I’m excited to introduce season two of our podcast, as I take a journey into sustainable innovation – doing a deep dive into sustainable product design. In this episode, explore a broad overview of what this means, and some of the avenues that we’re going to explore in season two.
The Shift to Sustainable Innovation
This was born out of a conversation around the environmental impact that we have as budding social entrepreneurs, and we can build businesses that are making a social impact in our community that is also good for the planet on the whole.
Alongside the podcast, I run Wild Tiger Tees, a social enterprise work program for youth experiencing homelessness. We operate in partnership with the Star House and work to provide job training and work skills to youth aged 18 – 24. Typically our work program centers on screen printing t-shirts, but in the aftermath of the pandemic, the logistics of screen printing have become more complicated… and going into 2022, I realized we need something new for our work program to thrive.
Screenprinting has always kind of bugged me, because while we source shirts from companies with great social and environmental practices, it’s still a messy process, and not the best for the environment.
Our production quantities are small, and annual revenues 1/50th of a typical shop in the mall, and there are hundreds of shops in the mall. Across the street, there is Costco, Wal-Mart, and a plethora of other stores. When you start to imagine the scale of our consumption, it makes sense why we’re having such an effect on climate change. And so, if we’re rethinking the products we develop in Wild Tiger Tees, I want them to be better, but honestly, I don’t really know where to start.
Two Sides to Sustainability
We need something to change, and I think there are two sides to this story.
On one side, you have the zero waste movement which centers on reducing consumption, around the principles of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
On the other side, you have our economy, which thrives on consumption, and quite honestly, isn’t going anywhere. But what can change is how we design the product lifecycle from manufacturing to distribution, consumption, and disposal so that it has a lower impact. Here the question is what can a business Replace or Redesign to reduce the environmental impact.
The zero-waste movement is pretty cool, because most people I speak to realize that it’s not like a diet craze where you’re supposed to eliminate everything at once. It’s typically a process of self-education, trying something new, educating yourself on alternatives, and taking small steps.
Let’s dive into these principles a bit more, and with it, share what we’re going to explore this year.
1. The First Principle is Reduce
Reduce means limiting your purchase of new goods to what you need. Don’t buy something that isn’t necessary. Much of our consumption is frivolous and doesn’t really serve a purpose in our lives. Advertising has been adapted to get inside of us and encourage us to purchase things we don’t want. Google Advertising and the Edge of the Apocalypse, if you want to hear fascinating research by Amherst professor Sut Jhally into how this works. If you were paying attention to the story of Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 US election, it was a company that was basically applying modern marketing techniques to politics – using technology and advanced psychographics to grow audiences, identify key influencers, and move people to action.
For a long time, I thought this was sort of evil, but truthfully, good advertising is a product of companies looking to thrive in a complex and competitive marketplace by people who most often just want to do well at their job and earn a good living.
On a personal level, we need to understand what’s happening. We’re not going to stop it, but we can focus on reducing our consumption by looking at our purchasing habits, and seeing how we can modify them to reduce waste. But I think the real opportunity lies in identifying ways to adapt business practices that reduce business-generated waste, saving companies from spending unnecessary money.
Dominique Hadad launched Green Scope Consulting with this in mind; providing restaurants with a waste audit, and using that to help restaurants divert unused food to compost, recycling, or donations to local organizations. And then using that information to help restaurants purchase better quantities so they spend less on food that will be wasted.
2. The Second Principle is Reuse
Reuse means taking advantage of what you already have. This can be as simple as bringing your own cup to Starbucks. Or as complex as going to a Refillery for your detergent and soaps. I was in our local Body Shop recently, and they just launched their most popular products in a Refillery station. It included 6 of their most popular products, so, hopefully, people will make use of it. Here in Columbus, Ohio, we have some great shops like the Reuse Revolution and Koko that have refilleries.
One of my favorite things about the reuse principle is that it diverts items from the landfill while creating new and often creative business opportunities.
Upcycling also falls into this category, which is about taking goods at the end of their life and repurposing them, either patching them up for a new life or crafting them into new products. Also, donating items to the Salvation Army, Half-Price Book Store, or other charity store is a great example of Reuse.
3. The Third Principle is Recycle
Recycling means taking old waste and finding ways to break it down and re-develop it. Perhaps the trickiest of the three principles, as forming new products often generates a lot of waste in itself. Also, I’ve seen some documentaries and articles about how companies pushed recycling as a way to make the public feel better about consuming plastic products that we know are just bad for the environment anyway, and giving companies a way to wash their hands of the waste they’re producing.
There is an opportunity for manufacturers to embrace recycling, which can mean working with recyclers to source your materials, plastics, cardboards, metals, glass, to eliminate the need for bringing more materials into the waste cycle. For individuals, this can mean learning about what you can and can’t recycle, so that you can recycle efficiently. Or it can mean, looking for different ways to make sure your waste doesn’t arrive in a landfill.
For example, this last year, Alex Clemeston founded Together We Compost; a community-focused compost collection service and this has been my introduction to composting. It’s really satisfying watching my food waste not go into the trash can.
There is so much opportunity here. Another example – a friend of mine who previously worked at Apple spoke about how they espouse progress by not including a charger with a new iPhone. But then he’d witness people buying a separate charger, that had extra (un-recyclable but stylish) packaging and would take these purchases home in big un-recyclable but stylish bags. And he’d walk into the back room where products would be delivered in endless cardboard boxes, none of which were being recycled. So tons of waste that probably didn’t need to exist. And that’s one shop. So, there is just so much low-hanging fruit that we can easily address.
4. The Fourth Principle is Replace
What I mean by replace is that if you’re looking to purchase something new, how can you replace it with an alternative which has a lower impact on the environment. Is there a substitute that will generate less waste from production, that will cause lower pollution when it is at the end of its life? Look not just to the products you purchase, but to their packaging as well. How are things being shipped and stored? I love the company Seventh Generation – they are a national retailer selling eco-friendly cleaning supplies, with a focus on leaving behind a planet that will still be thriving in seven generations. It’s an easy choice to make for toilet paper or laundry detergent. (Although, I hope to get my act together and start getting my laundry detergent from our local refillery, Koko.)
Another element of the replace principle is food. And it’s not just wasteful carryout packaging. There is a huge ecological catastrophe happening in our oceans, dead zones where sea life is dead because of the chemicals used in farming. (I’m not even going to dive into that plastic vortex that’s larger than the state of Texas.). But with farming, some organic alternatives reduce this impact significantly, although organic solutions aren’t necessarily perfect. There is also the environmental cost of what we eat. By and large, humanity loves to eat meat; but how those animals are raised can have a significant effect. I think there is a lot of work to be done to raise attention to alternatives; and as people understand what the alternatives are, then they’ll demand it, and companies will adapt to deliver better solutions.
5. The fifth Principle is Redesign
By redesign, I mean, how we can take existing products which have a negative environmental impact, and redesign them to reduce that impact. How can we combine principles of reusing, reducing, recycling, and replacing to identify new methods and materials for better products? How can we examine our supply chain, from manufacturing to distribution, consumption, and disposal to eliminate waste, and ensure that we’re leaving the world a better place through our regular consumption?
So, there you have it. This year, I’m looking to explore these topics in-depth, with the purpose of helping you, the social entrepreneur, develop environmentally sustainable solutions as you build your social impact businesses. It will serve to give you another story to the wonderful things you’re doing and help ensure that you’re making a lasting impact in more ways than one. And I’ll be sharing behind-the-scenes updates as we develop new sustainable products for our work program, Wild Tiger Tees.