Fast Company

Sustaining an Advantage

Design has the ability to connect the emotional underpinning of sustainability issues to any business or product and create 'Unique Selling Propositions' that elevate the promise of brands and companies.

"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait 'til oil and coal run out before we tackle that." -- Thomas Edison.

Sustaining an advantage

It's not often that you actually feel the turning point, but sustainable business practices have hit it. That old chestnut (that when consumers are faced with two choices and one has a green story, it won’t make the sale if they need to pay anything additional) is behind us now. Sustainable products, packages and strategies have become true value adds for companies interested in establishing relationships with customers that last and build loyalty.

With the death of "Push" marketing -- and with traditional advertising having arguably less and less effect each day due to TiVo, On Demand T.V. and online video -- companies need to look to more effective means of telling stories and attracting customers to their brands. Having designs that use less material, cost less, and do "good" in ways that the competitive choice doesn’t is a meaningful difference. These companies have an advantage and can command premiums as well as beat the competition at equal price.

Consider the success of Whole Foods in the face of a general decline in supermarket companies over the last 5 years, GE’s billions of dollars worth of business created around sustainable designs and offerings, or the intense brand loyalty and shopping commitment of Patagonia customers.

1. The Method method

One of the mistakes companies make when considering sustainable advantage is to think of being Green as the primary dimension and reason to buy the offering. This usually limits the mass appeal and consequently the market size of the potential customer base.

Method, the upstart cleaning products manufacturing company, owes part of its spectacular success to a sustainable perspective included within each product offering, but only as part of the offering. In addition, Method products and packages are beautifully designed and include other unique value adds such as unusual fragrances, exclusive merchandising arrangements, distinctive postures, and a cheeky sense of humor in their copy.

This 360-degree approach is a model for winning in any business, including the most ferociously competitive marketplaces, such as those occupied by laundry detergents where super brands such as Tide and Wisk play. Started by industrial designers, Method employs design thinking to create rounded offerings that have emotional appeal. Held up and noted as a company that is conscious about sustainability, its success is in large part due to the fact that in many of the categories in which it competes, sustainability is simply missing in the choices offered by competing brands.

2. Green washing

Sustainability should not be embraced superficially, merely to jump on the green bandwagon. Design can reinvent protocols and methods of assembly, manufacture, and material selection. When the green story is authentic, it will be amazingly effective, but the opposite is also true. Faking it means you will be outed on the Internet by people who believe being green requires full commitment. They will find you out and destroy you.

Push marketing and great stories around brands that are not authentic -- especially those that contain a promise of sustainability -- damage brand perceptions and long term customer relations for a company. The term currently used for this is "green washing" and it’s a carry over of old marketing thinking that simply doesn’t work any longer.

3. The specific role of Design/Industrial design

Inks can be green; plastic is not always worse than paper; molding techniques and avoiding co-molding when possible can provide green possibilities for products and packages. These are but a few of the specific areas where design can lead teams to more sustainable horizons.

Engineering and Package Engineering have the same opportunity. But it is Design that often acts as the catalyst in program developments and as a key integration point. Design has the unique combination of interest, methods, and mission. These days, it also has a seat at the table to ensure that issues of sustainability, recylability, reusability, re-purpose, secondary use, and constant loop lifecycles are as equally considered in developing products as price, distribution and manufacturing costs.

The 3 ideas above are rapidly catching on in the world of "competing in the future". No longer on the fringe of anything, sustainable thinking is a unique selling proposition (USP) for many companies. A core fundamental of design thinking, developing sustainable approaches to making products, services and packages, is an imperative in this new decade. Consider the direct opposite, the phony "planned obsolesce" movement of days past, the impact it had and the seriousness with which it was taken. Sustainability in our moment is many times more important and impactful, honest and meaningful. The idea that good design is good business these days can be supported with increasing frequency by the metrics of growth and profitability.

Apple, Dyson and Nike, clearly all design driven, will soon be joined by other companies leveraging design as their primary competitive advantage. But sustainable perspectives and the business advantages they bring need not wait for whole companies to be born in order to be employed. Sustainable approaches to creating products need to appear tomorrow in the places they don’t currently exist. Thinking seriously about sustainability can result in smart strategies on both the shopping floor and the manufacturing floor. It’s not a matter of creating a future advantage so much as staying around and competing at any level.

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