SolidWorks Sustainability: A View from Monterey

We're quietly changing the world over here at SolidWorks.

How do I know this? I'm the new sustainability guy here — "Product Manager, Sustainability" is my official title. In case you missed my official introduction you can read about my background or see why I came here, but the long and short of it is that I've been in the sustainability world for long enough to appreciate just how groundbreaking our SolidWorks Sustainability product really is.

But I'm getting ahead of myself…


SustainableBrands 2010

I spent the past week representing SolidWorks at SustainableBrands 2010 at the beautiful Portola Hotel in Monterey, California (pictured below). This is an annual conference for product, marketing, branding, and sustainability professionals, all of whom are focused on the conduct and communication of socially- and environmentally-responsible business.


Here were some of my favorite highlights:

Biomimicry pre-conference workshop

I presented "Biomimicry: A Framework for Innovation", in which I talked about biomimicry, or nature-inspired design. In a segment on "how do you know a nature-inspired product is a sustainable one?", I demoed our SolidWorks Sustainability product as a tool to evaluate the environmental impact of such biomimetic designs.

This workshop kicked off my conference with the adrenaline that comes with speaking and the excitement that results from really connecting with my audience.

Opening remarks

Koann Skrzyniarz, founder of Sustainable Life Media (who puts on the conference), set the stage: "We're willing to have conversations here about the elephant in the room: the consumption problem." Following Koann, Bill Marquard continued with the "The Power of AND" conference theme by critiquing the way that companies traditionally manage the "triple bottom line" of people, planet, and profit. Rather than taking from our profits to throw money at social and environmental causes, he said, "We must move social issues from philanthropy to core business." These remarks set recurring themes throughout the conference.

The New American Dream

In one of the most thought-provoking discussions I've seen at a conference, Eric Park and Marc Matthieu led a discussion of what it means to reach for the American dream. What was once about self-made success — "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is probably one of the most powerful ideas ever stated" (Matthieu) — has become materialism – "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" (see the commercial). Can sustainable brands once again reclaim the American Dream? "eBay created market forces that shape marketplaces. Starbucks built behavior & identity. Apple created a culture" (as tweeted by @mvellandi).

Pithy quotes from sustainability thought-leader Gil Friend

  • "The purpose of doing business is what you're there to do. Money is just about keeping score." [This is why I'm excited that so many people at SolidWorks are passionate about helping people make better products, not (just) about meeting sales quotas.]
  • "Greening is something you do with your employees, not to them." (as tweeted by @GreenIntel)
  • "We vote every day at cash registers." [My takeaway: make the sustainability tools easy for the 'constituents'.]

Green trends research, courtesy of Cohn & Wolf and Esty EP

  • 79% of Americans chose "economy" over "environment" when given an either/or choice in a survey.
  • Research continuously shows greater growth in green brands in developing countries than in developed countries.
  • Brands consumers consider the greenest in America: IKEA, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Google, Microsoft, Tom's, SC Johnson [a few surprises there!].

Design for Behavior Change (IDEO)

Bruce MacGregor of IDEO spoke about stealthily influencing consumer behavior toward social and environmental causes by appealing to their sense of play and aesthetic (like their Piano Stairs). I couldn't help thinking about our Sustainability product in this context: our product give customers a straightforward and, I think, fun way to assess and reduce environmental impact.

Extended Producer Responsibility (Starbucks)

Ben Packard, Vice President of Global Responsibility for Starbucks, led a much-talked about discussion about the lifecycle impact of a Starbucks cup, in pursuit of their goal to help customers recycle 100% of Starbucks cups by 2015. When I spoke with Ben at another conference last year, we talked about how Starbucks was always looking for innovative tools to reduce its impact. I offer that SolidWorks Sustainability is the lifecycle product design solution they're searching for.

Influencing Consumer Choice Toward Sustainable Consumption (Nokia)

Kirsi Sormunen, Nokia's VP of Sustainability, spoke about their efforts at reducing the impact of their phones — not "less consumption, but smarter consumption" as she put it.

This too was a conversation that could have benefited from a lifecycle perspective. She spoke of lightweighting the phone packaging, which reduced trucking ("we were no longer shipping air"); but the transportation phase of a product as material-intensive and energy-consumptive as a consumer electronic device is pretty much in the noise. Although, as author Andrew Winston (who, it must be noted, also gave an amazing and inspired keynote speech), commented to me: "I actually think it's really cool — trucks off the road are trucks off the road."

Nokia is doing things that I think are incredibly relevant. Since the majority of the impact is from material impacts and, especially, use-phase energy use, it's extremely promising that 100% of Nokia phones are recyclable (for material or energy), and that the chargers are EnergySTAR rated, reducing lifetime energy draw. Both are huge wins in these major lifecycle phases.

My SustainableBrands '10 takeaways

There were other speakers and attendees from companies like eBay, Ford, HP, Dell, and Coca-Cola, and a host of smaller, transformative companies like Thornberg & Forester and RecycleMatch. What all these companies, large and small, had in common was that they were searching for a way to communicate real, measurable impacts amid the noisy (and often greenwashed) marketing buzz. 

SustainableBrands '10 was best summed up by Jason Saul (paraphrase): sustainable business and innovation should be driven by the engine of the company, not by the fumes left over. I feel confident in saying that SolidWorks has hitched the stewardship of our Earth right up to its powerful locomotive (an electric/diesel hybrid, of course!), and I'm excited and humbled to be one of its "engineers".