Andrew Winston, co-author of Green to Gold, talked at Sustainable Innovation 06 about how today's corporate landscape is very different from that of a generation ago. Access to capital and labor (even white-collar skilled labor) are becoming commodities, so that things like environmental performance, which used to be third or fourth down the list, can now be key differentiators for a product line. Various innovative companies like 3M have saved over a billion dollars from resource efficiency over the years, from having a corporate culture that encourages experimentation and new ideas. But the main thing he talked about was "Why aren't there more green products?", listing the obstacles and the opportunities. (And yes, we're proud to say he talked about this at least in part because of Joel's recent article about that question.)
Hurdles that companies face in their own culture and business landscape include:
Meeting a need that doesn't exist. DuPont is a leader in environmental business; in the 70s they made a way to recycle polyester, but nobody bought it because virgin polyester was so cheap (cheaper than recycled) and disposal of waste polyester wasn't a problem (no regulations required special handling or cleanup).
Meeting the REAL needs of customer. McDonalds tested using coffee mugs instead of paper cups for their coffee. But they found customers wanted the mobility, not just the coffee, so they dropped it.
Misunderstanding the market. Interface's product-service-system for carpet didn't work. Even though it's the right way to do things, customers didn't want to lease carpet because the company budgets for building were in different boxes than the budgets for operating.
Eco-isolation. In most organizations, environmental people are in a different department than engineers and designers, and only get input late in the game when it's too late to make many of the right decisions.
Strategies to successfully make green products that are commercial successes:
Help designers help you. Herman Miller, when designing their Mirra chair, made a material database with ratings (green, yellow, red) of the materials, so designers could make better choices without having to become chemists themselves.
Set big targets. Toyota's new goal is to make a car that can cross the entire continental US on one tank of gas. This is about 3000 miles, so it's a hard problem, and will likely not be achieved for a long time, but it motivates people to think big.
Think along the value chain. Save the customer money while being green, make it in their best immediate interests and they will not have to choose between their own interests and the environment.
Accept compromise. Interim solutions and incrementalism are okay. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Mmmm! For Toyota, a 300-gallon gas tank! Problem solved! More seriously, a serious push by concerned citizens to restore cannabis hemp's legal status could actually achieve that goal, and make possible (for the first time in 70 years) a sustainable economy.