The New Normal and the Need for 'Radical Evolution'

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by: Joel Makower

This morning we launch Greener By Design, our second annual conference on green product design. As the show’s host, I’ve pondered how to introduce the event this year, given all of the economic turmoil. Has the environmental aspects of products and materials been back-burnered given the economic turmoil? Have companies abandoned the luxury of thinking about the green aspects of their projects? Has saving the planet been given a back seat to saving the day?

As I’ve looked at the twelve months that have passed since last year’s conference, a lot has changed. The economy, for starters. One year ago, we were in a mild recession, though most of us didn’t yet know it, and the banks were still assumed to be rock-solid pillars of the community. Few had heard of "credit default swaps." Bernie Madoff wasn’t yet a household name.

Energy prices have changed in the past twelve months. Oil and natural gas are about half the price they were back then. Corporate budgets have been cut to the bone, and some bone has been nicked away, too. Consumer spending has gone into a tailspin. There’s far less appetite for luxuries and frills; it’s back to basics.

And, of course, the politics have changed dramatically. There’s a new regime in Washington, D.C., and it "gets" the link between a healthy environment and a healthy economy.

But for all of this, much remains the same inside companies. There’s a strong need to cut costs and improve efficiencies. There is pressure to reduce energy costs and climate impacts. There are the growing calls for transparency and accountability about a company’s environmental "footprint," especially within business-to-business supply chains. Technology marches on, with new advances in energy, materials, and other green and clean technologies. And there’s the continuing need to innovate — to improve what you’re already doing and to come up with the Next Big Thing.

The bottom line: product innovation and environmental sustainability remain high on corporate agendas.

In prepping my remarks to deliver this morning, and to test my theory that the greening of products continues to grow, I scoured the headlines on, one of my company’s websites. I picked out a dozen stories:

It’s interesting to note that all of these stories have been reported in the past 75 days — since early March. The greening of products seems alive and well, economy notwithstanding.

True, none of these is earth-shattering, but what product developments truly are? Even the leading automotive companies, which are undergoing a dramatic (and painful) transition to an electric-powered world, are doing it incrementally. That’s how progressive companies address environmental change — with what Angela Nahikian, Director of Global Environmental Sustainability at Steelcase, the global contract furnishings company, calls "radical evolution." That pace of change may seem slow to outsiders, and even to some insiders. But that’s how transitions happen in big business.

How companies are transitioning to greener designs will be the focus of the 30 or so speakers and sessions at Greener By Design. One thread of the conference — whose subtitle is "Greener Products for Leaner Times" — is how companies should operate under what is being called "The New Normal": the economic conditions and social attitudes that have shifted as part of the financial turmoil — and in some cases, well before that.

For example, for years, we’ve been seeing a move toward what I call "relocalization" — the repatriation of food, energy, and commerce to local communities. In an age of toxic toys, tainted food, and what Thomas Friedman has dubbed petro-dictators, people are taking increasing comfort in knowing where their stuff comes from and how it’s made, and by whom. They want to know the source of their food, that their fuel and household energy isn’t supporting dictators or blatant polluters — and the supply won’t be cut off or manipulated willy-nilly. They want to know that the merchants and manufacturers they patronize aren’t shipping jobs overseas, and that the banks where they do business are investing their money locally. (Michael Shuman covered much of this nicely in his 2006 book The Small-Mart Revolution.)

There’s also a reprioritization taking place: People are rethinking what’s really important, and what it means to "live well." Turns out, it’s having more toys requires having more debt. There’s a growing resurgence of living within one’s means, of being more self-sufficient. There are more people taking up sewing, knitting, and canning — and not just women, or those with low incomes. And more vegetable gardening, including one famous one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Amid all this, people are reconnecting, responding to a sense that they have lost touch — with their communities, their planet, each other.

Given these trends — relocalizing, repriortizing, and reconnecting — how do companies think about their next generation of products and services? What are the new designs — of products, but also of business models and systems of commerce — that will align with The New Normal? And how will tomorrow’s products be not just greener, but better?

I’m looking forward to the conversation.

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