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Mutual Growth: Social Innovation and Environmental Sustainability



Maura Dilley







Once we agree on what a healthy planet looks like,
we can collaborate on repairing ours.

The Framework
for Strategic Sustainable Development is easy to understand and offers a roadmap for responsible
design and sustainable innovation.




A little recognized fact about earth: nothing here ever disappears and everything always spreads.1 All matter is built from pieces of something that used to be something else. Organic or inorganic—your bike, your computer, and you were built of parts that once belonged to another creation in a past life. Parts of you were once a whale, perhaps, or a wagon, or (inescapably, these days) a non-stick pan, a flame-retardant pillow, or a plastic water bottle.

When we design substances foreign to nature, such as products made with synthetic chemicals, nature cannot unmake them as it would a banana peel. Synthetic chemicals persist in our environment and before you know it turn up as chemical traces in our livestock, our water supply, and indeed even in our bodies. When these objects are still product-sized, we call them trash. After exposure to the elements or to fire, this trash breaks into bits invisible to the naked eye, small and light enough to move around the world in water and by air. David de Rothschild’s boat Plastiki, made of plastic water bottles, traversed the ocean in 2010 to raise awareness of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other areas of man-made floating debris.2

Social innovation is about enabling self-organization, releasing creativity and thereby making the world a better place. This seemingly unstoppable force of humanity, bursting the seams of bygone institutions the world over, relies much too often on unsustainable technology, products, and systems constructed in the manner in which The Story of Stuff3 creator Annie Leonard calls “take-make-waste.” From a bird’s-eye view, industrial production and consumption is a system with a distinctly linear orientation. First we extract natural resources, often disruptively (take); next, we use these natural resources to make products and their related byproducts, such as packaging (make). Then we sell them for money. Finally, products and byproducts are trucked to landfills (if we’re lucky) where they may well remain for lifetimes longer than that of their original human user (waste). For example, the timeframe for polystyrene packaging to biodegrade is unproven, but is estimated to range from 500 years… to never.

Car-sharing platforms, like ZipCar in the US, are one of the more concrete examples of social innovation active today. Using a smart-phone app, ZipCar provides on-demand access to a car when you need it and a place to ditch it when you’re finished. This is an excellent service that relieves the user of the burden of car ownership— but it is an incomplete solution to sustainable mobility. Exhaust from the cars we share still pollute the air, and we require smart phones to operate ZipCar—smart phones that are made from precious metals, are laborious to recycle, and are notoriously designed for obsolescence.

For another example of social innovation perpetuating take-make-waste, think of the energy consumption and pollution associated with IT, data centers, and cloud computing. Most of us think of our cell phones, computers, and other data-sharing devices as some kind of free-ranging, clean, invisible magic. But if cloud computing were a country, it would rank sixth in the world in terms of how much electricity it uses.4  Greenpeace’s Clean our Cloud campaign, for example, has noted the exponential expansion of the Internet’s energy demands.

In other words, an honest appraisal of what we call social innovation reveals a dirty shadow. Is this a necessary evil, or might there be a way to overturn take-make-waste by partnering environmental sustainability with our efforts to innovate our social systems? What would happen if we added design education in the principles of sustainability to the social innovation toolbox?


The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development

Like science, good design is researched and developed with the help of principles and frameworks. In the late 1980s, scientists in Sweden co-created a peer-reviewed Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD), commercially known as The Natural Step. The founder, Karl-Henrik Robert, was a doctor working at that time in pediatric cancer research. While looking at mutated cells under a microscope, he was struck by an epiphany: Caregivers, doctors, and family could effectively and rapidly collaborate on the restoration of a sick child because the principles of what constitutes a healthy child are widely understood. In stark contrast, we struggle to collaborate for the restoration of a healthy planet because we lack a shared understanding of what a thriving society in a sustained environment might be. Dr. Robert sent his idea to other scientists (as well as to the King of Sweden) and, famously, opened the Framework up to public forum by mailing a copy to every household in Sweden. (Even ABBA had a say.)5

FSSD enables sustainable innovation by wrapping together systems thinking with four basic principles for sustainability, which can be seen as the care instructions for our planet. If the Earth were given to you as a present, this is how you would take care of it:

- No systemic dependence on fossil fuels and heavy metals.
- No systemic dependence on synthetic chemicals that persist in nature.
- No systemic dependence on the destruction of nature.
- No undermining people’s capacity to meet their own needs.
- Yes to everything else.

Since then, FSSD has evolved as a proven, scientifically robust model that helps organizations make pragmatic decisions to move toward sustainability. It has been used to inform strategy and design principles for such global brands as Nike and IKEA. Nike worked with Natural Step consultants to assess and develop its approach to product innovation by defining and navigating toward a long-term vision for sustainable products. The consumer-facing result of this work is the Nike Considered line and Nike’s Considered Design Index.6

IKEA and The Natural Step is a sustainability-by-design story best told by tracking one pioneering product—the light bulb—from the ’90s until today. In the bad old days of the early ’90s, IKEA sold and sweated under incandescent bulbs in its stores. Beginning its work with The Natural Step in 1992, IKEA developed an Environmental Action Plan based on FSSD, shared it company-wide, and created a companion training program. In the early 2000s, IKEA designers were considering how to lower energy consumption by exploring CFL light bulbs, but there was a problem. CFLs were expensive and contained mercury, which is natural but poisonous. IKEA felt that selling customers a product with 6mg of mercury per bulb—the European standard at the time—was counterproductive to their overall sustainability goals. It would incur safety hazards in their supply chain, and one day those bulbs would need to be disposed of—how would that be done safely? IKEA wanted to move toward sustainability and needed to make choices that would establish a flexible platform for future advancements. The company decided that immediate efforts focus on finding the safest route forward for CFL retail while pursuing greener iterations from the back office. IKEA put together design standards and sent a challenge out to its suppliers: help us make a CFL light bulb that is affordable and sustainable by FSSD standards.

Rising to the challenge, a Chinese manufacturer was able to invent a bulb that cut the price per unit by a third and used only 3mg of mercury per bulb, half the amount previously thought necessary. In 2010, IKEA led the market by pulling all incandescent bulbs from their shelves—and closed the loop by providing in-store recycling for used bulbs. In April 2014, iterating on that success, playing off new technology, and following its Environmental Action Plan, IKEA announced it will replace all CFLs with LED lights by 2016.7

The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development is a safeguard against take-make-waste design. It guides us to think systemically and innovate as if we lived on planet Earth. These principles can be taught and shared within the design community. We can use them to build consciousness and capacity for creativity within sustainable constraints.
Social innovation is an extraordinary journey toward a super-humanity. Sustainability ensures that we stay prosperous long enough to be able to celebrate.




1. Paraphrasing the law of conservation of mass.
2. You might think that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other “trash gyres” in our oceans are giant rafts of floating plastic bottles and other trash. Actually, because plastics break down to even smaller polymers, these gyres are concentrations of submerged, often-microscopic particles in the upper water column.
3. The story of stuff is an animated documentary about the lifecycle of material goods (see
4.Brian Walsh,“Your Data is Dirty: The Price of Cloud Computing.” Time, April 2, 2014.
7. content/environment/4-2-1-news_and_views/articles/ikea-sell-only-leds-2016 design


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