Would it surprise you that one of the great inventors of the last 100 years was an English mime?
Not if the mime in question was named David Bowie. With a creative career that spanned over five decades, Bowie was known as much as a fashion icon, stage performer and cinematic actor as musical pioneer. Ever the serial inventor, he constantly ushered out new personas and music stylings, leaving audiences and a host of would-be imitators breathless in the attempt to keep up.
As mercurial as he was in seeking out new, trend-making iterations of his artistic expression (especially during his creative height in the 1970s and 1980s), it is quite ironic that one of Bowie’s most enduring hits, Fashion, was critical of the fashion industry’s seemingly endless search for the next new thing. In some ways, the song’s jab at the insatiable drive for what’s new stood as a metaphor of the traditional Western consumer culture itself, where the calculus of production and consumption (or rather, costs and revenues) had historically ignored things like sustainability, recycling and waste avoidance.
But in today’s marketplace, demand from consumers has never been stronger for goods that take into account things like carbon footprint and clean water impact, and investors are laser focused on Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) factors when evaluating businesses for investment opportunities. Of course, a lot has also changed in the fashion world since Bowie recorded his song back in 1980. A number of popular designers such as Stella McCartney and Eileen Fisher are redefining how the fashion industry achieves a balance of quality and sustainability behind high-end clothing, using innovative approaches to upcycling, material sourcing and waste reduction.
Sustainability efforts are proving to be fertile ground for many organizations to nurture innovative, competitive and potentially market-disrupting advantages that also contribute to the common good. But in order to capitalize on those efforts, they have to be approached with more than a flash-in-the pan mindset; they require commitment and patience if abiding value is to be achieved.
“Sustainability and quality (and I would throw safety in there as well) are long-term value propositions. They’re frequently difficult to monetize on a short-term basis, but intuitively, you know if you make a poor-quality product, it’s going to affect you in the long term,” said Tim Lindsey, president and chief executive officer of Highlander Innovation, Inc. and author of the book Headwinds of Opportunity: A Compass for Sustainable Innovation. “If we expand how we think about quality to also consider quality of communities, quality in the environment, quality of life for our employees and our customers (and then consider customers more broadly to include communities and the environment), then they coincide very nicely.”
In talking with Lindsey, he shared several sustainability management insights that also have significant applicability to how organizations may cultivate greater innovation methodologies in their operations.
- Waste Not, Want Not – When it comes to the resource management of your business, it only makes sense to avoid losing money through unnecessary waste. But are you aggressively and holistically evaluating where waste might be entering into the process chain of your business? “The first sustainability principle that I identify is prevention of waste; waste is fundamentally a quality issue,” said Lindsey. “In a lot of ways, waste is just a defect and the result of either poor process quality or poor product quality. In our manufacturing processes, if we have byproducts that have no value or maybe negative value, then that process is defective. At the heart of every quality system, prevention of waste is an important part of sustainability, but frequently companies think of quality too narrowly. What I advocate for is to expand your perspective on quality. Industrial quality systems frequently look at seven deadly wastes (Overproduction, Waiting, Unnecessary transport, Overprocessing, Excess inventory, Excess motion and Defects). What isn’t typically included are wasted material, wasted energy and wasted water. By including these items in the quality discussion, a company’s quality system can become an effective tool for improving sustainability performance that is usually very compatible with their culture and priorities.”
- Consider The Full Cost – Assuming something is so doesn’t make it so. Part of the innovation process is a relentless spirit of inquiry, and it doesn’t just mean in coming up with new ideas. It means asking questions – lots and lots of questions – about not only how you do things, but all the facets of how things are done. “One of my automotive clients had a corporate goal to reduce their water consumption by 20% over several years. We formed a team with them to go through their processes and see where water is used and how we can reduce it,” recalled Lindsey. “They perceived that value to be just the cost of the water from the city and the cost of their wastewater treatment, but when we looked at the complete picture (such as de-ionizing the water for some processes and chemical treatments for others), it became clear that their costs in some aspects were ten times what they thought they were when making decisions about water usage. They were able to adjust their water cost constraint when they considered the full cost of using the resource, as opposed to the cost of just buying it.”
- Give Them What They Need – True market leaders, when designing solutions, don’t lean on prefabricated assumptions but rather find out what the client is really trying to do and solve for that. As a result, with some innovative thinking they can decrease waste and increase profits. “One of my favorite case studies that inspired some of my early work is Interface carpet,” Lindsey shared. “Their owner, Ray Anderson, revolutionized the carpet business because he took a hard look at his business model. His business had been built on making a product (carpet) that had to be replaced every few years, disrupting his customer’s operations because they would have to pull it out and bury it in a landfill where it stays for thousands of years. So, Ray developed a process where he could take the waste carpet and constitute it into carpet tiles so that he only had to replace the worn-out pieces (leaving the majority of the existing carpet in place and intact). In doing that he reduced waste 90% and increased his profitability. Anderson came up with a business model that was more effective for his customers based on what the customers actually needed – to replace just the worn-out bits of carpet, versus the entire floor covering.”
Safety, quality and sustainability are things that organizations realize that, despite the difficulty sometimes in determining return on investment, are nonetheless things they know they need to do. We might – and in fact, we should – add a fourth item to that list: namely, innovation. In many cases an innovation culture may be viewed as more of a “nice to have” (an extravagance), instead of a “need to have” (a necessity), but tomorrow’s disruptive commercial environment will reward those organizations who are willing to reinvent themselves today and leave their imitators behind.
A foray into innovation (as with quality, sustainability and safety), however, can’t simply be done because it’s fashionable. Circling back to Bowie, his long-standing commitment to quality innovation as a creative artist contributed to his staying power in a field where it is all too easy to fall prey to “here today, gone tomorrow”. It takes time and resolve for innovation to permeate your organizational culture and achieve real results. Just as we see in the world of fashion, creating an innovation program that’s timeless involves more than simply keeping up with the Joneses.