradle-certified since 2010 and thus had a unique selling point in the market. But the main competitors are now following suit. This means that approx. 50 % of the flat glass in Europe will be produced sustainably (C2C-certified)! However, this good news for the planet also means that ACG's competitive advantage in customer perception will naturally be diminished.
So if you switch to sustainable practices in your company at an early stage, you can also benefit (in addition to a clear conscience and cost savings) from the strategic advantage of the unique selling point. Additionally, these companies are well prepared when market pull and stricter legislations demand more sustainability. This saves them the costs that affect all those who then have to change their business practices in a short period at great expense.
Behaviour Modification? System Change!
It is difficult to change the consumer behaviour of a society. The reasons for this lie in our psyche. Nevertheless, consumers are repeatedly appealed to, and the responsibility for unsustainable products is passed onto the customer. However, it is not the responsibility of customers to ensure that the products they purchase are sustainably produced, but the responsibility of the company!
It seems to be a chicken and egg problem that each side wants to interpret in its favour. I am convinced that we must first change the circumstances, the system, in order to change behaviour.
Re:newcell, for example, has developed a process by which old cotton clothing can be converted back into new cotton fabrics and thus new clothes. The linear system has thus been transformed into a circular one. A change in behaviour on the part of consumers was not necessary. But now that they find affordable, sustainable goods on the shelves, they prefer to buy them.
A good side effect is that the raw material, used clothing, is so numerous and cheaply available that Re:newcell would like competitors to master this enormous task.
Waste avoidance strategies are an important topic in the current public debate on sustainability. This seems natural and is indeed a valuable contribution.
Nevertheless, there will always be waste. Even in nature "garbage" accumulates. However, we should begin to see valuable sources of raw materials in waste and start tapping into them!
Phosphorus, for example, is a raw material that is crucial for agriculture and could almost be exhausted in 100 years’ time. This is why Remondis, one of the world's largest recycling, service and water companies, extracts phosphorus from the residues of wastewater treatment and brings it back into the cycle.
Architects are already taking innovative approaches and including "deconstruction instructions" with their buildings. The used raw materials remain valuable, can be recovered and used for new purposes.
To bring this principle into the design of everyday objects we need innovation; which means that we need to identify and develop suitable materials, create decomposable product designs and develop systems, that allow for material recovery.
This is one of the great challenges that design must, and can, face in the future.