Sustainability is exciting.
What? Hard to believe, isn’t it?
Well. Let me tell you a story.
It begins with a young woman coming to work and study in London.
As we all know, London is one of the most expensive cities of the globe. As many immigrants, she found a hourly paid role as a shop assistant. Our young lady wasn’t poor, but wasn’t wealthy either. Soon she realised that she couldn’t afford the lifestyle that she had always led, because London’s rents, bills and transports were basically sucking out her whole salary. That’s when she started to apply design thinking to her own life.
Wait – is this story about sustainability (exciting sustainability) or design thinking?
Well, it’s actually about both. Or, rather, it’s about how design thinking is the key to be sustainable, and how sustainable design is not just making our life easier, but also more exciting. But let’s go back to the young lady. Shall we give her a name?
Let’s call her Alice.
Yes, like Alice in Wonderland.
Why? Because to find solutions to her issues she needed to wonder “how might I overcome these issues?”.
It was clear for Alice that she couldn’t cut on rent, because that wasn’t depending on her.
How might Alice have cut on bills, food and transports?
1 – BILLS
Apart from taxes, definitely water consumption, the heating and electricity usage were responsible for the high bills. Therefore, during her showers, she started to turn off the water while she wasn’t rinsing her body or hair. And she started to wash her body with colder water. Yeah, it was kind of freezing at the beginning, but then she got used to it, and also discovered the health benefits of cold showers. Speaking of temperature, she found out that drinking hot drinks keeps the human body warm for up to several hours when the weather is cold, as well as the cool it down when it’s hot. So she made herself an herbal tea every time she was cold, and, of course, she wore layers, so that she could keep the heating off for most of the time. In terms of electricity, she made her washing machine run on cold water, cooked with the dishwasher, turned off her laptop, unplugged her phone charger and small kitchen appliances every time she wasn’t using them.
2 – FOOD
Let’s say that our Alice wasn’t eating at 99p, because she couldn’t really live on cookies and crisps, and, yeah, she was kind of trying to be healthy. Alice discovered that the main responsible for food prices in supermarkets was the supply chain. Of course she couldn’t change the market, at least not alone and not immediately, though. So how might she have spent less on food? By buying in bulk, so that she cut the cost of small packaging and several transport costs; by purchasing seasonal local food at farmers markets; by bringing her own mountain backpack when shopping, so that she could go home walking instead of taking the bus (and doing some physical activity, too!). She then started to reuse food containers (instead of buying new ones) to keep her leftovers in the fridge or freezer, also reducing food waste and therefore making the best out of the food she bought. After a while, she discovered that she could also save money by homemaking staples that she would otherwise have purchased, such as fresh cheeses, spreads, sauces, dips, soups, pizza, wraps, bread, jams, cookies and cakes. Oh, and homemade staples became her choice for her friends’ birthday presents, too.
3 – TRANSPORT
Well, moving around London is such a pain, isn’t it? It’s pricey and hectic.
At the beginning Alice decided to rely on buses, the cheapest public transport. She would have liked to cycle, but she was too afraid of cars. Soon she realised that London was so big that reaching certain locations meant taking 2, maybe 3 buses for a one-way journey. Not that cheap. So what? As she didn’t have wings, Alice couldn’t fly, but she did have legs. She started calculating her journeys including a 20-30 minutes (1-2 miles) walk within the route and discovered that walking could actually save her a lot of money and even time, especially during rush hours.
Through all these small solutions Alice managed to cut her expenses by 30%, being able to live on her small £750/ month salary and also having extra money to go out sometimes with friends. Great, isn’t it?
If we further abstract from the story we may define Alice as a design thinker. She encountered constraints – being financially sustainable was one of them – and found solutions not by breaking down ideas, but by building ideas up. She integrated ideas and solutions that she found on her own or through research, in order to get to a new way of accomplishing her financial sustainability. (Bishop in Signer, 2011: 3).
Moreover, we may actually see her as a sustainable design thinker, because of the impact that her behaviour change had on the environment and the society. By cutting energy usage (water, hot water, heating and electricity) she saved on CO2 emissions and on water consumption; by buying in bulk, backpacking to the market, reusing food containers, reducing food waste, homemaking staples and walking to reach bus stations, she cut down again her carbon footprint; finally, by shopping at farmers’ markets she contributed to the local economy and biodiversity.
Alice had quite an impact, hadn’t she? Oh, and she saved a lot of money, too.
Was Alice following a good ethic? Not exactly. She was actually acting for her own good, but she influenced other people’s lives, too.
This is the key concept of sustainability, and what makes it so exciting.
Being able to design sustainable solutions makes us helping the environment, the society and the economy, while also helping ourselves as individuals, too.
Let’s now make another abstraction (it’s the last – I promise!) and try to see Alice as a Business that has to reduce costs. Let’s assume that these costs are caused by the consumption of nonrenewable resources as coal and petroleum and by the consumption of renewable resources like water and timber.
What would the company do? It would would analyse each link of the value chain, from the supply chain, operations and workplaces to returned products, and then design solutions to cut the costs. Available tools such as enterprise carbon management, carbon and energy footprint analysis, and life-cycle assessment would help the enterprise to identify the sources of waste in supply chains. (Nidumolu, Prahalad, Rangaswami, 2009: 7)
CASE STUDY: CISCO
For example, in 2005 Cisco found uses for the returned equipment by internal customers that included its customer service organization and the technical labs. Cisco managed to cut recycling costs by 40% and the recycling unit has become a profit center that contributed $100 million to Cisco’s bottom line in 2008. (Nidumolu, Prahalad, Rangaswami, 2009: 8). By substituting 40% of its recycling with reusing, Cisco also had a positive impact on the environment (because of reducing energy consumption for recycling), on the society and the economy (because the company created a new profitable unit and new jobs).
CASE STUDY: SILO
The British chef Douglas McMaster, after working 12 years in several famous restaurants between New York, Copenhagen and Melbourne, was disgusted by restaurants food waste. His experience made him thinking about how to innovate the supply chain by designing a solution to reduce/ eliminate food waste. In 2014 he opened the very first Zero Waste restaurant, Silo, in Brighton, UK. By buying in bulk, making sure that every source is either un-packaged or recycled, purchasing only local raw materials (Silo mills its own flour from raw grains), reusing edible leftovers, brewing its own cider and beer and making its own bread, Silo manages to actually have zero waste. The compost machine for food scraps also helps: in just 24 hours it produces a ready-to-use compost which is given back to the farmers from whom Silo buys its raw ingredients, closing the supply chain circle.
Moreover, Silo uses a sophisticated electrolysed oxidised water system. The system turns tap water into anti-bacterial water through electrolysis. It kills the 99% of bacteria, three times more then average hand soaps. The water system also involves the coffee machine: the purified water goes for coffees, whilst grey water goes through pipes to flush the toilets.
Every technique for eliminating Silo’s food waste (and the footprint) that I listed above is also helping it to be economically sustainable, because it’s seriously cutting the restaurant costs to minimum. Thanks to the water system, they don’t even buy any chemicals to clean. Moreover, Silo benefits the society, too, because it prepares organic, locally sourced food that is also super fresh because all the ingredients arrive as raw. This means no processed foods or preservatives, which is good for customers’ health.
These businesses represent the sustainability approach that acknowledges the interdependencies among healthy economic growth and healthy social and ecological systems. (Larson, 2011:79)
Exactly like what we discovered about the impact of our Alice.
Oh, and if you wondered if Alice was myself…I’d say follow the White Rabbit 😉
Francesca aka @persulla
- (Bishop in Signer, 2011), R. Signer, IDEO’s Steve Bishop on the Future of Sustainable Design Thinking, The Atlantic, December 9, 2011, available at http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/12/ideos-steve-bishop-on-the-future-of-sustainable-design-thinking/249225/.
- (Kaplinsky, Morris, 2011) R. Kaplinsky, M. Morris, A Handbook for Value Chain Research, International Development Research Centre, 1 November 2001, available at https://www.ids.ac.uk/ids/global/pdfs/VchNov01.pdf.
- (Larson, 2011) A. Larson, Sustainability, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Flat World Knowledge, L.L.C., 2011, available at http://www.saylor.org/site/textbooks/Sustainability,%20Innovation,%20and%20Entrepreneurship.pdf.
- (Nidumolu, Prahalad, Rangaswami, 2009) R. Nidumolu, C.K. Prahalad, and M.R. Rangaswami, Why Sustainability is now the Key Driver of Innovation, Harvard Business Review, September 2009, available online at https://hbr.org/2009/09/why-sustainability-is-now-the-key-driver-of-innovation
- (Stevenson, Pirog, 2013)G. W. Stevenson, R. Pirog, Values-based food supply chains: Strategies for agri-food enterprises-of-the-middle, Cris Carusi, CIAS, June 2013
USEFUL LINKS AND DOCS
I made a public folder on Dropbox. It contains a bit of this and that about sustainability and business. Here’s the link: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/dc683corj1pnzjz/AAAZsxPdoUg-u3Nwr4FLODuxa?dl=0
- Das, Strategy versus Design Thinking, Underthinking is as just bad as Overthinking, September 5, 2014, https://medium.com/@kingshukdas/strategy-versus-design-thinking-41d86ad81f1f#.7btmbev15
- Greene, Cutting Out the Middlemen: A Solution to the Dangers of Low-Cost Production, Sustainable Brands, June 18, 2013, http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/supply_chain/cutting-out-middlemen-solution-dangers-low-cost-production
- Makower, How sustainability leadership drives innovation, October 28, 2013, http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/10/27/how-sustainability-leadership-drives-innovation
- McKinsey&Company, The business of sustainability: McKinsey Global Survey results, October 2011, http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/energy_resources_materials/the_business_of_sustainability_mckinsey_global_survey_results
- Several sources from Sustainable Brands, http://www.sustainablebrands.com/resources
- Sustainia, Sustainable Solutions The World must Know About, 2015, http://www.sustainia.me/solutions
- The Open University, Innovation Design: Energy and Sustainability – for iPod/ iPhone, podcast, https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/innovation-design-energy-sustainability/id380224739?mt=10
- Zokaei, Environmentally-friendly business is profitable business, October 14, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/environmentally-friendly-sustainable-business-profitable
- WWF, Sustainable Shopping List, http://www.wwf.org.au/get_involved/change_the_way_you_live/sustainable_shopping_tips/
 A food supply chain is a network of food-related business enterprises through which products move from production through consumption, including pre-production and post-consumption activities. (Stevenson, Pirog, 2013: 1)
 The value chain describes the full range of activities which are required to bring a product or service from conception, through the different phases of production (involving a combination of physical transformation and the input of various producer services), delivery to final consumers, and final disposal after use. (Kaplinsky, Morris, 2001:4)