To make progress towards a circular economy we need innovation. New products and services, new methods and new approaches. The challenge is, first of all, to find inspiration for innovative ideas, and secondly, to be able to compare different options providing very different benefits.

We need tools help inspire and guide us.

Before the language of the circular economy was common we talked a lot about cradle to cradle design, eco-innovation, sustainable innovation and green product design. Our goal was designing a product or service to reduce overall environmental impact whilst maintaining or improving, economic, technical and social performance. This work generated some very useful tools for thinking about innovation that would meet the needs of people, planet and profit.

Among those tools is the eco-innovation compass. This was developed by the Dow Chemical Company and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and is described in detail in the 1997 book by Fussler and James “Driving Eco-Innovation”

“Designing a product or service to reduce overall environmental impact whilst maintaining or improving, economic, technical and social performance.”

The eco-innovation compass is a way of trying to identify potentially profitable areas to look for sustainable innovations.

In which direction should I innovate?

The original version identifies six directions in which you can innovate to improve the environmental impact of a product or service:

  • Convert the product into a service so that more value comes from the intangible part of the product.
  • Design the product for reuse, remanufacture and recycling to reduce the amount of virgin raw material used, and the impact on disposal at end of life.
  • Reduce the mass intensity per unit of service of the product.
  • Reduce the energy intensity per unit of service of the product.
  • Improve the human and environmental safety of the product by reducing toxic materials and avoiding emissions.
  • Improve resource use by conserving depleting resources and using renewables or recycled materials where possible.

Using this in workshops with the KTN we found it useful to add a seventh direction:

  • Improve the durability of the product so that the financial and environmental costs of replacement and disposal are reduced.

Products with a longer life, particularly if they are designed to be upgraded easily, can offer dramatic reductions in lifetime environmental impact.

The eco-innovation compass not only describes possible directions for innovation, it also allows the measurement of the impact of design decisions, and so comparison of overall impact between different ideas.

Measuring relative impact

The eco-innovation compass has an environmental impact scale running from 0 to 5.  The scale is:

  1. Factor 0.5 – an increase in impact by 50% or more
  2. An increased impact of uncertain size, or less than 50%
  3. No change
  4. An improvement of uncertain size, or less than 100%
  5. Factor 2 – halving of impact
  6. Factor 4 – fourfold reduction in impact

A key idea in measuring relative impact is the baseline case. This is the way that the user need is met at the moment. The baseline case is set to 2 for each characteristic. New ideas can then be measured against the baseline, and they may be better or worse in any of the characteristics. This shows how your proposed idea would change the overall impact if it was implemented.

“Driving Eco-Innovation” recommends carrying out Life-Cycle Analysis on different options to see how they compare to the baseline, but I have found this to be too expensive and time-consuming, particularly at the idea generation and evaluation stage. A qualitative assessment is fine when screening ideas.

Making choices

Drawing a spider diagram for each concept we can see at a glance where it wins against the current solution, where it loses, and by how much.

Choosing which ideas to progress then depends on your business strategy, technical feasibility and which characteristics of the concept are most attractive to users.

The eco-innovation compass does two important things:

  • It suggests areas where we could look for innovations that would reduce impact. For example, if none of the ideas I have come up with are about designing for increased durability, am I missing a trick? It prompts us to take a wide view of the innovation possibilities.
  • It allows us to compare innovation ideas and confronts us with the need to make trade-offs. If that innovation would give us much lower material use, with fewer scarce resources and better opportunities for reuse, remanufacture or recycling, does it matter that the energy use is increased?

This tool may be over 20 years old, but it is easy to use and still has the power to help us search for innovative ideas and evaluate them for environmental impact.

Try it out in your next workshop or brainstorming session.





The Eco-Innovation Compass
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