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The Innovation Engine

Eco-Innovation: A Better Way Forward

In a few short years, we've seen corporations go from legislated environmental compliance to an often enthusiastic adoption of green. And yet, companies continue to frame the story of sustainability—integrating environmental concerns into their business strategies—as a problem they want to make go away. In short, they limit their thinking to mitigation.

Mitigation is, by definition, the act of minimizing loss or damage suffered. As climate change author and speaker Guy Dauncey wrote in a recent essay on, the mitigation mindset "sends a very unfortunate message, encouraging people to think of the world's current energy, forestry, and farming regimes as 'normal,' and just in need of some adjustments and emissions reductions to make" the threat go away. This encourages a defensive, unimaginative approach to innovation. It dampens innovative thinking, progress, and profit.

That is just wrong. Instead of thinking about eliminating a negative, be it an environmental/sustainability concern or anything else, we always need to think bolder.

For example, the recent BP (BP) spill in the Gulf has highlighted for the umpteenth time that we have to break our dependence on oil, especially foreign oil. True, our relationship with oil has spurred unprecedented innovation (thank you, Mr. Ford). But committing to new sources of energy would unleash an equally impressive wave of thinking.

DuPont Rehabs Its Reputation

On the one hand, it's easy to understand our collective hesitation to do anything radical. Sameness satisfies a very human need for comfort and certainty. But when business leaders dare to chart a bold course of eco-innovation, the results can be exhilarating. You only need to look as far as DuPont's (DD) remarkable green transformation for inspiration. Reviled as America's worst polluter in the 1990s, DuPont started a difficult, complex journey to sustainable production. After 10 years of hard work and unflinching self-improvement, DuPont had made incredible strides, winning over critics along the way.In 2003, the company even won the EPA's Presidential Green Chemistry Award, given to creators of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances.

GE's (GE) Ecomagination represents another case in point. It is a "business initiative to help meet customers' demand for cleaner and more energy-efficient products and to drive reliable growth for GE," according to the company. From a handful of products in 2005, the roster has today grown to more than 70, and Ecomagination is GE's fastest-growing group.

Fortunately, the current "triple threat" of recession, health-care insecurity, and sustainability concerns are creating a growing tide of dissatisfaction with the status quo—precisely the motivator many executives need to jump in the eco-innovation boat.

Three Tips

Let us give you three ways to spur your thinking when it comes to eco-innovation.

First, you must internalize eco-innovative thinking organizationwide.

Nike (NKE) provides a textbook example. The company has moved sustainability into the C-suite, looking at each strategic decision through a green lens. Products are analyzed from every possible angle on the basis of their sustainability credentials. There is no "green team" or sustainability department working in isolation. Instead, all staff members in the organization, from the CEO down, are charged with adding sustainability to their job descriptions. Companies that take this approach are attaining remarkable success. For example, Clorox's (CLX) Green Works has obtained 42 percent of the natural cleaner market within two years of introduction.

Accelerating learning is the second key to getting eco-innovation right. IBM's (IBM) Global Eco-Efficiency Jam serves is an example. It is a 48-hour global online brainstorming session on all things concerning eco-efficiency. The idea behind this and other similar initiatives is to tap into the wisdom of the masses to glean new thinking at a breakneck pace. Not only does this lead to faster, better green innovation, but the spirit of new thinking invigorates the companies that participate.

Finally, embrace failure. Eco-innovation means new thinking. And not all new thinking works. To avoid pulling back at every setback, your company needs to learn to fail forward: Accept that failure will be part of the learning process (and it also needs to incorporate what it has learned from those failures).

Starting with these points in mind, your company will put itself in the mind frame of eco-innovation. And in the right strategic position to make positive change, instead of just mitigating the negative.

Maddock is chief executive, and Vitón is president, of Maddock Douglas, an innovation consultancy that specializes in inventing and launching new products, services, and businesses. Maddock and Viton are the authors of Free the Idea Monkey (ISB Publishing, 2012), and Maddock is the author of Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox—How Great Brands Invent and Launch New Products, Services, and Business Models (Wiley, 2011).

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