03/13/2012 06:12 pm ET Updated May 13, 2012

The Power of Incremental Innovation

Humans are suckers for shiny objects. Whether it's Star Trek or Sharper Image, we love to believe in the promise of future tech.

Shiny futuristic innovations are a big part of sustainability. Hydrogen fusion, fuel cells, solar farms... we love them for the promise and possibilities they hold.

But 99 percent of sustainability is just plain common sense. Innovations that are so simple, they make us wonder not how we did it, but how we managed to not do it for so long.

Sylvain Cuperlier, VP of Worldwide Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability of Dole, brought that point back into focus for me.

Cuperlier, who is speaking at GLOBE 2012 this week, told me that a great deal of his company's progress in sustainability comes down to turning common sense into common practice.

For example, teaching fuel-efficient driving techniques to Dole truckers, shortening routes through GPS, monitoring fuel usage, and engaging in more effective fleet repair produced a significant reduction in fuel consumption.

Planting cover crops and rotating crops on Dole plantations in Costa Rica, meanwhile, reduced soil erosion by 90 percent. This practice is not only good for the planet, it's also one of the oldest farming techniques known.

Coming To Our Senses

Cuperlier agrees that many of the innovations Dole is implementing are of the 'back to the basics' variety. But this doesn't lessen their impact -- or, of particular interest to brand fans, their importance to customers.

While Dole is primarily a b2b player, programs like its reforestation program in Latin America are heartily supported by supermarkets, who are looking for new ways to win consumer support.

This revelation provides an interesting juxtaposition to 'shiny object' sustainability. Consumers, as much as they like to see bold futuristic progress, find it easy to support practices they understand and can relate to. New gadgets sell, but so do the tried and true remedies our parents loved. If the progress can be framed in a way that I 'get', and the innovation produces results, I'm happy to buy.

Common Sense And The Innovation Pipeline

Every robust innovation pipeline needs to have fresh inputs at four points. First, there are short term incremental innovations that refresh current products, or give a twist to current practices. Then, to stay relevant in the medium to long term, there are difficult but necessary innovations that demand heavy lifting but keep the company viable. Radical innovations are firmly in the long term, anticipating what consumers might want in the 10 to 20 year future. And to fuel dreams of a better tomorrow, there's visionary innovation.

Each of these innovations play a key role. When it comes to sustainability, however, the more mundane incremental innovations are often given short shrift. Consider the impact that teaching efficient driving has on fuel consumption, but the press given to electric and fuel cell vehicles.

Lessons For Innovators

1. Don't ignore the low hanging innovation fruit. Common sense needs to become common practice -- and there are rewards in both efficiencies and brand for incremental innovators.

2. Don't just look short term. Sylvain Cuperlier and Dole may be creating a wealth of incremental innovation, but they're also launching visionary innovations like their solar power harvester.