How Sustainability Fuels Design Innovation

The link between sustainability and innovation is commonly mentioned, but not commonly made. Here, new-product design guru Steven Eppinger describes the practice that breeds discovery.

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Corporate adoption of sustainable business practices is essential to a strong market environment and an enduring society. What does it mean to become a sustainable business and what steps must leaders take to integrate sustainability into their organization?
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There’s an alarmist view of sustainable design that tilts toward the black and white. Industrial product life cycle: bad. Biological life cycle: good. Want to redesign things so they don’t poison the environment? Then complete the comprehensive life cycle analysis of the product’s impacts — all of them — before you think of lifting a design tool.

And fair enough; all-or-nothing reinvention is one fine path to creating something new.

It’s not the best path, though, says new-product design expert Steven Eppinger. Eppinger is no less alarmed than the alarmists, but when it comes to the practice of what he calls “design for environment,” he rejects the radical and argues for the incremental. For one thing, all-or-nothing isn’t an approach businesses are especially good at; it takes too long, and fails too often. For another, the sum of continuous incrementalism is likely, he says, to carry designs further toward the no-impact outcomes everyone desires. Plus, there’s a method to it. It can be learned. The secret is to focus on materials.

The Leading Question

How can environmental concerns drive product design and innovation?

  • Frame design and product innovation for environmental sustainability as a materials problem.
  • How much material is used is less important than what material is used.
  • Don’t try to elimin-ate environmental impacts all at once. Try to get a little better each time you design any product.

Eppinger, an engineer by training, is professor of management science and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he also has spent stints helping run the school as a deputy dean. He is coauthor, with Karl Ulrich, of the popular textbook Product Design and Development. (Its fifth edition, out next summer, contains a chapter titled “Design for Environment.”)

In person, the word Eppinger calls to mind is crisp. His manner is disciplined, his speech direct; the ideas that interest him tend toward the actionable.

All of which make him a perfect commentator about the sometimes abstract management notions that connect sustainability to innovation. Eppinger has seen the connection in the field — one clear step at a time.

He spoke with Michael S. Hopkins, editor-in-chief of MIT Sloan Management Review.

We’re going to get to innovation, design and new product development — your specialties — but first I wonder if you could do some temperature-taking for us.


Leading Sustainable Organizations

Corporate adoption of sustainable business practices is essential to a strong market environment and an enduring society. What does it mean to become a sustainable business and what steps must leaders take to integrate sustainability into their organization?
More in this series

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Comments (7)
Neil Pegram
Overall this article is great insight into the mindset of the consumption driven, developed world, design process and the management systems behind them. Mr.Eppinger has presented a very realistic layout for how organizations can continue to sell more products and gain more profit through efficiency while marginally reducing their social/environmental impact though material selection. If we lived on a planet with 1 billion people all who were living to a 'developed' world standard and the goal was simply to slow the unsustainable activities down, then this would be a solid strategy. Sadly this is not reality. It is one thing to recommend that we start the strategy through the ‘low-hanging fruit’ and material selection, however to imply that the challenge ends there is almost unethical. The issue is that a great majority of the products being designed and produced currently are unnecessary, are designed for obsolescence, and are fundamentally unsustainable no matter what material you make them out of. Using the proposed strategy is great for engaging management and redesigning products that are necessary such as chairs, however there are two issues: 1- Any high school student can design a nearly fully sustainable chair: “make it all out of local wood, that is harvested at a rate equal to regrown, with no glue, just like they use to in the old days" will be their answer. 2- No matter what material you use, and how efficient the process is, manufacturing waste such as a cellphone glitter accessories that glow with branded smiley faces, is just wasteful, and telling the manufacture that it is okay as long as it can be partially recycled, boarders on unethical management consulting in this day and age.
William Xifaras
Top management must really be on board when implementing design innovation and sustainability models. If not, then the policies will be a short-lived pretense.
Anna Lise Mortensen
I am sorry to say that I find Mr. Eppingers recommendations on how to approach sustainability outdated and inexpedient. Focusing on materials is only one aspect of the problem and many companies is mislead if they focus only on this. You might not need a full life-cycle assessment, but you are much better off if you start with at least a life-cycle mindset. If you are e.g. a producer of washing machines or  hair-driers 95% of your foot-print is in the use-phase at the end-user (years of electricity for drying). If you spend all your time thinking materials in the production and ignore the important activity influencing the behaviour of the end-user, you only deal with 5% of the problem. I have seen companies spending too much time on this and ignoring obvious and cheap potentials outside materials. 
And this is really not good for the company. In order to claim that your product is getting more sustainable you have an interest in dealing with the most important issues. And why not do it from the beginning? Life-cycle screenings are not that difficult to make, and they are a much better tool when you put the activities in order of priorities. You save a lot of money that way and you are sure to address the most important things first. It might be materials, or the potential improvements might lie outside your company. You might have to work with other means, but they will be in your product-life-cycle, and they will add a more sustainable value to your product.
Laurent Blondeau (evidencesx)
Well, I think environment and sustainability projects, are everybody's matter. If bulk starts to change mindset about how he consumes, there will obviously be a huge shift and demand for sustainability design and behavior. And this will support any cost or design needs in companies, while it will become a standard of production. That means sustainability isn't only a matter of innovation but asks for a large state of mind/change, in markets.
The other thing is talking about HR. To drive such projects, HR must be sustainable too. Must believe and hav faith in such future plans. How much turnover and shirt term effects do you have when people don't have a real and clear view of what are their real role, and the final goal of their efforts? Could people be concerned to stay enough till the end of the sustainable projects they drove from the beginning?
Nothing ever sustainable can be done without faithful ressources, and the research put in design are scarce when we talk about HR...
Viswanathan Ramesh
I totally agree with Mr.Eppinger about incremental design solutions for sustainability.I am from Automobile Industry and for me the lighter the car better the fuel efficiency.But to do the switch over from conventional material to light weight material, you need a whole lot of change of tools.This involves huge money.But for a better future, we need to go for this.As the saying goes, 'The resources and the environment we have today has been borrowed from our future generation and not inherited from our ancestors'. So by adopting incremental design solutions, we can contribute for sustainablity.
Why are you making simple matter of doing Product, Process and Management (Business) Innovations so complex by introducing a NEW Buzz Word/Term "Sustainability"??  May be it gives the creator of BUZZ word some ego boosting intellectual HIGH and media coverage?? Consulting industry tend to create BUZZ Words to confuse Clients and then get consulting engagements to implement BUZZ words.  Examples: Reengineering, Incremental Innovations, Breakthrough Innovations, Collaborative Innovations, Sustainable Innovations, on and on !!  To me, Sustainability for a CEO/Company is to "Create Tactical Comfort and Strategic Security (TM/Copyright of our company)" through Product, Process and Management Innovations.  Tactical Comfort means being relatively comfortable about achieving desired results over next 4 quarters and Strategic Security means making sure that the Company will still be in profitable business 3 to 5 years from now!  EVERYBODY INCLUDING SENIOR MANAGEMENT TEAM CAN UNDERSTAND THIS SIMPLE CONCEPT ..... AND COULD COMMUNICATE AND IMPLEMENT THROUGH OUT THE ORGANIZATION !!
Robert Watson
The article is right on target for both where the direction and impetus ($) should be moving in new product innovation.  As an environmental engineer, I approached a leading global player in the shaving cream/foam market myself about this very same issue.  Despite their annual report lauding sustainability and "Greening," they just didn't have real commitment in their massive coorporate structure to make simple material changes which Nielsen's August 2009 issue of "Insight" clearly indicated could amount to a 4% gain in market share.