05/18/2012 02:30 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

The Key to Successful Eco-Innovation? Timing

I had a great talk the other day about the timing of innovation with Rahul Raj, Director of Sustainability and Merchandising Innovation at Wal-Mart.

We were introduced through colleagues at Sustainable Brands, a conference Raj is speaking at this June. As we'd both attended several SB shows over the years, our chat naturally started with the metamorphosis of CSR reflected in the yearly events.

"I've seen sustainability evolve from being a bolt-on risk mitigation tool to something built into the company, to part of a company's DNA" Raj reflected. "I see the Method model, where CSR is baked into the company charter, as the next step."

To Raj, the beauty of SB is that you get to meet with companies along the entire continuum of CSR at the show. So no matter if you're starting out, or have a mature CSR program, there's always someone there you can learn from or collaborate with.

This talk about the evolution of CSR provided a natural segue to Raj's speaking topic at SB.

Wal-Mart is unveiling a pilot program in closed-loop retail, which -- if successful -- would definitely put the company at the leading edge of CSR thinking.

Closed loop is a simple concept with dramatic implications. Our current retail system is set up to sell new products, which are used and then disposed of -- very much a linear (and inefficient) process.

Closed loop implies that once products are used and ready to be jettisoned, they can in fact be reconditioned and brought back into the sales loop. This would enable each item to stay in circulation much longer before finally being thrown away.

Wal-Mart has chosen electronics as the area of focus for its closed loop exploration. But the concept works equally well in other retail areas. Raj's panel partners at SB include Patagonia and eBay -- two companies that have partnered to create the common threads clothing exchange.

Closed loop hybrids are also finding success. Concepts like car sharing, for example, are proving the business case for maximizing usage of underutilized products, effectively slowing consumption of new vehicles.

The point is, a few years ago, an innovation like closed loop retail or product sharing would have been laughed off the boardroom table. Timing, it seems, is everything.

"You need to time innovation to the readiness of your market" said Raj. "Wal-Mart was a pioneer in building eco-efficiency and eco-innovation into the business. Each innovation built on the last, and each was laser-focused on our mantra of saving customers money."

So it seems it isn't just the consumer who needs to be primed for the release of a new innovation -- the company culture needs to be acclimatized to the new thinking as well.

"It's definitely moving us along a continuum. The exciting part is, it's helping us as a company stay fresh and innovative, as it helps our society figure out how to survive, and thrive, in a changing world. We're giving people what they want, in a different way."

A way that seems perfectly timed, I'd say.