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Sustainable Product Design: One Powerful Principle

Wed, 08/10/2011 - 5:32am
Chris Loughnane

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A few months back, MIT Sloan, in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group (BCG), recently published the verbosely titled Sustainability & Innovation Global Executive Study and Research Project. It's a well-researched study—which is to say that it's a long read—and definitely worth reading.

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I read it. It got me to thinking about the fallacy of ignoring what can't be measured, that sustainability needs to be a part of performance reviews (behind budget and schedule, certainly, but it deserves a spot), and so on. I found myself concluding that companies that embrace sustainability are winning (from both a financial and talent perspective), and poised to widen the gap.

I created notes that resulted in an exhaustive set of recommendations or methods for improving the sustainability of any company. And that is the problem...they are only methods.

Methods are weak and fleeting, so instead I decided to focus on principles. Scratch that, I will focus on one powerful, underlying principle that any company should consider.

Start small, start now.
It's how you train for a marathon; it's how you save for retirement; it's how you do almost anything. Yet hyperbolic headlines get traffic so that you are conditioned to think that you either have to "Make Your Company Sustainable to the Bone" or do nothing, and that is a dangerously false dichotomy.

Instead, look at your business for low-hanging fruit. For current products look at PVC alternatives (DEHP-free) or switch to a plastic that has a small percent of recycled content. If you are doing a redesign, consider architectures that encourage recyclability or re-use.

These small wins, like compounding interest, can snowball. They will make your products more attractive to buyers (see Kaiser Permanente's Sustainability Scorecard) and are an insurance policy against future legislative change. Feeling good about what you're doing is a byproduct, what drives sustainable product design is practicality.

In the sustainability game, the barrier to entry is less a barrier than a threshold. All you need to do is move in the right direction.

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