The Real Reason We Should Be Thinking About Sustainability

“Sustainability” and “innovation” are two broad marketing terms used in conjunction so often that they’ve become almost meaningless. You’ll hear executives talking about how sustainability is good for business and the environment — and that’s why every business, in every industry should be “innovating its sustainable practices” or “creating sustainable innovation.”

When I hear such vague platitudes, I think to myself, what does that even mean? Does the person saying it even know? Probably not.

Right or wrong, I’m a business-minded pragmatist. I don’t think in platitudes. I think about what will drive business outcomes for customers.

Every company should be thinking about sustainability. But not because it’s the right thing to do for the environment — we won’t get anywhere by slapping the word “green” on a product name and telling the world that it’s innovative. What we can do is reimagine products, processes and models with proven sustainable methods to ultimately transform our businesses. Sustainability is a real hidden source of creativity for our business practices — that’s what marketers aren’t saying.

Let me provide a concrete example. Across the technology industry, waste is a widespread problem. As one of the largest electronics companies, Dell is always looking for ways to reduce our waste, increase our bottom line and deliver more value for our customers. So we dug into our processes and came to the conclusion that excess carbon fiber and scrap raw materials are areas where we can save some money and reduce our carbon footprint — ultimately helping our customers do the same.

We decided to partner with supplier SABIC to recycle excess carbon fiber and scrap raw materials into new Dell products beginning in late 2015. Our Latitude and Alienware products will contain recycled carbon fiber, with plans to expand across these two product portfolios in 2016. The recycling will prevent almost a million pounds of carbon fiber from ending up in landfills.

It remains to be seen how significantly this will impact our bottom line, but I’m optimistic. Since we began putting recycled plastics into our products in January 2014, the company has recycled 4.2 million pounds of plastics into enclosures for 34 products, including new flat-panel monitor models and three Dell OptiPlex desktops.

On a macro level, a marketer might say that we’re “advancing the circular economy” with such practices. The way I’d say it, though, is we’re reducing waste and reliance on natural resources for the sake of the economy — with estimates that this shift over time could create $1 trillion in additional value.

“Sustainability” and “innovation” are two broad marketing terms used in conjunction so often that they’ve become almost meaningless.

Companies need to take more leadership and ownership of their corporate sustainability practices — for the potential economic impact and the sake of increasing profits, not just to have a clean conscience. There are a number of companies doing it right, thinking about sustainability across supply chain and R&D, and even encouraging consumers to be more eco-friendly.

One of those companies is Philips. When governments around the world passed regulations to phase out incandescent bulbs, Philips responded by coming up with a range of bulbs that not only generate less heat and use a fraction of the energy of older types of bulbs, according to The New York Times, but it also led the charge in a new space: mood lighting.

Philips’ goLITE BLU counteracts a person’s drop in energy — or the winter blues — through a panel of blue LEDs. Blue stimulates a photoreceptor in the eye that reduces melatonin production and helps a person stay awake. When a person is ready to go to sleep, the light reduces the amount of blue light emitted.

In Europe, Philips is experimenting with the technology in hospitals through a pilot program called HealWell. By changing colors based on time of day, it encourages a patient to wake up, feel more relaxed and sleep more easily. At a field study at the Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, cardiology patients were found to sleep longer and experience reduced depression.

Philips has another smart lighting system made specifically for farmers. Tomato and vegetable growers in the Netherlands and Canada are using Philips’ LEDs to improve bulk, increase fruit growth and reduce vegetable maturation time while reducing energy costs.

When Philips was forced to think about sustainability from the start, the company got creative and came up with a product that was cutting-edge. Many startups and large corporations have since followed Philips’ lead and created their own adaptive LED lights, recognizing the business potential for this innovation.

I can’t stress it enough — as companies, we need to be thinking long-term, not just tacking “green-certified” at the end of product names and telling the public that it’s “better.”

To put it in marketing-speak, we should be “innovating sustainable practices” for the sake of creating a better product, not just because “it’s the right thing to do.”