Linda Gorchels blogs

Eco-Dumb Innovation

Articles about the importance of innovation to the growth—or even survival—of a company saturate the internet. I even stress its importance in my monthly posts on the topic. However, not all innovation is socially or environmentally compatible. Short-term financial gain may cause long-term environmental pain. Can we do it better? Can we think in terms of Eco-Smart Innovation?

Social Ecosystem

Let’s start with the social ecosystem.

While the average family size in the United States declined over the past seven decades, the average house size increased. A standard single-family house in 1950 was 983 square feet. It now averages 2631 square feet. Additional closets and room sizes enabled us to pack the building with more possessions.

Over the years, advertising bombarded us with messages that we need the new cell phone, the most up-to-date fashion, or the improved household items. And we bought them. Afterward, we ran out of space in our homes. We looked for more places to stash the stuff. Hence the growth of the short-term storage industry, now generating annual revenue of $38 billion. This is one side of eco-dumb innovation.

Environmental Ecosystem

Then there is the environmental ecosystem.

Excess stuff keeps growing. Americans toss about 7 pounds of trash per person per day. Single-use items, packaging, and low-quality throwaways are a big part of this. We could compost or recycle some. Yet over half of this garbage ends up in landfills, or worse yet, as litter and pollution.

These disposal challenges are part of the problem. But there is also pollution in the creation and manufacture of products. Unfortunately, the ability to generate profits often trumps environmental awareness. Plenty view revenue growth as a positive sign of progress at both the company level and the national level. Consumer spending is heralded as a major component of GDP.

But does financial progress versus environmental progress have to be an either-or decision? Many companies are beginning to realize the answer is no.

We need to think in terms of a circular economy, a regenerative approach to the design, use, and disposal of products. It will require a change in business models to switch from eco-dumb to eco-smart innovation. Let’s start with what types of products to innovate.

Design what’s REALLY needed

Designing what’s really needed is easier said than done, I know. Chances are, you work in a specific industry, and innovations will have to relate to that industry. But if you have the choice of supporting a new start-up, or creating products that offer more than a new version of your widget, consider it.

Margaret Rice-Jones, in Disrupting the Negative Effects of Innovation, referenced a Stephen Hawking comment that “more people in Sub-Saharan Africa now have access to a mobile phone network than clean water.” Wow. Talk about mixed priorities. Ask yourself: are you focused on the right innovation priorities in your job?

Design for sustainable manufacturing and sourcing

Since the industrial revolution, businesses have invented products that provided competitive advantages for which customers would pay. We sought the lowest cost materials that fit the specs. The source or renewability of the materials was less important. In addition, our manufacturing processes relied on low-cost energy and/or labor to ensure acceptable profit margins.

That has to change. Sustainable design, also known as eco-design or environmentally friendly design, requires that engineers and product managers build into their designs the impact on the environment. They need to look deep into the supply chain to find sustainably managed resources, including local.

Businesses must look for opportunities to reduce carbon emissions in the manufacturing process through the use of green energy. They need to design processes that are more energy-efficient than what they are using now. Zero-emission manufacturing, for example, strives to prevent pollution and reuse waste by-products.

Design with cradle-to-grave realities in mind

Include life-cycle analysis into the design. Longer-lasting products will require less-frequent manufacture and replacement. Yes, this means fewer upgrade sales, but the revenue can be replaced by services and/or quality-based pricing.

Build potential reuse, recycling and re-manufacturing into the initial design. What materials can be reused or recycled? How easily? How efficiently can the product be disassembled? Is a reverse channel possible to handle these end-of-life concerns? If not, how can you make it happen?


Engineers, designers, product managers, and businesses have an unprecedented opportunity right now to establish product advantage by championing eco-smart innovations. They need to create, at minimum, environmentally and socially benign product designs. It would be even better to have environmentally and socially beneficial product designs. Are you up to the challenge?