01/17/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

Will Your Eco-Innovation Ripple?

Green innovation is a hot topic in the US. Ideologues for the status quo (many of them in Congress) believe it will cost industry money, and leave us lagging behind foreign competitors who don't have to jump through eco-hoops.

That's why I read Roland Hwang's update from Detroit Auto Week with great interest. According to Mr. Hwang, committing to Obama's 54.5 mpg by 2025 program will "earn as much as $300 billion for the U.S. auto industry, put $200 billion back into the pockets of consumers while securing a global leadership for Detroit in advanced auto innovations for the 21st century."

What caught my eye was Mr. Hwang's final point -- eco-innovation today will set up a culture of innovation that could propel Detroit to leadership in the 21st century.

I've observed this 'culture of eco-innovation' take root in case study after case study. Whether it's Interface or GE, companies that encourage new green thinking tend to see ripples that create success stories far beyond their original goals.

Corporate Or Grass Roots Ripple?

The key to creating positive ripples is to engage stakeholders, employees and supply chain partners. This can happen intentionally, or fortuitously.

When Wal-Mart started down the road to sustainability, one of the first programs implemented was Personal Sustainability Pledges for employees. Staffers could commit to riding their bike, quitting smoking -- anything that would boost their own well-being and help the planet. The program rippled as employees pledged to do more and more, encouraged by their own success and sense of accomplishment.

On the other hand, ripples can happen unintentionally, as Kurt Gerdes of LaFarge told me.

As part of LaFarge's sustainability and social progress program, the company supports a network of community events.

At one of these events -- the Longview Art and World Music Festival -- the company tried out a 'zero garbage' program. There were no garbage bins onsite. Instead, festival goers found an array of recycling bins, complete with student experts who ensured the trash ended up in the proper recycling stream. Any remaining waste was kept out of landfill by being diverted to LaFarge, where it was mixed into concrete.

The initiative didn't provoke grumbling from concert goers. In fact, it made the local news, and became a celebrated feature of the festival.

To the surprise of LaFarge, it also created a ripple, as people began bringing their trash from home to recycle onsite.

Creating Your Own Ripple

Every corporate sustainability champion wants their program to ripple. Here are a few tips that can help make it happen.

Make it easy -- People want to do good. But don't expect them to map their carbon footprint on a spreadsheet. Simple actions boost the chances of uptake.
Create a story -- Every ripple starts with a story. Create a two-liner that your target can tell their friends. If it captures the imagination, it will create action.
Reward -- People don't expect trophies, but they'd like to be recognized for their actions. Find a way to thank them. Chances are, public acknowledgement will entice even more people to the ripple.
Think outside the jar -- Asking people to stop littering is sooo done. Asking them to create zero garbage captures the imagination. Find a new way to frame the actions if you want better response.