The ‘secret’ equation of ecoinnovation

What? Secret? After all this time? Ok, it’s not really a secret. But sometimes, when one gets entangled in day-to-day activities, opportunities seem like well-hidden treasures. And that’s what the formula includes:

E=m·c²

Yup, that’s it. You might have seen it somewhere. But no, I’m not going to talk about the speed of light. The E in the equation stands for Ecoinnovation, and the other three letters (m, c and c) are three key concepts that need to be in place for it to be succesful.

A motorcycle made out of cardboard. This is presumably an environmentally friendly model of a motorcycle, not a motorcycle

The ‘m’ stands for market. Sometimes, when we speak about sustainable products, people think we’re talking about lower-quality lower-performance version made out of nature-friendly materials. Not at all! Environmentally friendly products perform in the market just as well (or better) than their competitors, but they have the extra edge a lower environmental burden.

They key is to focus on the most relevant impacts of the product. And for that we need to zoom out, and to observe the product’s physical life cycle. Where are the most relevant environmental impacts? Is it the materials it’s made of? Is it how it’s manufactured? Or how it’s distributed from the opposite side of the planet? Do impacts happen when we use it, because it consumes much? Or is the biggest problem when users get rid of the product? The answer is not always trivial! Finding out the answer to these questions can give us the key to new markets.

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For some of the opportunities that sustainability brings, you need to find your way into the right networks

Our next letter ‘c’ stands for collaboration. We’ve seen the product’s life cycle, but let’s keep zooming out. Let’s let go of the product for a moment, and focus on why we have a product altogether. We manufacture objects to deliver value (or a function). So taking that step back means to ask ourselves: what does our product do? Can we sell that value in any other way? Can we do it in a way that doesn’t harm the environment? Can we do it even without the product itself?

This opens us up to whole new business models. Product and service start to become blurry, to form a continuum. I’m sure you’re thinking ‘but wait…’. I know, we probably can’t deliver that value on our own. But that’s the beauty of it. If we create the collaboration (the networks) needed for this change to happen, we can harness the benefits of optimising the bigger, inter-company system!

Do we understand what waste is?

The final ‘c’ stands for capital(ization) and I believe it summarizes what I’ve been calling the third wave of sustainability. One of the key ideas behind ecoinnovation is to optimise resources, to avoid materials or energy going to waste. But… what is waste? And… how much is it worth? You’re probably thinking that very little (or nothing). That’s happily false in most cases, and even more so in industrial products. We’ve been ‘educated’ into believing that waste is something annoying, that we would even pay to get rid of. But, as Braungart and McDonough already pointed out, that mindset will not solve our environmental problems!

In nature, there is no waste: everything has a value for some other organism. And such a system is more efficient for the whole. Taking a further step back, and creating economy out of what we now call waste, might be much more profitable than focusing on minimising that waste. What you call waste can be somebody else’s ‘raw’ materials!

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All these contents were presented in a keynote speech in an event organized by ADER and eneco2 project

That’s why I call it the third wave of sustainability. On the first one, we were talking about responsibilities. On the second, we talked about markets. But we’re in a third wave, one that has the potential of changing dramatically the way we do business. We’re in the wave of seeing sustainability as an opportunity.

In a nutshell:

  • It’s not about minimising environmental impact, it’s about maximising value
  • The biggest potential is in your network: what’s waste for you can be a material for me!
  • We’re not (only) doing this for the planet, better for the environment is better for your wallet as well

I was recently invited by the Agencia de Desarrollo de la Rioja to hold a keynote speech in Logroño, with the occasion of the closing of their eneco2 project. These people have been doing really interested stuff! They asked me to cover a topic related to ecoinnovation, to deliver something fresh and inspiring. Judge for yourself!

For those of you who are good in Spanish, you can find the link to a wordy version of the presentation here:


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