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.

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.

All-or-nothing isn’t an approach businesses are especially good at; it takes too long, and fails too often.

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.

Eppinger, an engineer by training, is a 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.

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.

SMR: 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. As you’ve worked with executives and organizations over the past few years, how has their thinking about sustainability changed?

Eppinger: I think there’s been a key transformation. The thinking first went from, “This is a bad thing” to “This is an OK thing” – and maybe we’re getting to the point now where it’s even, “This is a really good thing.” Let me draw an analogy with quality management. When quality management became a big emphasis of management education and practice in the 1980s, I think the initial attitude of managers was, “Well, we could improve quality, but it will cost more.”

And then after implementing it for a while, we realized that was wrong, that in fact good implementations of quality management also improved cost. It was bad implementations of quality management that worsened costs. This is the transformation that we’re now beginning to experience with sustainability. At first people said, “If I’m going to reduce the environmental impact of my product or service or business, cost will suffer, of course.” It was just an assumption — a gut reaction — with lots of bad examples to support it.

So it’s the bad implementations of sustainability that will affect cost in a bad way. But the good implementations — and there are plenty of examples today — save money.

SMR: So far, the most common way that companies attack sustainability is by making a pure operations play: identifying cost savings in cutting down on waste, improving on energy use. It’s what lots of sustainability people call the early win, low-hanging fruit that every company could gain from doing. Is that kind of resource-efficiency thinking related to what you call “design for environment”?

Eppinger: No, not really. The way to think of environmental sustainability when it comes to design and product innovation is by framing it as a materials problem. It’s about the materials that we use in the products and the materials that are used to run the processes that make the products. The reason that product design has a big impact is that’s where the materials decisions are made.

If you want to have a product that uses only materials that can be recycled, you’ve got to rethink the product. You’ve got to change the design, which means new specifications and perhaps some difficult technical trade-offs to deal with. If you want to use materials that are recycled in the first place instead of always using virgin materials, you’ve got to design the product differently so that can happen. If you want to reduce the use of packaging materials in operations, you’ve got to design the product differently so that it needs less packaging or no packaging; if you want to reduce the use of coatings and finishes, you’ve got to design the product so that it works properly and looks great without coatings and finishes. If you want to sell a product that your consumer can recycle, you’ve got to design the product to be easily disassembled and separated into available recycling streams.

The way I see it, sustainability is fundamentally a materials problem, and there’s only so much you can do in operations.

Nevertheless, the “low-hanging fruit,” as you call it, often is indeed in operations, so this is a great place to start. Here’s why: Only after you’ve reached the limits of what you can do by just changing operations will you realize that much of the remaining bad stuff that’s happening in operations and production, all of the toxins and wastes, are designed in. It’s only when you realize that that you’ll have traction in product redesign.

This article is adapted from “How Sustainability Fuels Design Innovation” by Michael S. Hopkins, which appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.