September 2, 2012, 12:29 pm
Content Cover Image

Vegetated bioswale captures pollutants from urban runoff, Iowa. Source: USDA


In view of the environmental perspective, it is possible to distinguish two different design approaches to innovations: one is to consider most of the human actions incompatible with the natural environment and to focus on minimizing such impacts to the environment; and the other is to consider incompatible human actions as ‘design failures’ and to focus on redesigning human-made systems toward biocompatibility and positive impacts to the environment. Biocompatibility refers to the quality of human-made systems, e.g. materials, of not having toxic or otherwise harmful effects on biological systems. For example, materials such as lead and mercury are incompatible, hence harmful for organisms. When the above two perspectives are combined with the perspectives of the incremental or radical nature of produced technological change and the level of impacts to the system, three different approaches can be applied to identify the role and impacts of the eco-innovation (Figure 1).

caption Figure 1. Typology of eco-innovations in view of the radical or incremental nature of produced technological change and the level of impacts to the system. Moving from end-of-type and eco-efficiency type of solutions toward eco-effectiveness is likely to provide the highest opportunities in view of enhancing competitiveness and sustainability. (Source: Author)

End-of-pipe solutions that are additional components to existing human-made systems

Such technologies aim to minimize and repair negative impacts without changing the process and system that produce the problem. As an additional component in the system, the technology is likely to produce extra costs for the process. Such technologies are commonly used to curb environmental impacts of the existing industrial and transport systems, such as end-of-pipe air emission filters, plant effluent treatment and the remediation of polluted lands. Since the industrial revolution, the installation of these technologies has produced major improvements in local air quality and water purification, especially in industrialized countries, and similar opportunities exist in many developing countries. However, as these technologies do not change the fundamental process, they typically solve only part of the problem. For example, catalytic converters reduce the toxicity of emissions (nitrogen oxides, monoxide, hydrocarbons) from an internal combustion engine, but increase fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, the major factor producing climate change. Catalytic converters are an add-on solution adopted instead of a cleaner and more efficient combustion engine, which would offer fuel economy benefits besides low-emission.

Eco-efficiency solutions and the optimization of sub-systems

Negative impacts are reduced by creating more goods and services while using fewer resources and creating less waste and pollution. Because the aim is to improve system performance through an increase in the efficiency of its sub-systems, even the radical component-level innovations mean incremental improvements in the system level. The term eco-efficiency was coined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in its 1992 publication "Changing Course". This concept describes a vision for the production of economically valuable goods and services while reducing the ecological impacts of production. In other words, eco-efficiency means producing more with less. According to the WBCSD, critical aspects of eco-efficiency are: a reduction in the material intensity of goods or services; a reduction in the energy intensity of goods or services; reduced dispersion of toxic materials; improved recyclability; maximum use of renewable resources; greater durability of products; and increased service intensity of goods and services.

The concept of eco-efficiency provides practical action-oriented guidance on how to combine environmental issues in business. Eco-efficient markets are rapidly growing and major benefits of its application have been proven by thousands of companies. Eco-efficiency aims to make the old, destructive system less so. But its goals, however admirable, are not sufficient because of the limitations related to the concept. Reduction, re-use and recycling slow down the rates of contamination and depletion but do not stop these processes. For example, improvements in combustion engine efficiency have created major improvements in the fuel consumption of vehicles in recent decades. However, at the same time, the number of vehicles and total fuel consumption have continued to increase, together with their harmful environmental impacts.

Eco-effectiveness solutions and redesign of systems

An eco-effective solution maximizes biocompatibility and the produced service. The design of part of the system contributes to the redesign of the whole system toward greater biocompatibility and provided service or product. Hence, radical component-level innovations can contribute also to radical system-level innovation and, at best, produce viable, biocompatible and sustainable human-made systems.

There is an increasing number of companies with new technologies based on mimicking nature. For example, Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lowins (1999) in their book ‘Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution Natural capitalism’ identify sectors that are already applying principles of biomimicry. For example, pharmaceutical companies work with enzymes; ecological farming fosters diversity in the management of soil ecosystems; engineers create industrial ecosystems; and construction companies develop eco-villages that process their own wastewater, capture light, create energy, and provide habitat for wildlife and wealth for the community; for example, design of bioswales can capture considerable water pollution in urban runoff.

Building on the approaches of industrial ecology, in their book ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’, William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002) introduced eco-effectiveness as an alternative approach to eco-efficiency. Eco-effectiveness seeks to design industrial systems that copy nature and its healthy abundance. An eco-effective solution maximizes biocompatibility and product or service usefulness together. According to Braungart and McDonouch (2002), the central design principle of eco-effectiveness is waste equals food. Within this concept, there are two alternative design perspectives that need to be considered in eco-effective management:

  • At the end of its useful life, a product returns to industry and its materials are used to make equally or more valuable new products. Hence, the product materials, such as minerals or plastics, need not be minimized—because they are used again and not thrown away as waste to a landfill. Industry can make considerable savings by recovering valuable materials from used products and avoiding environmental sanctions.
  • In a similar way, products made of natural, safely biodegradable materials can be returned to nature to feed ecosystems instead of harming them. Thus, in the end of its useful lifetime, the product as a nutrient contributes to a new cycle within the eco-system, hence making the ‘disposal’ of the product easy and even valuable.

These two approaches need to be applied in an intelligent way, considering the impacts of the whole lifetime and life-cycles of products. For example, as an alternative to using only natural, biodegradable fibers like cotton for textile production (a pesticide-intensive agricultural process), it may be even more environmentally friendly to use non-toxic synthetic fibers designed for continuous recycling into new textile products. Another example is Ford Motor Company, which has developed a concept car called the “Model U” (following Ford’s famous “Model T”) which provides all the convenience and functionality of a normal car, but has designed out many of the environmentally damaging aspects. As a design consultant on the project, William McDonough explains it this way: "It's a vision for cars that are made entirely of materials with positive human and environmental impacts; biological and technical nutrients made and assembled so they can be separated when the car is disassembled, and returned to the soil or to industry; polymers and metals recovered and recycled at the same level of quality or better, for reuse in generation after generation of vehicles; engines running on energy that's derived from the sun, and producing no pollution. Driving your car can be a positive event on all counts." Indeed, eco-effectiveness can have profound implications for how industries and end-users see their impacts on the environment.

Following the above described typology of three kinds of eco-innovations, it is possible to conceive that moving from end-of-type and eco-efficiency type solutions toward eco-effectiveness is likely to provide the greatest opportunities for enhancing competitiveness and sustainability, because the novel solutions are looked for beyond the existing production systems. Eco-effectiveness goes beyond improvements in existing activities and challenges companies to redesign and redefine their business, which may lead to building new value networks and identifying new clients.

Further reading

  • Carrillo-Hermosilla, J. and Könnölä, T. (in press). “Towards a sustainable development through eco-innovation.” In F. Columbus (dir.), Progress in Sustainable Development Research. New York: Nova Science Publishers.
  • Hawken, P., Lowins, A. and Lowins, H., 1999. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Back Bay Books. ISBN: 0316353000
  • McDonough, W. and Braungart, M., 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press. ISBN: 0865475873
  • Schmidheiny, Stephan, 1992. Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment. World Business Council for Sustainable Development. ISBN: 0262691531


Carrillo-Hermosilla, J. (2012). Eco-innovation. Retrieved from


To add a comment, please Log In.