May 24, 2012

3M's Sustainability Innovation Machine

Planes are now held together by tape, not bolts. It's really, really strong tape, but still. Who knew the maker of Post-It Notes could help keep aircraft aloft?

This somewhat frightening factoid is just one of the fascinating things I learned in a recent visit to the St. Paul, MN, headquarters of the perennial innovation leader, 3M. During my daylong visit, I observed a quiet, longtime sustainability leader plugging away, creating new products that will help the world save energy, water, waste...and lots of money.

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For good reason, the $30-billion company has long been held up as a role model of how to manage innovation. In the sustainability realm, 3M pioneered what now seems like an obvious idea: avoiding pollution before having to clean it up. The company's simply named Pollution Prevention Pays (3P) program has saved many billions of dollars over 36 years.

The environmental results of its near obsession with eco-efficiency are frankly astonishing. In the last two decades, 3M has slashed toxic releases by 99% and greenhouse gas emissions by 72%. It's the only company that has won the EPA's Energy Star Award every year the honor has been bestowed.

3M's sustainability leadership has come mainly from its eco-efficiency success, but these practices are increasingly the norm in business. So I was happy to observe abundant evidence of the company pivoting to make sustainability a driver of business growth as well.

Before my presentation at an employee event, I listened as CEO Inge Thulin and senior execs from each of the major divisions laid out their strategies. Thulin spoke about sustainability being "embedded...in our new vision" of growth and innovation. Other execs bragged about the high percentage of their division's sales coming from sustainability and "energy preservation."

But most importantly, I heard about some great new products and technologies. When you're describing a company that launches an average of 20 new products every week, it's hard to pick favorites. But here are a few examples of what sustainability innovation looks like:

3M is a refreshingly humble company: every estimate or "boast" is carefully and conservatively calculated to not overstate the case. For 36 years, the company has used only first-year savings to tally the benefits of pollution prevention projects — that's an effective discount rate of, well, infinity. And with the water-pipe-lining technology, the payback calculation for customers includes only labor savings and overall construction efficiency. A more thorough accounting would add in the significant water and energy savings, as well as reduced impacts on local economies (traffic and business disruption).

But there are signs of a feistier attitude brewing. The new CEO is making sustainability, growth, and innovation a powerful trifecta. With Novec Fluids, the team is not only working with key customers and early adopters, but it's also pushing the market toward greener options by advocating for tougher government standards and regulations. This kind of pro-environment lobbying is an advanced sustainability strategy that only real leaders can pull off.

Finally, I toured the company's relatively new innovation demonstration center. It's a customers-only, hands-on science museum that proudly demonstrates all that 3M can do through cool combinations of its 46 base technologies.

Bottom line: sustainability is deeply integrated in 3M's innovation pipeline, which is the engine of the company. The company's core new product development process includes key sustainability questions and criteria for designers to address.

Many companies start talking about sustainability efforts before they've really made significant changes to the company or its products. Although 3M may have the opposite problem — getting too little brand and marketing value out of its efforts — it is usually smarter to execute first, and then tell your story. In 3M's case, it's nice to see the engineers at this quiet company just out there doing it.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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