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Structured Innovation to Solve Environmental Challenges

A Case Study of the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize

By the year 2040, the amount of new plastic waste entering the ocean will nearly triple. Today, thin-film plastic is responsible for ~46% of all plastic in the ocean, with 4.5 billion thin-film plastic bags ending up in the ocean every year, and billions more going to landfill. Apparel industries, which use 180 billion polybags per year, are desperate to find a replacement that can work with their current supply chains.

Finding such a replacement and overcoming massive environmental challenges like ocean plastic pollution more generally, will require disruptive ideas that are grounded in solving real-world problems. This article introduces a five-step structured innovation process to help you develop, vet, and scale these types of ideas. It also demonstrates the value of focused competitions by illustrating how the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize (Plastic Innovation Prize) is using structured innovation to reduce the prevalence of the thin-film plastics that are polluting our oceans.

Human wrapped in plastic on top of building

1. Define the Customer Problem

A good customer problem statement should articulate the problem facing the customer today, explain why the problem is painful enough for the customer to take action, and envision the desired customer end state or goal. The truth is that many problems are small enough to be lived with; only the most pressing ones inspire action. Therefore, you need to identify a true and pressing customer pain point. Start by studying the industry. Once you have a strong mental model, ask potential customers open-ended questions about the challenges they are facing. Listen to what they say and the intention behind their words; root causes are often hard for people to articulate or define.

To bring this to life, let’s go back to the apparel industries and thin-film plastics. A potential problem statement is: apparel industries want to phase out thin-film plastics in their supply chains because of consumer demand and increased plastics regulation, but cannot do so until there is a replacement for thin-film plastics that meets their cost and supply chain requirements.

Focused competitions are using structured innovation to reduce the prevalence of the thin-film plastics that are polluting our oceans.

Apparel brands use polybags because they can transport products through dynamic, sometimes rough global supply chains at low cost and in perfect condition. However, the end-of-life environmental impact of thin-film plastics has led a staggering 94% of Europeans to “think that industry and retailers should try to reduce plastic packaging.” In addition, there are more than 1,000 pieces of global plastics legislation, and 115 countries have implemented some type of plastics ban. This flurry of legislation has led to inconsistent and sometimes contradictory policies and calls from business and NGOs for a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution.

Innovation Checklist on NotepadThe combination of consumer demand for action and the need to comply with complex and sometimes contradictory regulations on plastics has prompting brands to take action. More than 60 leading fashion and textile companies have joined The Fashion Pact, which includes a pledge to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastics in business-to-consumer packaging by 2025. In addition, PrAna launched the Responsible Packaging Movement, which more than 100 brands have joined, and is now using paper to deliver 100% plastic-free product packaging for its direct-to-consumer business.

Unfortunately, paper-based solutions are more expensive and not as strong as thin-film plastics; Patagonia decided not to use paper mailers because internal testing indicated that they were not robust enough to survive their distribution centers – let alone complete supply chain.

2. Define Your Success Criteria

Now that you deeply understand the customer problem, the next step is to develop success criteria. These criteria should be widely known to potential solution developers and must address product or service price, quality, scalability, and sustainability. A product that only wins on sustainability won’t scale; sustainability needs to be the “and” for why a customer purchased it, not the “why.”

The Plastic Innovation Prize has success criteria for all four pillars. The requirements around price, quality, and scalability are meant to ensure that the winning solution can compete and win in the marketplace. Because biodegradability is the central sustainability requirement, the Prize provides participants with access to the testing protocols it will use to assess the ability of solutions to achieve “soil and marine biological degradation under conditions that closely approximate natural environments.” This allows participants to test, evolve, and refine their solutions before submitting a final proposal, thereby reducing the innovation cycle-time and improving the chances of success for the Prize. The Prize includes a second sustainability success criteria to mitigate the environmental and social impacts of production.

3. Identify and assess the limitations of the current approach to solving the problem

Use your success criteria to identify: 1) viable solutions and decide to help accelerate the best of them; or 2) a gap in the current approaches on which to focus your structured innovation.

The combination of regulations and voluntary corporate pledges will not drastically reduce the amount of thin-film plastic flowing into the ocean in the near-term. Improved recycling infrastructure is critical, but it is costly to develop and requires citizen education to be effective. There’s also a long way to go. According to the EPA, only 9% of plastic is recycled in the US. While plastic recycling rates are close to 30% in other developed countries, they are near zero in developing economies.

The biggest gap today is the lack of viable, cost-competitive, sustainable, drop-in replacements for thin-film plastics. The thesis of the Plastic Innovation Prize is that the best way to close this gap is through materials innovations that generate upstream replacements for thin-film plastics that can work with current supply chains.

4. Assess Proposed Solutions Against Your Scoring Rubric

Having impartial judges or third-party validators assess solutions with pre-defined and transparent criteria brings integrity to the process. Without objective assessment criteria, it can be tempting to select the best option, even if it isn’t good enough. Doing this is a disservice to your customers and team. Solving hard problems at scale requires high standards.

Plastic item in ocean

The Plastic Innovation Prize ensures high standards by having a Scientific & Technical Advisory Board assess each of the 64 submissions from 42 countries across six continents against clear environmental, performance, and scalability criteria. This input is then used by the Prize judges to select the finalists.

Great products don’t scale without help. Innovators need financial and strategic support to take their ideas from concept to prototype, pilot, and scale.

5. Plan to Scale

Great products don’t scale without help. Innovators need financial and strategic support to take their ideas from concept to prototype, pilot, and scale. At its best, this is the role the venture capital industry plays. Remember that finding a viable solution is not an endpoint; it’s the beginning.

The Plastic Innovation Prize will assist prize finalists and accelerate for the grand prize winner.

  • Assist: The 5-10 teams selected as finalists share a “$200,000 milestone prize purse to encourage the development of their solutions.” During the 10-month final round, these teams submit samples for testing and engage with the Prize marketing and branding experts to hone their stories.
  • Accelerant: The grand prize winners will receive a $600,000 Grand Prize and, crucially, accelerator support through the end of 2025, including mentorship, introductions to key partners, market engagements, and help with storytelling. By 2025, the winners should be equipped with the tools needed to scale and have a global impact.

While the outcome of any innovation process is unknowable at the start, using this five-step structured innovation process will increase your chances of success, and in doing so help change the world.

J.R. Siegel is a sustainability and strategy consultant who lives with his family in Seattle. He is a member of the Plastic Innovation Prize Scientific and Technical Advisory Board.

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