It takes a decade for climate solutions to scale–but that doesn’t have to be the case

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As an industrial designer, I have always been intrigued by how modern context and cultural trends influence the ideas that get traction in business and impact their direction. When I entered the U.K. job market in the 1990s, environmentalism was front of mind in the public consciousness. This movement, rooted in the 1970s, aimed to conserve the natural world and avoid consumerism with campaigns focusing on saving rainforests, curbing whaling, reducing acid rain, and addressing the hole in the ozone layer.

But these environmental campaigns seemed far removed from the design briefs set by businesses of mass-produced physical products. The focus was on prioritized usability, manufacturability, cost-effectiveness, desirability, and legal compliance. “Environmentally friendly” ideas got traction only if they fitted an existing product requirement such as using less material to reduce cost and waste fewer non-renewable resources. However, any idea with an environmental impact that implied financial or aesthetic cost fell by the wayside.

Design teams often find themselves at the forefront of cultural shifts, influenced by thought leaders whose ideas may not yet resonate with consumers. Designers push boundaries with novel ideas that cater to progressive users or early adopters, but large-scale businesses generally adapt only when the majority consumer mindset shifts.

In the early 2000s, I began work with Samsung Electronics in South Korea, around the same time that William McDonough and Michael Braungart published their influential book, Cradle to Cradle–Remaking the Way We Make Things. The authors proposed a revolutionary philosophy of environmentalism: shifting from a cradle-to-grave factory model to a regenerative cradle-to-cradle model. In this concept, waste is systematically eliminated, and materials are safely returned to the environment or circulated within closed-loop industrial cycles. Though deeply inspiring, the practical application was challenging. At Samsung, I was tasked with exploring the potential of emerging technologies and delivering products to market that were, in my old bosses’ words, focused on driving “image up, cost down”

Fast-forward to 2013, when I received a design brief from the founders of Fairphone, a Dutch electronics manufacturer and social enterprise. Co-founders Bas van Abel and Tessa Wernink were determined to disrupt traditional manufacturing processes. The result was Fairphone 2, the world’s first mass-produced modular, repairable smartphone using recycled and fair-trade materials. The resulting product had less to do with any design genius on my part and more to do with the product requirements Bas and Tessa set to deliver on their mission to lower environmental impact and create a positive social impact on the supply chain.

Today, mainstream businesses are gradually adopting the sustainability ideas that Fairphone introduced a decade ago. Pressures from shifting consumer attitudes, climate change awareness, and legislation have led businesses to implement renewable energy sources, target plastic use, and enable product repairability. Today, business sustainability seeks to achieve net-zero impact within existing economic models, making consumers feel better about buying more sustainable products.

Now, design briefs reflect today’s mainstream consumer concerns by incorporating “sustainability” requirements. Despite this progress, we are still far from the cradle-to-cradle model envisioned by McDonough and Braungart back in 2002. However, I have noticed an emerging focus on designing for climate resilience within my innovation projects.

As the impact of climate starts to affect our daily lives, businesses are thinking about how they can help customers adapt and remain resilient with their products and services. Last year, Dyson’s air-purifying headphones were initially ridiculed for their appearance and perceived irrelevant. Today, amidst events like the air pollution crisis in New York because of Canadian forest fires, the product suddenly made more sense–and even seemed prescient.

Reflecting on my career, I’ve recognized a pattern: Progressive thought leaders and companies serve as early signposts for future behaviors that can significantly impact climate change. Unfortunately, it often takes a decade or more for these innovative ideas to gain mainstream acceptance with the businesses that operate at the scale that will have the most impact.

Now I work as an independent consultant on the very early stages of design and innovation. My work focuses on helping businesses think and design for the future, uncovering new contexts and opportunities, and influencing their strategic planning.

Today, progressive companies are thinking about how to properly close the loop of the linear systems in which their products are produced. This means looking beyond the product in the design process, reinventing supply chains and business models, and prioritizing product and parts recovery, reuse, and remanufacturing over recycling. The goal is to anticipate future extended producer responsibility regulations that will compel manufacturers to manage their entire product waste stream.

With the UN now declaring the climate situation “out of control,” it’s obvious that we need more radical change. We must create an environment where radical ideas within businesses can gain traction faster. I try to do this in my work by envisioning future scenarios that are pragmatic and relatable, rather than science fiction. We must design beyond the lived reality of today and adapt rapidly to mitigate the severe impacts of climate change.

The good news? Companies have had recent experience of rapid adaption. In the COVID-19 crisis, we learned that businesses could instantly adapt to new circumstances. We still have that muscle memory– but it can be lost. So. like pandemic planning, we need to creatively risk assess, analyze the impact, and plan for operations in a new environmental context to have more impact in the near future.

As we grapple with how best to effect positive climate impact, we must carefully consider the design and innovation briefs we issue. These briefs should not only cater to present-day requirements but also anticipate factors that will influence future customer and business decisions. By doing so, I hope we won’t have to wait a decade for good ideas to scale. And we can accelerate the positive impact we all make.

Matthew Cockerill is an independent innovation consultant.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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