Optimization vs. Maximization; Sustainability, Fad or the Future?

“Great design is not just a solution, it is the elimination of the problem.” -M. Cobanli

2019 marks a pivotal year in the consumer realm. Regardless of what you might think of them, millennials are set to overtake the boomer-generation this year with a consumer base of 73 million individuals in the US; and a total of 2 billion worldwide. Millenials have reached what Morgan Stanley calls “the most important age range for economic activity.” This juncture has long been foreseen and feared by various companies’ whose brands were designed and catered to the boomer generation. Low product prices are no longer king.

In a poll done by Nielsen, 30,000 consumers from 60 different countries around the world were surveyed to pinpoint what influences the way they feel about brands, and how those feelings affected their buying behavior. The overwhelming conclusion: the majority of global consumers (66%) stated they are willing to pay more for one thing: sustainability. This was particularly prevalent for millennials, with 73% stating they are willing to pay more for sustainable offerings.

The prevalence of sustainability in the minds of today’s consumers is gaining traction, now you must ask yourself: is it worth the time, effort, and resources to obtain this goal of sustainability in our own organizations? Up until recently, product sourcing was not even a consideration when choosing one product over another. It was price and reliability. People in this growingly interconnected world are now beginning to value where their products come from and whether the company is a responsible corporate citizen. How can we adapt to this changing consumer demand?

The solution to any given problem is not always a new innovative idea. Often, the best solution is the simplest one, and nature with its elegant processes and designs can be our greatest teacher in this endeavor. Life on this planet has had 3.8 billion years of research and development to find what works, what lasts, and what systems are the most time and resource efficient. For example, bees when given a new field or meadow of flowers, select the most optimal beehive location 95% of the time, minimizing travel distance to the greatest concentration of flowers. What company searching for a new headquarters or distribution center location wouldn’t want to have that success rate from a supply chain standpoint?

Drawing inspiration and design blueprints from nature has been coined as Biomimicry. This divergent way of thinking presents businesses with a unique bridge between sustainability, a word commonly associated with giving up something essential and stifling productivity and transforming it into predictable growth, optimal efficiency, and virtually endless economic opportunity.

For example, Speedo used the design pattern of shark’s skin to greatly reduce water resistance and resulted in dozens of broken swimming records at the 2008 Summer Olympics. The design was so effective it has since been banned from competition. An engineer tasked with quieting the bullet train’s sonic boom took inspiration from the beak of the kingfisher bird. Using this design pictured above, the engineer not only eliminated the sonic boom, but he increased the train’s speed by 10% while consuming 15% less energy. These are just a few examples of using nature’s elegant designs and applying them to profitable business avenues. All while appealing to this new consumer preference towards sustainable and eco-conscious products.

Life ultimately produces zero waste in closed-loop systems; in other words, one organism’s waste becomes the next organism’s input or raw material. We can learn from this self-sustaining process and apply it to our businesses. John D Rockefeller built a billion dollar empire by repurposing a waste product from the petroleum industry, Gasoline. In doing so, he provided his company massive value from a product that was otherwise discarded. This gives a whole new meaning to “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  Ask yourself: are there any waste byproducts in your own business that could be used as an alternative input or repurposed into an entirely new product? John D Rockefeller made himself a millionaire asking this very question.

The only constant in life is change. In the natural world, it is either adapt or die.  That is why nature has learned over millions of years to embody resilience, the ability to withstand unforeseen disturbances and adapt accordingly. Is this not what we strive to obtain for our businesses as well?  Not just a company that will be successful 5 months or 5 years from now, but 50 years from now.

Sustainability has gained a negative rap for its perceived reduction in business productivity.  But in this new biomimicry perspective, it’s about abundance and optimization; it’s about increased energy efficiency and resource allocation, resulting in cost savings; it’s about optimizing instead of maximizing, a reduction in weight but an increase in strength; it’s about eliminating waste, and creating value at each step of the supply chain in a closed-loop system. Which industry analyst, potential investor, or board of directors wouldn’t be excited at these prospects? When presented with the next technical problem facing your business, do not be afraid to ask: “How would nature solve this?” you may be surprised at its simplistic genius.

Kelly D. Scott
The world’s leading business advisory and executive coaching organization