Beyond New and Improved: New Frontiers of Design Innovation

By Jacquelyn Ottman

green@work, June-July 2005

Ten years ago as the U.S. economy headed into the thick of global competition, differentiation became  the competition watchword.   I warned readers that “New and Improved Wouldn’t  Do. That’s true even more so today.


As I write,  European and Japanese environmental policy initiatives with names like WEEE,  (EC Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of  Chemicals), and HARL ( Home Appliances Recycling Law) raise the ante to play on a worldwide map.   What ‘s more,  China, no longer content in the role of outsourced manufacturer,    is quickly training its own product designers.


From making stuff to selling services. 

Remember  the Mobro garbage barge and daily updates of overflowing landfills?  The days are long past when we debated the merits of plastic versus paper, or boasted about the percent of recycled content in products and packaging.   Ten years ago,  at the height of the garbage crisis, I suggested opportunities for “permanent packaging” –the equivalent of sugar bowls for all the cleaning product refills  that were coming onto the market.  Inspired by apple peels and pea pods, I also urged businesses explore the notion of “edible packaging”. Those ideas didn’t quite catch fire, but in the meantime, recycling has become so much a part of our lives, that now the forward fringe is characterized by  composting heaps  in their backyard and worm bins nestled under their sink.


More significantly, innovative businesses  have caught up with the notion of services as “dematerialized  products” –and electronic ones  at that.  The iPod –arguably the hottest product on the market today—makes a n astute ecologically -correct statement:  why continue to argue over the size of a jewel box when you can buy an iPod and access the equivalent of 1000 CDs worth of music with no packaging —indeed,  no CD at all?


Representing the ultimate in dematerialization, Canesta’s Keyboard Perception Chipset can project a totally functional keyboard from a blackberry or cellphone, made from nothing else but light!  Check it out at


From one way trips to product stewardship.

Everyone loves Herman Miller’s Mirra chair. But I don’t hear sexy words being used to describe its albeit attractive shape, colors or neat mesh back.  Maybe I’m biased,  but what I tend to hear  are boasts  like “96% recyclable” ,  “Can be disassembled in 15 minutes” and “Manufactured using solar power. “


At the Design:Green  workshop series conducted  by my firm during Spring 2004, the case problems  that inspired and challenged the innovation-minded  participants most  tended to focus on product  end-of-life conundrums  such as how to design a refillable lipstick case for Aveda, or a recycling system for Philips low mercury fluorescent tubes, or most intriguingly, a new business model for cell phones that could guarantee retrieval for recycling ($50 deposits anyone?)  Nowadays differentiating products means finding exciting ways to recycle, reuse or remanufacture them after a first useful life.


From changing products to changing behavior. 

Computers , fax machines  and photocopiers now sleep when they are not in use.  Most conference rooms have motion detectors that turn off lights automatically when meeting goers leave the room. Not every product can be designed to compensate for lax human behavior,   but we can start to make products that encourage more  sustainable behaviors by making them cool,  even fun.  The dashboard on Toyota’s hybrid engine-propelled Prius which turns squeezing  out every possible mile from a tank of gas into a game is a great start.


The U.S. EPA tells us that the average home pollutes the air with more greenhouse gases than the average car. I predict over the next ten years, we’ll harness the power of design innovation to make significant strides in reducing home energy use—while making our homes safer and more comfortable.  Start with the meter. When you think about it, electricity meters were designed t o be read by just about everyone but the people who consume the juice.  Is your own meter in your backyard or in a public  (apartment) basement?  When was the last time you took a gander?  Let’s now explore opportunities to turn our meters into “home energy dashboards” with the ability to spot power guzzling appliances or teens who leave the lights on upstairs.


Another energy-related beef   ripe for design innovation:  water bottles.  We spend tons of energy transporting water to stores in pretty little water bottles, while most locally available water is just fine to drink. Can’t anyone design a water bottle that makes it cool to simply refill your own?    (Maybe I’ll get my permanent package after all?)


From “Save a Watt” to “Save a Drop”. Speaking of water,  the world will need to save more than a few drops in the years ahead.  Twenty years from now,   two-thirds of the world’s people will live in a water-starved area.  Beyond  water purification and desalination technologies,  it  speaks to the soon to be crying need for water-conserving dishwashers, clothes washers, and even shampoos, soaps and the like that don’t use water at all. (Remember Psssst dry shampoo,  or am I showing my age?) Nanotech fibers represent the potential for as much in the apparel industry,  provided they present  other offsetting impacts,(      What about dishes that we —or some worm or two —can eat when we’re through? Water-conserving technologies such as these demonstrate the potential for holism in design: such technologies naturally save energy and provide other consumer benefits as well.


What Won’t Change.

New products become old. Burning environmental issues smolder and get replaced by hotter ones. Regardless of the product or issue,  consumers  will always try to make the most of their purchasing dollar,  reaching first for those products  that superbly deliver on such primary product benefits as cleaning, good taste,  health or aesthetics  over saving the earth or even helping a laborer to get a fair shake.


Making things even more challenging, “green” products carry a heavy burden of misperception. The fact that planet-friendly shopping still conjures  up images of laundry detergents that leave clothes  dingy or clunky compact fluorescent  light bulbs that cast a green hue in 40% of consumers minds suggest  that the mainstream consumer won’t be convinced of the inherent quality of greener products anytime soon. This is where designers and marketers and others in the business of launching new products  comes in.  come in.


New products  experts  may not be able to invent a new water or energy saving technology, but they can design products with a lighter environmental footprint that consumer swant to use, want  to be seen with; indeed will even pay a premium for. Doing so is not just good for the planet.  Its good  business.


The good news for the planet  today is that many earth friendly technologies have already been developed. We already know how to save water and energy. We already know how to extend product life and how to create products with low toxicity. Products like iPods prove we can even harness design  innovation to invent entirely new product concepts with lower impact.   


Jacquelyn Ottman  is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., a New York-based marketing consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses derive competitive advantage from eco-innovation and green marketing. She is the author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation, 2nd edition.

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