05/30/2012 02:03 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

Don't Ignore the Innovation Right in Front of You

I admit it. I'm a sucker for big, bold innovation. It gets headlines, and reassures our belief in human ingenuity.

A great example is HP's flexible display. I was introduced to this research project at an innovation conference last year, and was captivated by its promise of potentially eliminating paper.

So when the folks at Sustainable Brands introduced me to Jeff Walter, HP's director of Environmental Sustainability and Social Innovation, I was expecting more shiny gadgetry.

The innovation we talked about, however, was of an entirely different sort. And - as anyone who hears Jeff's keynote at this year's Sustainable Brands show will discover -- it's the sort of thinking that will make us refocus our marketing and short-term innovation.

Innovate the Technology... and the Behavior

Walter believes less flashy incremental innovation, coupled with behavior change, can create dramatic sustainability results. He illustrated his point with HP's green printing evolution.

Many of the green printing initiatives we know today, from energy-efficient printers to cartridge recycling, were innovated by HP in the '90s.

These innovations were revolutionary when they launched, but remained relevant thanks to incremental improvements through the years. For example, HP's cartridge recycling has become ubiquitous, with free online recycling and a mushrooming drop off network (first Staples, and now 4,400 OfficeMax and Wal-Mart stores). The program has even extended to hardware recycling.

The recycling process itself has morphed to adapt to present-day issues. By grinding up the cartridge plastic and blending it with water bottle plastic, HP avoids degradation -- and can 'upcycle' used plastic into a new cartridge. The process taps our present-day glut of empty water bottles, with a significant reduction in carbon, petroleum and water in the recycling process.

So where does behavior change come in? Walter believes it's a key component of his innovation program. In the case of printing, he described HP's partnership with Universal Pictures and Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. The film's message of harvesting nature's bounty (specifically trees) responsibly struck a real chord with HP. It also presented a natural 'teachable moment' where moviegoers felt inspired to take action, and HP fulfilled with simple measures they could take to make a difference.

"The main thing that resonated with us was that everyone needed to contribute to making a positive impact. And they could do it without waiting for a magical shift to paperless."

But wasn't HP's flexible display aimed at ushering in a new era of paperless information?

Perhaps. But the paperless silver bullet requires much more than technology. It requires a societal change in thinking.

Radical Is Confusing -- and Counterproductive

Walter pointed out a test that was conducted in Singapore, India, and the U.S., where researchers made a test group live without printed paper for two days.

The group thought it would be easy, but soon discovered going cold turkey was a daunting proposition. Packaging went away, as did labels, recipes, and the million other daily objects that are printed. It was too much, too fast.

Walter also highlighted the surprising contradiction between our perception of paperless good, and reality. Taking e-readers and tablets as an example, he pointed out you'd need to read a staggering number of e-books yearly to offset the carbon created in the manufacture, charging and disposal of an e-reader. For the majority of us, paperback was still the greenest option.

All this said, Walter believes radical innovation has its place. Without it, we wouldn't have the automobile or solar panels.

But our conversation was a healthy reminder to me that we can't ignore practical solutions that may have less sparkle, but incredible power to improve life and the environment.