Fast Company

Green Innovation

You’d have to have been living on another planet not to notice that saving our planet is a pretty big trend these days and the trend for all things ‘green’ and sustainable is naturally making its impact on innovation too. In some parts of the world you now can’t move for carbon neutral holidays, low carbon cappuccinos and packaging that’s been reduced reused and recycled.However, I see a problem on the horizon and it’s called Eco-Exhaustion and it has a distant cousin called CSR Cynicism.

What am I talking about here? Simply the fact that companies (and marketing departments in particular) is falling over themselves to introduce green and environmentally friendly versions of products. Sometimes this can be really good.The Bamboo bike project (bamboobike.org) is collaboration between engineers and science types at Columbia University and the Earth Institute and the result makes me green with envy. Their idea is to make bike frames entirely out of bamboo and isn’t just sustainable it’s potentially a whole new industry in parts of Asia or Africa.Other times innovation in this area is bad. Do we, for instance, really need a bamboo laptop from Asus? Asus chose bamboo because it was “the most sustainable raw material there is” but just how green is this? Maybe Asus is doing the right thing but there are plenty of other people that aren’t.

There is an arms company in the UK that is producing ‘green’ lead-free ammunition because it’s better for the environment. What’s next, tanks made from recycled plastic and bamboo? Equally there is a fur company in Canada that’s repositioned itself as producing an ethical eco-fabric Slogan: “Protecting nature while pampering yourself”. Umm. Not sure about that.No wonder then that a survey by ICM of 2000 British adults discovered that 23% were "bored with eco news". The poll also found that 18% of people had exaggerated their commitment to the environment because it was "fashionable". This is a problem because if companies keep developing simplistic, tokenistic and opportunistic innovations in this area customer will, quite rightly, become cynical and this could damage the companies that are doing the right thing.

Some people are doing it right and hats off to companies like Wal-Mart for at least attempting to turn itself (and, by default, its suppliers, staff and customers) green.Their aim includes increasing the fuel and emissions efficiency of its vehicle fleet by 25% by 2009 and doubling this by 2016. The company also plans to reduce energy use in-store by 30% and lower solid waste (for example, packaging) in its American stores by 25% by 2009. Wal-Mart is still accused of ‘green washing’ by eco-activists but what I do like about what Wal-Mart is doing is that they are not simply messing around with planting trees (a certain large soft drink company plants trees every time you buy a plastic bottle filled with water) or fiddling around with carbon neutral versions of products or packaging. All this helps but where innovation is really needed are areas like the supply chain and manufacturing. That’s somewhere where really innovative ideas could literally save the planet.

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2 Comments

  • Nicole Valentino

    I work for an environmentally friendly store, meaning our store itself is green and we sell things like EcoTimber, Natural Cork, Bamboo towels, IceStone, CFL and LED lightbulbs and much more. The green movement is certainly a trend these days, and we're really excited to see companies like Wal-Mart actually doing something positive, but at the same time, how long will it last and are we doing enough...I, for one, hope that this movement lasts forever, and that it isn't a flash in the pan...and I hope that people and companies can keep a certain amount of integrity in their green manufacturing and services. It is "green washing" and rediculous things like Bamboo laptops that are causing cynicism and elitism. Personally, its going to take a long time for me to become "bored" with eco news, but hopefully this boredom stems from green becoming so mainstream and easy that it just isn't as big a deal as it was 5 or 10 years ago when you had to work really hard to find eco-friendly products and services.

    Let's stay hopeful, shall we?