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Business and Sustainability


Five Strategies for Reinvention in Business

by Jacquelyn Ottman
(Originally appeared in Timeline #58 July/August 2001)

"Strategies are on hand to drive innovation along a new model . . . . Sustainable development represents an opportunity to develop better products."

Jacquelyn Ottman is president of J. Ottman Consulting, a New York City-based consulting firm that advises companies on "eco-innovation" how to develop and market environmentally sustainable products. She has authored the book, Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation, and her firm publishes The Ottman Report on Environmental Marketing and Eco-innovation. Below is an abridgement of an article that originally appeared in O2 Magazine of Sustainable Design and came to us via the e-mail newsletter "Sustainability Review." Our readers in business may see ways they can apply Ottman's strategies. As consumers, we can all find help in this article for identifying businesses that are making efforts toward sustainable practices.

Efficiency will be critical to product development efforts in the years to come. As the world searches for ways to develop sustainably, particular opportunities will emerge in the areas of energy efficiency and renewable energy, alternative agriculture, recycling, mass transportation, and information technology. Pioneers in the development of new products and technologies are likely to be rewarded with opportunities to develop new markets, reduce costs, change the rules in their industries, and offer better products with enhanced customer satisfaction.

Efficient products are cheaper to operate. An example is computers that power down when not in use. Efficient products provide less of what customers don't want. Dell understands this; they build each computer from the ground up to the exact specifications of their customers. Efficient products are cheaper for people to dispose of. For example, they may have no unnecessary packaging, or they may be taken back by the manufacturer for recycling or reuse. Efficient products are also guilt-free. According to one survey, 82 percent of Americans agree that "most of us buy far more than we need." 58 percent agree that "it would make a big difference in helping the environment if we taught our children to be less materialistic." This indicates that guilt-free products can help to generate customer loyalty.

Marketers looking to streamline existing products and incorporate efficiency into their new product development efforts can consider the following five strategies:

1. Set Outrageous Goals

Set the kind of goals that make people drop their jaws. Aggressive goal-setting forces individuals to think out of the box for new solutions. Ask: "What would we do if we had to eliminate waste, water, energy, and other environmental impacts by 100 percent and still meet the needs of our customers?" Dupont and Xerox know the value of setting outrageous goals. Their environmental goals are "zero waste" and "waste-free products from waste-free facilities." Aggressive goals like these send a message that a company is serious in its intent.

2. Think Like a System

Look beyond your product in isolation, to the entire system in which it operates. Proctor & Gamble recently teamed up with Maytag to develop Tide HE (HE for "high efficiency") to complement Maytag's new Neptune ecologically correct washing machine. In the Netherlands, Huib van Glabeek designed a combined toilet and washbasin unit that saves both space and water: the waste water from the basin is used to flush the toilet.

3. Dematerialize

Meet your customers' needs with as few resources as possible. This suggests possibilities for miniaturization, such as superconcentrated laundry detergents, as well as multipurpose products like solar panels built into wall siding. Another strategy is to offer "products of service." Car leasing and copier leasing are two examples. Interface, a leading manufacturer of commercial carpeting, has inaugurated an innovative "Ever-green Carpet Lease." Customers lease the carpet and accompanying maintenance services. Interface retains ownership of the carpet and takes it back after use for additional uses or recycling, thus retaining the value of the carpet as an asset and keeping the carpet out of landfills.

4. Make It Fit

Albert Einstein once said, "Make things as simple as possible and no more." Make products fit customers' needs and no more. This strategy makes the case for appropriate technology. For example, it can be argued that combustion engine vehicles represent too much technology and resources for most of the transportation needs they fill day-to-day. Electric vehicles are far better suited for short trips and local commutes. This suggests an alternate market positioning for electric cars, which are currently positioned in the U.S. as exact substitutes for combustion engines. This strategy also has implications for localized technologies, especially for renewable energies like solar, wind, and hydro.

5. Restore

Environmental product efforts are generally initiated with a goal of minimizing environmental impact. The underlying assumption is that products use up resources and create waste. But why not develop products and marketing programs that can actually add something back to the environment or to society? Marketing programs that give back value or education on important issues can also help to offset the effects of consumption. In the U.S., Hannah Anderson, a catalog retailer of children's clothing, encourages customers to send back used clothing and offers a 20 percent discount on future orders as an incentive. The company then sends the clothing to children in need in a program they call "Hannahdowns." In the U.K., an inventor developed the BayGen radio as a vehicle for bringing information about AIDS and birth control to people in developing countries, where batteries are scarce and expensive and there are no facilities for recycling or safe disposal. His radio relies on an old-fashioned mechanism. One winds up a crank for 25 seconds and gets 25 minutes of playing time. Extending the social benefits further, the radio is made by disabled workers in South Africa.


The potential for efficient, and hence sustainable, products to enhance customer satisfaction can be viewed in several ways. Strategies are on hand to drive innovation along a new model that says products don't have to be disposed of, they can be more useful to society if they are reused or remanufactured. People's needs can be profitably met with services in place of products or an optimum combination of both. Sustainable development represents an opportunity to develop better products

Jacquelyn Ottman's website:

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