Consider environmental and social challenges during early-stage design if you want to change the game on sustainability.
At the turn of the millennium, AG Lafley became the new CEO of Proctor & Gamble, inheriting a company that was struggling with sales and was competing on price in increasingly commoditized areas. What Lafley did next, rather than eliminating workers or returning to a core portfolio, astonished many. He established a new design function to revolutionize P&G's approach to innovation in order to resurrect this ailing behemoth. The approach became more customer-centric, resulting in a number of new, "game-changing" products (a word he famously coined and wrote the book on), as well as a widespread adoption of design thinking far beyond the design team. P&G's sales had more than doubled by 2008.
As a participant in the World Business Council for Sustainable Development's webinar "A Guide to the Circular Economy for Designers" this week, I was reminded of the power of design. This reinforced the need of adopting circular economy techniques throughout the early design, research, and development (R&D) or innovation phases of product and service creation, which I've been preaching about for years. This is supported by the WBCSD's outstanding Practitioners Guide, which is definitely worth a read. Its focus on design for sustainable business is similar to that of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation (EMF), which describes a circular economy as "regenerative by design."
Why ‘design’ for sustainability?
Despite this, approaching sustainability through design is still uncommon, and companies who do so frequently do it through technical, comprehensive design or tactical efforts that only ‘correct' the products they now sell. This is a far cry from P&G's systematic, game-changing approach, which genuinely employs design with a capital "D." Though most businesses do not consider design for long-term growth, a growing business case implies that they should: some of the world's most successful businesses (Nike, Airbnb) are led by designers or have designers on their boards.
Could design-led innovation, like P&G's, be the key to you becoming a green game-changer, and if so, how would you get started? Here are three pointers to help you get started on designing for sustainability:
01 Design is a multi-disciplinary sport
You might start with a design team or an outside consultant, but a strong design process involves many different business tasks and should not be limited to designers. Marketing, for example, is frequently the most prominent function in many brand-led projects, therefore they end up guiding much of the design work. I've also worked on food projects where a chef did a lot of the designing and on personal care projects where a chemist was a key designer.
02 Design from the start
It may appear straightforward, but design is frequently added at the end of the process to make things look pleasant or more user-friendly. It's far more effective at the beginning to assist shape the process and inform early thinking. Making substantial adjustments later will be expensive and difficult to accomplish, so it's better to think about them now. It's astonishing how few people think about sustainability when it comes to design.
03 Design thinking can help humanize circular and sustainable innovations
P&G's design innovation strategy prioritizes people. When clients or consumers are at the center of your long-term business challenge, or when the key problem is to humanize new technologies or business models, it's just fantastic.
For many, turning to design has revolutionised the game, and it may do so for you as well. When correctly managed, viewing sustainability as a set of design problems can usher in the next wave of long-term growth.