Gil Friend, President/CEO of Natural Logic and author of The Truth About Green Business led the first Sustainable Brands Boot Camp webinar discussing sustainability focused design innovation and how companies can remain competitive in the midst of today’s environmental challenges.

by Aysu Katun, the Green Economy Post

Sustainable Life Media launched their first online Sustainable Brands Boot Camp two weeks ago. The 13 week online “webinar” series, led by some of the world’s top sustainable business consultants, is an introductory course for executives and managers wishing to create business value and brand equity by “innovating for sustainability”.

Leading the first webinar, “Introduction to Opportunities in Sustainable Innovation”, was Gil Friend, President/CEO of Natural Logic and author of The Truth About Green Business.  Friend spoke on sustainability focused design innovation and how companies can remain competitive in the midst of today’s environmental challenges.

“Sustainability is not nice”, says Friend, because it raises many new challenges and issues for businesses. He later adds that this is a good thing because it drives strategy, innovation and business value. Sustainability provides companies an opportunity to reinvent their businesses and build a new economy guided not just by the market place, but also by the laws of nature.

Throughout the webinar, Friend provided valuable and practical recommendations on how companies can incorporate sustainability within their innovation processes. He says that organizations cannot avoid designing systems, processes and innovation capacity that will enable them to adapt rapidly to the different futures that might unfold. Planning for these futures, Friend stresses, must include being lean and green and facing not only the economic but also the environmental reality.

Ask The Tough Questions

Friend encourages businesses to start by asking the tough questions:

  • What do your customers really care about? What do you care about?
  • What value do you really provide your customers?
  • How can your business do more with fewer resources?
  • What aspects of your company are unchangeable? What aspects must change?
  • What big audacious goals can you publicly commit to?
  • What is the real purpose of your business? Is it to maximize profits and returns to shareholders or is it to maximize value to all stakeholders?
  • Is profit a consequence of doing business or the purpose of doing business?
  • How would nature do this? How can I adapt?

Finding the answers to these questions, he submits, drives powerful innovation and design processes that help businesses develop products and solutions that create wealth and have minimal environmental impact.

Set Ambitious Goals

Friend suggests that companies should set big and powerful sustainability goals such as Nike’s “No chlorine” and Dupont’s “Zero emissions, Zero injuries, Zero defects” targets. Setting bold goals not only fires up creativity, but also motivates employees to come up with breakthrough innovations.

It’s All About Design

Friend says, “It’s all about design”. Businesses need to think about not only the design of products and services, but also their value propositions, buildings, operations that go within them, their business models and incentive systems if they are serious about sustainability. He adds, “Design is the process of innovating in the face of constraints.” In addition to considering traditional design constraints, designers also need to consider new ones such as sustainability and the full cost of products including their impact on the environment.

The best approaches to innovation and design are the systematic and strategic ones that integrate well with the broader business agenda and meet all stakeholders’ needs and not just shareholders’ needs. Friend recommends building a learning organization and bringing together diverse design teams who can offer different perspectives. He underlines the importance of being very clear about design criteria that will meet goals and focusing on “how we can” rather than “why we can’t”.

“Nature is the Mentor, Model and Measure for the Green Design Process”

Managers have to make many decisions in the midst of uncertainties. Friend suggests that one place where managers can find certainty is in the laws of nature.

Nature has proved its success in building systems that are productive, adaptive, resilient and efficient. “Why reinvent the wheel when the R&D has already been done?” says Friend. Sustainability focused design innovation should imitate life (biomimicry) and learn from it. It should apply principles such as zero waste and closed loops where the “waste” for one system is the “food” for another. He recommends the use of a framework such as the cradle-to-cradle principles or the natural step framework as a way to understand the fundamental non-negotiable principles by which life on earth operates in and to use that as a guide for businesses and innovation processes.

“Get Off The Stuff”

Friend argues that maybe what people really want are not the products themselves but the benefits they provide. For example, what people really want is not natural gas but a hot shower. Therefore, businesses need to start thinking about how they can deliver value to customers in a way that builds economic value on less ‘stuff’.

“Greening is something you do with your employees, not to them”

Friend says that people are key to sustainability. He urges managers to encourage collaboration throughout their organization and engage everyone as early in the process as possible by:

  • Knowing the value of green thinking employees
  • Engaging in learning versus “training”
  • Getting everyone on the same page
  • Asking for feedback and listening to employees
  • Building green job tasks
  • Communicating the results
  • Sharing the controls

Leave Room for Failure

Friend suggests that companies may need to reassess their culture of innovation and consider leaving room for failure in order to encourage innovation. If employees are not failing, it means that they are not experimenting enough or taking enough risks that are necessary to produce breakthrough innovations.

While many companies have started taking steps to minimize their impact on the environment, just as many companies are confused about environmental sustainability. They do not know where to start and how to incorporate sustainable practices into their operations. Gil Friend provides a wide-ranging introduction to the general principles of sustainability-focused design. His suggestions and recommendations offer several invaluable signposts that can help guide organizations as they begin to tackle the challenge of developing sustainable business practices. I would recommend this webinar to all employees in an organization and not just to executives and managers because everyone in an organization needs to reference the same constraints and understand how they can contribute to the innovation process.  Go to Sustainable Brands to view the Introduction to Opportunities in Sustainable Innovation webinar on demand.

The SB Boot Camp will continue through the end of February.  The 90-minute courses are being held live on Fridays, 10:00 am PST/1:00 pm EST.  Each seminar is also available on-demand for archival viewing. In addition to sustainable innovation, topics covered include: green consumers, integrating CSR with brands, sustainable brand strategy, sustainable product design, collaborative supply chain partnerships. stakeholder engagement in company sustainability, using new media to build community, using business metrics to monitor and improve organization environmental and social impact, avoiding greenwashing, and communications design.

© 2009, Aysu Katun. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Aysu Katun (18 Articles)

Aysu Katun is an associate editor at the Green Economy Post. She received her MBA degree from The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, where she focused on sustainability, marketing and strategy. At Fisher, she was a leading member of Net Impact's OSU chapter, which won the Chapter of the Year Award in 2009 . Before beginning her MBA, Aysu worked at Hewlett Packard in Turkey. A passionate traveler, Aysu has been to 27 countries and worked in three. Due to her international experience, Aysu is able to bring a unique perspective to sustainability issues in business.