Each year, human activities negatively impact our planet, with the effects worsening at an accelerating rate.
Our collective awareness of this crisis is only growing. And we know that due to their size of operations, businesses must play a pivotal role in any solution.
Yet when many companies strive to go green, they look for a template to adopt. Instead of designing their own best practices, they opt for the easy fixes that others have popularized.
In modern business, when you operate by analogy instead of working from first principles, the results are often mixed at best. Truly disruptive innovators understand that reality changes quickly, and every company’s situation is different, calling for a customized approach.
If you want to be truly successful at achieving business sustainability, you need to design a strategy based on your own unique operations model.
The behavioral angle
Suppose your office adopts a few simple policies to become more eco-friendly. These include shutting down workstations when not in use, switching the lights off when leaving a room, and observing fuel efficiency with company vehicles.
Such methods do help reduce environmental impacts, but in practice, their effectiveness depends on user compliance.
Behavioral design is one way you can reinforce desired actions while dissuading counter-productive ones.
This can take the form of explicit reminders. Signage posted around the office, near appliances and electrical switches, can reduce the chances people will forget to do the right thing. Maybe you could set up a digital dashboard that keeps track of idle screen time, tracking both productivity and energy savings.
But behaviors can be nudged subtly as well. Investing in a company carport, with the low cost of insulated patio roofing, encourages employees and visitors to park in the shade instead of idling. Keeping cars cool also means less energy usage for the AC and prolongs the battery life of electric vehicles.
Such nudges vary in effectiveness. If your workforce has mostly gone remote, for instance, it becomes harder to regulate employees’ work-related energy consumption. That’s why you have to devise interventions based on your people’s realities each day.
A circular economy
For any business that sells a physical product, potential environmental concerns tend to arise at multiple points of the product journey.
What material components are required, and how are they extracted? Which manufacturer do you partner with, and where are they located? Perhaps most critically, what happens to the product at its end of life?
Most businesses operate with a linear economy, which can be summarized as “take, make, waste.” Harmful environmental impacts are inherent to this model because, by default, it doesn’t take into account how resources are used or how products are disposed of.
Designers in recent years have started to work against this model by using a circular economy. This involves planning every aspect of operations to work like natural systems. In each step, material flows involve transforming products, repurposing or reuse, or returning to nature.
Companies that have been making this transition include Nike and Adidas. The former accepts used shoes, turning them into a material used in sports surfaces and flooring. The latter has collected ocean plastic from beaches and made it into footwear while also developing the FutureCraft shoe designed to be indefinitely recyclable.
However, circular flows for a shoe company won’t necessarily work for a sports apparel manufacturer, let alone a business in a different industry. Once again, you need to develop a process that suits your unique model.
Rethinking design ethics
Every company needs to be mindful that while design is vital to sustainability, it’s not enough.
The predominant concept of human-centered design strives for an ideal human-business-technology model. In this scenario, human desirability, business viability, and technological feasibility all fuse harmoniously. But it’s missing the ethical consideration of sustainability.
If a business designs its processes and offerings within the human-centered paradigm, it tends to accept or reject solutions based solely on those parameters. This can result in adopting simplistic, unsustainable measures that satisfy stakeholders to various degrees yet don’t actually mitigate harm to the environment.
Through conscious design efforts, you can develop green practices appropriate to your business and the people involved. But make sure that such design thinking is always guided by sustainability, ahead of human interest, profitability, or technological capacity. This way, your efforts will stay true to the triple bottom line of sustainability.