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Connecting innovation to purpose

It takes willpower, expertise, and coordinated action to address big issues like preserving our most precious resource, clean water

Connecting innovation to purpose
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Clean water is a finite resource—and for many people in the world, it’s also a scarce resource. In the United States alone, more than two million people live without running water and basic indoor plumbing. Even in the best of times, this basic human right often leads to educational and economic disadvantages. During a global pandemic, those concerns are even more acute as safe water, sanitation, and hygiene are essential to protecting human health.

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At this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, a panel discussion presented by Kohler outlined the mindset required to tackle complex issues such as the scarcity of clean water around the world. Leaders from Kohler discussed how innovations that address critical issues must be tied to a company’s purpose, requiring organizations to harness all the tools at their disposal, including smart partnerships with organizations that complement their expertise. Here are four key takeaways from the conversation.

1. Connect innovation to a larger purpose

In her travels throughout the world, Laura Kohler, senior vice president of human resources, stewardship, and sustainability at Kohler, has seen firsthand the connection between economic stability and access to clean water and sanitation. That connection became the driving force behind the “Safe Water for All” program, an extension of Kohler’s ongoing commitment to address the global water and sanitation crisis.

For instance, Kohler developed digital valves that empower consumers to control how they use their shower. The company has also focused on developing high-efficiency plumbing devices that use low-flow or touchless technologies to optimize water use. Since 2007, Laura Kohler reported, the program has produced $4.3 billion in water and energy savings alone in the U.S. “It’s the sum of many small steps over a period of time,” she said. Kohler stewardship programs have helped nearly 900,000 lives worldwide through safe water programs.

2. Making the case for great design and sustainability

Manolo Caballer, vice president of engineering and advanced development, K&B Group at Kohler, noted that simply designing an environmentally friendly product isn’t enough to attract consumers. “There is a perception that when a product has some environmental attributes, it has an inferior quality, and that needs to change,” he said.

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Caballer mentioned that while the majority of consumers often say they want to buy from companies that are environmentally friendly, few of them will actually follow through at the checkout counter. As a result, companies need to convince consumers that great design and engineering don’t have to take a back seat to sustainability. “It’s critical to make sure that any solution we bring is not going to end up in a trade-off,” he said. “We still need to design products that are environmentally friendly, but to do so in a way that doesn’t compromise the customer experience or compromise quality or performance.” He further noted that great design and consumer experience can be delivered without compromising a product’s environmental attributes, an approach Kohler calls “Positive by Design.”

3. Innovation can come from anywhere

Tackling issues such as a lack of access to clean water in urban areas often requires more resources than a single organization can muster on its own. Laura Kohler emphasized the importance of finding partners who can help bring a company’s larger goals to fruition. The company’s “Safe Water for All” initiative has seen Kohler partner with organizations, such as Water Mission, World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We choose our partners carefully to help fill the gaps and to accentuate our impact in the community,” Laura Kohler said.

Meanwhile, finding innovative solutions to tough problems requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. “We try to bring as much diversity—whether it is in the technical domain, gender, race, or geographically—as possible, because that’s going to enrich our ability to deliver innovative solutions,” Caballer said.

For instance, Kohler’s Innovation for Good (IfG) is an internal incubator that is focused on developing new business opportunities with a social purpose. Every year the IfG team brings together associates from across the global organization to brainstorm creative solutions for addressing pressing social and environmental issues in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. A recent winner of the incubator’s annual I-Prize competition was a simple handwashing device that enables better hygiene in areas of the world where clean water is in short supply. The I-Prize enabled the winning team to incubate their idea by supporting field research and development of a business model.

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4. Small actions lead to big results

The first step to addressing the clean water challenge is within reach if everyone simply paid more attention to the amount of water used. Laura Kohler pointed out that if we think of sustainability as a design challenge, Kohler has an opportunity to design products that offer environmentally favorable choices for consumers without compromising on an amazing user experience.

For individuals, Laura Kohler noted the importance of education, imagination, and participation. Take the U.S., where the majority of toilets are flushed with clean water: Could new technologies to reuse the gray water running down shower drains help preserve more of that clean water? “There are so many opportunities out there,” she said. “It really starts with education and thinking about how we use water.”

Ensuring a safe water future requires a collective global effort to educate more people on water issues and push leaders and policymakers to prioritize action. The cost of inaction is too high. To learn more about this issue and find out what you can do to help in the area you live, visit www.safewaterforall.com.

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