Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thinking Outside of the (Mail) Box: How Sustainability Can Drive Innovation

One of the most exciting things about corporate sustainability is how it drives innovation.  The concept of sustainability implies the long-term, so companies that embrace it as a core value must think beyond the next fiscal year.  It is this push to predict future needs of both people and planet that has spurred some enormously innovative products and services.  The examples of this are endless: think concentrated laundry detergent, car share services, and CFLs.

It is a known fact that companies need to know how to periodically pivot their business models to ensure continued success. For instance, Amazon and Barnes and Noble remained ahead of the curve in their shift from traditional print books to e-books.  Borders, on the other hand, was late in catching on to this trend and developing its own e-reader.  The company was unable to compensate for this oversight and as a result, filed for bankruptcy in 2011.  (Granted, whether or not these e-readers are actually better for the environment than traditional printed books is another story.)

So when companies like the United States Postal Service stick their heels in the ground and choose tradition over innovation at the expense of the environment, it raises an eyebrow.  A few months back, the USPS ran this commercial, in which it makes the absurd claim that snail mail is somehow more secure and convenient than electronic mail.  The ad seems like a desperate attempt by the USPS to promote a service that is becoming more obsolete each day.  If the USPS really embraced sustainability, it would view the shifting needs of customers as an opportunity to leverage its well-respected brand and create new services that reduce paper waste and reliance on fossil fuels.  For instance, the USPS could create an electronic equivalent of a certified letter or offer an email platform that provides an extra level of security backed by the company.  Clearly, the USPS has an amazing opportunity to embrace sustainability and innovation, but it may suffer the same fate as Borders if it remains stagnant in our ever-changing world.