Product innovation has something of a mystical quality to it. It requires inspiration, but there are steps companies can take to get the creative cogs turning

It’s long been said that necessity is the mother of invention. That’s as may be. But today, in the here and now, the absolute No 1 necessity is to put our global systems onto a more sustainable footing. A big part of that centres on the products we use every day, from cars and carpets to toilet roll and tissues.

The all-too-necessary nature of today’s sustainability challenge should be sparking innovation all around us. Yet it isn’t. Okay, so it may be a tiny bit. Think of Persil’s breakthrough laundry detergent that washes at 30C. Or carpet tile backing made by the Dutch “cradle-to-cradle” evangelist Desso that is 100% recyclable (it’s made from  polyolefin). Yet such examples are too small-scale and too infrequent to drive the systemic changes that our planet needs. 

So how to up the pace and drive product innovators to integrate sustainability into the everyday of what they do? 

Envisioning the future

First things first: set a vision. Corporate professionals are busy with their day jobs. Don’t expect them to unduly fret about the world or assume they themselves have a role in solving its challenges.

Desso’s portfolio of stellar “closed loop”, low impact products didn’t come about by accident. In 2008, the Dutch carpet maker started working with the German-based Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency to design all its products in line with cradle-to-cradle principles by 2020.

All the most innovative corporations set out similarly ambitious targets. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, Sainsbury’s 20x20 Sustainability Plan – all paint a clear view of what they want their sustainability performance to look like in the future.

Kimberly-Clark falls into this category. The US manufacturer of personal care goods set itself a goal of generating 25% of sales from environmentally innovative products by 2020 – equivalent to about £5bn in revenue. As part of that overall objective, it has committed to reduce the total volume of fibres that it sources from natural forests by half. 

The company is making good progress, achieving 22% of the 25% goal already. “It’s a big goal and we didn't know how we would get there, but it gave a clear vision for the future,” says Tom Berry, Kimberly-Clark’s head of sustainability for Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Any sustainability vision worth its salt should have some element of uncertainty to it. If the objectives are too easy, they won’t inspire innovation. Despite this inevitable haze ahead, Berry is sure of one thing: product innovation won’t be springing from his team. Research and development functions are where the real action lies, he insists.

Again, it’s important to check expectations. R&D professionals, like all other experts, follow their own internal conventions. Paying over the odds for a raw material, for example, isn’t a concept that they generally entertain – even if that material is many times more sustainable.

“Until you can help people overcome that mental barrier, people will carry on doing what they are comfortable doing,” notes David Clark, vice-president for sustainability at US packaging maker Amcor.

To get over this hump, Clark believes in the value of “telling stories” about sustainable innovations that are happening at other companies. By tangibly illustrating how others are inching towards a more sustainable future, R&D teams can begin to picture their own way forward.

Presuming you’ve managed to inspire your in-house product teams, you then need to provide tools to guide their thinking and decision-making. Sustainability remains breaking ground for most product innovators in large corporations. In response to that fact, Amcor has developed an Advanced Sustainability Stewardship Evaluation Tool. The resource, which is approved by the UK-based Carbon Trust, enables developers to benchmark materials according to their green credentials.

Kimberly-Clark operates a similar set of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) tools in its product design work. Materials are approved as environmentally innovative if they can tick “yes” to one of three considerations: Are the materials sustainably sourced? Do they reduce emissions? Can they be considered as “breakthrough”?

As an example of the latter, Berry cites the use of bamboo in its new Andrex Eco toilet tissue. The raw bamboo, which is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, grows to maturity in three years. That compares with six decades in the case of the timber-based fibres that tissue manufacturers typically use. 

Berry issues a word of caution, though: avoid implementing such tools in isolation. Any attempt to push sustainability without integrating it into existing R&D systems spells disaster, he insists: “As soon as you try to have a separate process, it will only ever be completed on the side and it will go nowhere.”

Expanding the conversation

Large companies like to boast of their internal creativity. It’s true that the world’s most successful companies plough vast resources into in-house R&D. But there’s a growing acknowledgement among the corporate elite that they don’t have all the answers.

Vincent Stanley, vice-president of marketing at Patagonia, is frank. “We have incredible internal limitations,” he says. “When we innovate, there’s almost nothing that we develop ourselves. Almost everything is developed in partnership.”

Many of the primary partnerships for the US outdoor clothing retailer are with fabric suppliers. Patagonia recently struck a deal Arizona-based cleantech firm Yulex, which produces a renewable biorubber based on the guayule plant. Patagonia’s wetsuits now contain 60% of the environmentally friendly material, replacing fossil-fuel-based neoprene. Patagonia recently launched the $20 Million & Change venture fund to support start-ups with similarly innovative cleantech ideas (see box: Rennovia).

Of course, suppliers won’t volunteer breakthrough sustainability ideas unless they know buyers are interested in the subject. That’s where high-profile commitments come in – they act as a green light for suppliers to pitch their best ideas. Amcor’s Clark describes it as a case of “working backwards” with suppliers from the company’s long-term vision to make it a present-day reality.

Supplier confidence

Suppliers need confidence too – confidence that larger companies aren’t going to walk away with their idea, and confidence that there is something in it for them in the long run.

Kimberly-Clark’s Berry offers the recent example of cooperating with Booshoot. The US bioscience firm grows sustainable bamboo via a scientific process known as “tissue culture”. Booshoot naturally wanted assurances that a deal would be more than just a “flash in the pan”. Berry explains: “We had a long negotiation over what kind of certainty they could expect from us and what we wanted from them in return.”

It’s not only suppliers that companies look to for product innovation. Consumers can provide invaluable insights as well. Patagonia is a pioneer in connecting with its customer base. Its 2011 advertisement in the New York Times, with the eye-catching headline “Don’t Buy This Jacket”, has won huge notoriety. And Patagonia’s consumer engagement goes much deeper than that. For the past six years, the company has run its Cleanest Line blog, which it uses to “actively ask consumers for ideas”, according to Stanley.

The larger the company, of course, the more blurred the lines between suppliers and customers, and sometimes even competitors. In the search for innovations, companies have to be prepared to work with all three if necessary.

That’s certainly Stanley’s view. In 2010, Patagonia invited the chief executives of the world’s 16 largest clothing and footwear retailers to a meeting in New York. Fifteen came. The result was the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, whose members (now more than 80 companies) currently represent one-third of total global footwear and garment production.

The coalition has introduced an indicator-based tool for clothing manufacturers. Based closely on Nike’s Apparel Environmental Design Tool, the Higg Index 1.0 enables companies to evaluate material types, products, facilities and processes based on a range of environmental and product design choices. In short, a beefed-up version of what leading companies are developing in-house. 

“You need this kind of industry cooperation to make industrial scale changes,” argues Stanley. “After all, if a third of the industry is leading, it will be very hard for the other two-thirds not to follow.”

Innovation ultimately comes through great ideas. But knowing what to have ideas about, how to shape those ideas when you have them, and then how to perfect and realise them are essential steps along the way. 

Waitrose to waste less

In May, UK food retailer Waitrose announced plans to cut its packaging in half by 2016 (compared with 2005 levels). Early steps to achieve its target include a complete redesign of the 49 products in its Menu from Waitrose range. It has also introduced fully lacquered trays, meaning customers can cook and serve their meals in the same container, and recycle it after use.

Another innovation centres on so-called “flow wrap” or “pillow-pouch” packaging for meat products. This horizontal bagging process using polypropylene film acts as a substitute for plastic trays – cutting packaging by 38 tonnes per year, a 70% saving. These and other innovations should take around 100 tonnes of packaging out of circulation every year.

100% bio-based nylon

California-based biotech firm Rennovia recently reported that it had developed the chemical catalytic technology necessary to make bio-based nylon. The breakthrough is twice as carbon-efficient as traditional oil-based equivalents, the company insists.

Rennovia’s innovation revolves around the company’s “demonstration scale” production of the core chemical hexamethylenediamine (HMD) from renewable feedstocks. Rennovia has already invented a renewable form of adipic acid. The two products together open the possibility of a 100% bio-based nylon derived from bio-renewable materials.

CR Strategy  innovation  Oliver Balch  Sustainability commercialised 

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