Circular innovation: how to create sustainable products

If you recycle, you’re living your belief that using and regenerating products or components in environmentally friendly ways is good for our planet and its people. By extension, you’ll likely find value in the circular economy concept. According to the renowned Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “Through design, we can eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate nature, creating an economy that benefits people, business, and the natural world.”

The question: Are your product teams prepared to implement circular economy practices?

A personal view of a circular economy

As a child, I played nearby while my parents tugged thousands of rusty nails from used lumber salvaged from a weathered gray warehouse 75 miles away. That lumber formed the walls of our first home. We kept our garden busy year-round, rotating crops to replenish the soil. We canned, froze, and dried our produce because the closest grocery store was 25 hard miles and one-fourth of a tank of gas away. From peelings, stalks, and cuttings, we fed our pets. This was our circular economy, where we reused and repurposed everything until we used it up.

The push from the top to deliver against goals

Now, with 94% of organizations integrating environmental, sustainability, and governance goals into their strategy, CIOs, operations teams, and solutions engineers are under mounting pressure to produce results. One way to transform operations and deliverables is to consider circular economy practices when designing offerings. Unfortunately, many in design and development roles lack formal training in these practices and need help integrating them into their offerings while delivering against shrinking deadlines. 

How a rapid learn-and-pivot methodology can help

The good news: An agile, four-phase innovation methodology can jumpstart sustainable development by helping teams ask the right questions at each phase. With the underlying concepts in mind, teams can begin creating more sustainable products. 

To do this, teams must emphasize the “cycle”–starting with a traditional life cycle like the one shown but with sustainability at its core. Every team and team member involved in the product life cycle must consider multiple variables, factoring in the environmental and human impact of the offerings they’re developing and putting into the market.

The Innovation team at Iron Mountain uses a four-phase customer-focused methodology called Compassion-Driven Innovation.

In this paper–How to Accelerate Sustainability  – we’ve augmented that methodology by adding critical sustainability concepts and sharing our approach to integrating sustainability into innovation practices.

We’ve outlined the four phases of innovation—Include, Discover, Enlighten, and Activate—and included foundational information about emissions and circular economy concepts. We’ve also integrated questions about sustainability and related considerations regarding a product’s impact on society.

For example, in the Include phase, teams might ask questions like:

What are the sustainability considerations related to this area?What is the state of the art for circular practices in this area?How can a solution or process related to this area reduce waste, lower energy consumption, or cut emissionsHow might it impact societal considerations? For example, can it improve the user’s life?Might it take away or shift jobs? How can we be sure that it is non-discriminatory?

Using this approach, product design and development teams can have exploratory discussions with internal environmental, sustainability, and governance (ESG) experts and external customers to better understand a product’s potential impact. With this information, they can design offerings that benefit us all.

Every effort matters

My family had no words for what we did while living in our circular economy. It was simply a way of life passed through generations. We minimized our environmental footprint while reusing and recycling what might have been waste, minimizing pollution, and regenerating the soil. We thrived from it. That house built from those weathered boards still stands more than a half-century later, covered in rosy shingles just as my mom imagined–inviting us to gather and remember the warmth and joy we’ve shared inside. Someone else’s trash became our refuge.

No matter how small or insignificant, everyone’s efforts matter. Anyone who recycles, reuses, and repurposes materials contributes to sustainability and, to varying degrees, the circular economy.

More resources

A wealth of information exists on the circular economy concept, particularly from The Ellen MacArthur Foundation website. For more information about achieving your organization’s sustainability goals, see Rethink Sustainability.

Debra Slapak, Senior Director of Innovation Strategic Initiatives at Iron Mountain

Iron Mountain

Debra Slapak is a co-author of “Compassion-Driven Innovation: 12 Steps for Breakthrough Success”. She is senior director of innovation strategic initiatives at Iron Mountain, where she leads the team responsible for the global enterprise innovation thought leadership and research programs. Debra has led marketing programs at Dell and IBM, crafting thought leadership research, education, and outreach in areas such as enterprise edge and 5G, artificial intelligence, data analytics, data management, sustainability, metaverses, and unified asset strategy. Throughout her career, she has engaged with customers, analysts, researchers, subject-matter experts, and strategists to illuminate innovation opportunities springing from emerging technologies. She’s a registered nurse, adventurous chef, therapy pet handler, wife and mother, pet lover, and natural gardener in the fertile wine country of central Texas.

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