Category Archives: sustainability

Incorporating Biomimicry Into Innovation Infrastructure

By Taryn Mead

Following my previous post, I’d like to dive deeper into the use of biomimicry within corporate innovation. Many companies that seek consultants in biomimicry “want to do biomimicry” or “be a biomimetic company” with only a cursory understanding of what this means. One way framing this conversation is to understand the sustainable innovation infrastructure of a company and how it can be leveraged for biomimetic breakthroughs.

The innovation infrastructure of a company is the processes by which new ideas make it to consumers. Add “sustainable” to that and it is the process by which new ideas that supports values of sustainability make it to consumers. After several years of consulting with companies from various sectors, I have noticed a general blurriness around internal innovation processes, making it difficult to recognize where new innovations are most possible and most likely. One of my primary goals as a biomimicry consultant is to bring some clarity and definition to a company’s sustainable innovation infrastructure where biological strategies can provide insights.

When approached with the question “How can we do biomimicry?” the team must first analyze where biomimicry can possibly play a role. By defining the scope of the problem and the potential scope of the solutions, we can have a productive conversation about what we are trying to accomplish and what limitations there are to our progress. The leverage points, as Donella Meadows put it, must be at least partially defined as a team. Is the entire team trying to solve the same problem? And if so, what are the collective goals?

It can be very helpful to visually map the options for biomimicry to move through the product development process as the engagement begins. Perhaps nature’s strategies can inform material development and selection or the form and function of a new product. Perhaps it will lead to advances in the production process or the creation of a waste-to-raw-material network with partner organizations.

Each company will have a unique pathway for assimilating biomimicry and sustainability within their existing processes and environmental criteria and it is best that is best defined at the outset of an engagement with the entire project team engaged. And at the end of the process, with new innovations in hand, team members can tell the story of the day that nature helped them see things differently.

Taryn Mead is a biologist, sustainability strategist and Certified Biomimicry Professional who has consulted with over 30 corporate, municipal and nonprofit clients using biomimicry as a tool for innovation and sustainability. She is the founder of Symbiosis, a biomimicry consultancy.


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Biomimicry: An Increasingly Popular Sustainability Strategy

By Taryn Mead

First in a series

Companies that are trying to improve their environmental performance and create greener products are increasingly exploring biomimicry, also called bio-inspired design, biomimetics or bionics.

Biomimicry is the study of biological models, processes, systems and chemistries that can be emulated for sustainable solutions to human design challenges. The premise of biomimicry is that the other 30-100 million species that live on planet earth have been adapting to thrive here for 3.85 billion years and there is an immense amount that humans can learn from these other organisms. In light of the environmental challenges that lie before us, the rise of biomimicry as a design and innovation framework is timely.

So what does this mean, in practice? It’s really quite simple. People notice patterns in biological systems and then apply those patterns to a human system. The most frequently cited example is Velcro which was developed by an engineer named George de Mestral. Legend has it that he was out for a walk in the Swiss Alps when he noticed the structure of the seeds of the burdock plant as they stuck to his dog’s fur. Upon further examination with a hand lens, he realized that there was a fantastic loop and hook attachment strategy at work. He found a manufacturing partner and the resulting material is Velcro.

A more recent example is product called Ornilux, a insulated structural glass panel. Many bird deaths in urban areas are the result of bird collisions with the glass panels of highrise buildings. Arnold Glas, a German glass manufacturer, sought a solution to this by mimicking the strategy of some species of spiders that incorporate strands of silk that reflect ultraviolet light into their webs. The silk is a warning to birds and other large organisms that may run into the web and destroy it, but are invisible to the spider’s prey and to the human eye.

The examples of biomimicry are endless and date back for centuries. As we move into the future, this process of listening to natural systems is merging with our use of technology to produce some very interesting results. Stay tuned for more on what this means for companies seeking innovation strategies for sustainability.

Taryn Mead is a biologist, sustainability strategist and Certified Biomimicry Professional who has consulted with over 30 corporate, municipal and nonprofit clients using biomimicry as a tool for innovation and sustainability. She is the founder of Symbiosis, a biomimicry consultancy.

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Book Review: Creating a Sustainable Organization

I am finally getting around to posting a review of Creating a Sustainable Organization, by Peter Soyka. I apologize for the delay to my readers and to Peter. The book is well worthwhile.

An effective sustainability strategy is not crafted or executed in a silo. Sustainability strategy must have strong ties to corporate strategy; sustainability practice must be integrated into the full range of company processes. It is this perspective, forged in the author’s many years of experience, that makes this book’s treatment of corporate sustainability distinctive and valuable. I highly recommend it to sustainability practitioners and executives alike.

Books on sustainability can often seem to be written on a blank slate, as if the concept is a new one. This book, by contrast, is rich with historical perspective and insights gained from practical experience. Indeed, the author’s introduction states that his approach “is firmly grounded in the practices that have been developed within and by the EHS profession during the past 15 years or so.” The book also has a valuable review of the history of environmental, health and safety and social equity laws and regulations, which should be enlightening to those who have not studied this history before.

I have read dozens of books on corporate sustainability in recent years. None has done as good a job rooting the topic in the real-world context of corporate environment, health and safety practices; the finance function; and the perspective of institutional investors. Sustainability practitioners who understand this context will have an edge when it comes to developing strategy, defining programs, and communicating with the diverse set of parties who claim a stake in a company’s mission, its performance and its sustainability stance.

One weakness of the book is its rather heavy, pedantic style. It is common to find whole paragraphs composed almost entirely sentences 25 or more words long. But that didn’t prevent me from reading the book cover to cover.

The book is especially valuable to relative newcomers to the field of sustainability. But I expect that even experienced professionals will find the book helpful in crystallizing and articulating the insights they’ve accumulated along the way.

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Yogurt Maker’s Sustainability Approach Has a Different Flavor

Yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm recently revealed that it had calculated the carbon footprint of 150 of its products, three quarters of the items it sells. (Disclosure: some of those items are in my refrigerator right now.) If you are interested in how companies account for and manage their environmental impacts, you should take a look at Stonyfield Farm. Here are three things worth noting:

Over half of the carbon footprint comes from milk production. That means cows passing gas and cow manure. In other words, the biggest source of emissions are verdant pastures, happy bovines, not belching factories. Research is underway to reduce the footprint of milk production. But my point is that most people don’t think of basic agricultural processes can have such a big environmental impact. They can.

Data is updated daily. Most companies that calculate their carbon footprints do so yearly. That’s because the processes most companies use are very labor intensive. There is still little automation of carbon accounting. The system Stonyfield Farm uses calculates product footprints daily and allows continuous monitoring of the company’s performance versus its goals. That should give the firm an edge in meeting its targets by enabling it to make mid-course corrections and improvements as it learns.

Focus on greenhouse gases rather than energy consumption. Many companies that talk about reducing their carbon emissions are actually focused on reducing their energy consumption. There are two reasons for this. First, consumption of non-renewable energy is a pretty good proxy in many cases for greenhouse gas emissions: the more you consume, the greater your emissions. And second, and more importantly, energy costs money while emitting carbon is still free in much of the world. So companies manage energy consumption, aiming for cost reductions and reaping emissions reductions as an added benefit. Stonyfield Farm focuses on greenhouse gas emissions rather than energy partly because a lot of their emissions don’t come from energy use (they come from cows) and they don’t come from their own operations (only 13% of the footprint is attributable to manufacturing).The link between costs and greenhouse gas emissions is much looser for them. So they are directly managing for environmental benefits, not just cost.

Stonyfield Farm has long staked out a leadership position in its commitment to environmental stewardship and its use of that commitment to boost brand value. The company’s approach to managing and tracking its carbon footprint is part of that tradition.

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Why AT&T’s Eco-Rating System Is off the Mark

AT&T has launched its eco-rating system in stores, allowing customers to compare cell phones’ environmental impacts. The system rates handsets on 15 criteria, granting a point for each environmentally preferable criterion the handset possesses. Phones with 14-15 points will get 5 stars;  phones with 5 or fewer points will get no stars. AT&T expects most phones it sells will fall somewhere in the middle.

AT&T has articulated the following goals for this new green labeling scheme:

  • Engage consumers and respond to growing interest
  • Drive industry improvement on sustainability
  • Help set the agenda for more sustainable products
  • Anticipate regulations
  • Demonstrate AT&T leadership

As our recent research shows, a growing number of companies are beginning to take responsibility for the environmental impacts in their supply chains. AT&T’s initiative is not an example of this. Rather than stipulating sustainability standards itself, AT&T puts the onus on consumers to determine the relative importance of the environmental performance of the handsets and the manufacturers that make them.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s what is: AT&T has just created the world’s 434th ecolabel (if you believe the tally of the Ecolabel Index).

Does the world really need another green label? Perhaps. But what it doesn’t need is the continued proliferation of brand-specific labeling. The more labels that cover the same product categories the more confusion and likely consumer indifference.

Last year AT&T competitor Sprint led the development of a standard for “environmentally preferred mobile devices” with UL Environment and has committed to certifying all handsets it sells with that standard. The AT&T labeling scheme uses some of the criteria from that standard, and blends in some others. The result is a proprietary set of hoops its suppliers need to jump through that are different from the hoops that may be set by other carriers.

Why is this a problem? Because suppliers are becoming overloaded with sustainability information requests and lack standard measures of environmental performance. In our research, we asked sustainability executives at manufacturers and retailers about the biggest challenges they faced in obtaining environmental sustainability information from their supply chains. The top answer? A lack of standard ways of measuring environmental performance, a lament shared by 62 percent of the respondents to our survey. The introduction of proprietary product rating standards only going makes this worse, and could well hamper rather than help the cause of driving sustainability in the supply chain.

AT&T said it introduced the eco-rating system in part because it wanted to show leadership. Going it alone, though, is an outdated mode of leadership, especially in this arena. A better model is the one embodied in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. In that organization, dozens of manufacturers and retailers, including direct competitors, came together to develop a single sustainability measurement standard for their entire industry. The coalition unveiled version 1.0 of that standard just this month. They’ve deferred the possible development of a consumer-facing label to a later date.

AT&T can’t really say for sure what impact the new labeling scheme will have on its supply chain. But it is hopeful that it will be good for the top line. According to market researcher NMI, which AT&T hired to help understand the marketing benefits of ecolabels and green seals, “seals increase purchase intent.”

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Free Webinar: Sustainability in the Supply Chain

Green Research is hosting a free webinar to share highlights of its latest research on the best practices, latest trends, and new tools for managing and improving sustainability in the supply chain.

Please register for “Sustainability in the Supply Chain: Tools, Trends & Best Practices? on Aug 9, 2012 11:30 AM EDT at:

The research was conducted over three months and drew on executive interviews, a global survey of sustainability executives, briefings with technology providers, and a review of public documents outline corporations’ sustainability initiatives.  Green Research recently published the complete results of the study in a report available for purchase and immediate download here.

Key questions answered by the research include:

  • Can companies improve sustainability in their supply chains without compromising their business goals?
  • What are leading corporate practices for improving sustainability in the supply chain?
  • How should companies assess supply chain sustainability management vendor solutions?

Who should attend?

  • Sustainability executives and practitioners
  • Supply chain and procurement executives
  • Corporate leaders
  • Sustainability and strategy consultants
  • Vendors of IT solutions
  • Non-governmental environmental organizations
  • Universities and sustainability research centers
  • Sustainability public relations and marketing agencies

Attendance is limited. Priority will be given to to retailers, manufacturers and their agencies.

Register now by clicking here.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

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Focusing on Sustainability, Companies to Collect More Data from Suppliers

Executives See Path to Significant Sustainability Gains

New York City (July 24, 2012) – Green Research, a New York-based corporate sustainability research and advisory firm, today released a new study of corporate environmental sustainability practices and trends.  The study finds efforts to improve sustainability in corporate supply chains are hindered by poor data quality and a lack of measurement standards. In a survey of 30 senior sustainability and procurement executives at major companies globally, 62 percent of executives said their efforts to track supply chain sustainability performance are impaired by a lack of measurement standards. For suppliers already beleaguered by numerous information requests, things will get worse before they get better: 81 percent of companies plan to ask suppliers for more information in the coming year.

Executives Believe Gains Are Possible without Compromising Business Goals

Despite the challenges, executives are optimistic about the prospects for significantly improving sustainability in their supply chains. “Companies often lack direct control over their suppliers and sub-suppliers,” said David Schatsky, principal analyst and founder of Green Research.  “But new tools and management practices are empowering companies to drive improvements in supply chain sustainability.” Sixty-four percent of executives surveyed said their companies can have significant influence on their top suppliers’ sustainability performance.  Eighty-four percent believe their companies can obtain much better environmental performance from suppliers without compromising their companies’ business goals.

New Management Practices Profiled

Supply chain sustainability improvements will be made possible in part by the adoption of new green technologies throughout the supply chain but also by new management practices, Green Research found. The company conducted a series of exclusive executive interviews coupled with an analysis of public company disclosures to identify 10 supply chain sustainability best practices. These include setting specific goals; educating and supporting suppliers; and leveraging emerging standards to collect and analyze sustainability data from the supply chain.

Report Offers Vendor Assessment Guidance

The study also finds that a wide range of technology vendors and service providers have entered the market with solutions for helping companies collect, track and manage supply chain sustainability performance data. The study presents profiles of a dozen such vendors representing a range of approaches for addressing supply chain sustainability issues, along with a Vendor Assessment Framework companies can use to help them select an appropriate vendor. Nearly 40 percent of executives surveyed in the study said their companies were somewhat likely or very likely to acquire a new IT system to help with supplier sustainability information over the next 12 months.

The supply chain sustainability study is available for purchase online at

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