30 November 2014

Watch out for sustainable design

When we think about sustainable design, and associated business models, it can sometimes seem a little too unrealistic against the tide of consumerism and disposable fashion.  However, we don't need to look too far for inspiration - in the first of two blogs, I'll consider the wristwatch.

Below are couple of watches, with very different pricepoints:

A Rolex Watch

Casio F-91W

Now let's look at some aspects of their design which are sustainable.


In most cases, watches are built to last.  At the premium end, they are likely to last many generations, and in a lot of cases, with a timeless (excuse the pun!) design.  At the other end of the scale, I can personally testify that the Casio watch above will last 10+ years, and keeps perfect time!

Repairs and servicing

Where a watch is battery-powered, almost all can have the battery replaced at low cost.  We take this for granted of course, but perhaps helps us realise why it's so peculiar that our smartphones and tablets are unlikely to support this (yet).  Another part of the watch which can sometimes wear out is the strap, but of course, in most cases, these can be replaced.

More expensive watches can be serviced, where the internal mechanism is serviced to maintain its precision.  Spare parts are available to support this.

Secondary Markets

As watches are built to last, they retain their value well, so there's a well-established second-hand market.  This might be through jewellers, or eBay.  People very rarely throw out watches.

Emotional connection

People have an emotional connection with their watch.  It may have been given to them by a special friend or relative, it might have been something they've saved up for, and it's likely to be with them during the highs and lows which life throws at them.  This special relationship with a watch may have started as a child in their formative years, as it might have been a 'grown-up present' which was cherished far more than some toys.  I'm not suggesting adults still sport their Mickey Mouse or Transformers watches, but I bet they still have them somewhere (and they probably still work!)

Smart Watches

We are starting to see smart watches appear now - do these pose a challenge to sustainability?

Apple Smart Watch

Superficially, if we group them with smartphones and tablets, we might dismiss them (and of course they need a lot more energy to run than a traditional watch).  But, interestingly, they do retain some qualities which are positive:
  • They're expensive!
  • The emotional connection can still be made
  • They can be upgraded (via software, new straps, etc.)
Time will tell (another pun) if they have the durability of other watches, or as new models come onto the market, whether they are discarded like smartphones.  But if you look at Apple's website, they do give the impression they are designed to last.

*UPDATE: January 2015* BLOCKS are developing a modular smartwatch, with links in the strap allowing 'pick and mix' functionality.  Let's hope it incorporates the sustainability aspects of a traditional watch too.

Blocks modular watch concept

*UPDATE: January 2015* According to 9to5mac.com, Apple's upcoming Smartwatch may have mediocre battery life.  If only it were user-swappable!

Lessons in sustainable design

So, to summarise, when we look at watches as sources of sustainable design inspiration, we should remember to develop products which:
  • are inherently durable
  • are 'cushioned' from the aggressively cyclical end of fashion
  • can be repaired and/or upgraded
  • the user is likely to form an emotional connection with (perhaps from childhood?)
  • allow the retailer to derive long-term service-based revenues from, e.g. servicing, second-hand sales, helping them move away from a 'sell and forget' consumerism approach

25 November 2014

Hydrogen - an answer to pollution in cities?

For automotive transport, hydrogen power is one possible answer to the huge challenge of cities looking to control their pollution levels - producing tailpipe emissions of water.  But, other than a couple of small scale pilots, the odd bus and taxi funded by a couple of technology grants, the technology isn't going anywhere is it?  Well, car manufacturers seem to think differently, with a recent push for production-ready models being introduced.  In parallel to this, researchers have found potential for the 'wonder material' graphene to potentially support hydrogen fuel cell development.

Below, I'll introduce a selection of hydrogen cars, a reference to public transport solutions, the refuelling infrastructure, and where the hydrogen comes from.

The Car's the Star...

Here's a selection of cars which are powered by Hydrogen now (in alphabetical order).  Some were launched in the last five years, but interestingly,  recent motor shows (especially LA) have seen a bit of a proliferation, which is encouraging that R&D spend is being spent on commercialising the technology.

Most cars have carbon-fibre reinforced hydrogen storage tanks onboard (refilled in as little as 3 minutes).  The hydrogen is then mixed with air (oxygen specifically) in a fuel cell (the clever bit with a catalyst), which generates energy to power an electric motor to the drivetrain.  Additional batteries may provide the ability to capture the energy from braking.

Audi A7 h-Tron

Audi A7 h-tron

  • 228bhp
  • carbon-fibre hydrogen tanks
  • four wheel drive
  • low-temperature proton exchange membrane (LT PEM) fuel cell stack
  • Range up to 311 miles
  • Platinum catalyst
  • Incorporates a plug-in 8.8kW/h lithium-ion battery to improve range further 
  • 0-62mph in 7.8 seconds

More information on Autocar's website here.

BMW Hydrogen 7

BMW Hydrogen 7

BMW have made 100 Hydrogen 7 cars available to 'leading figures in the world' (seems mine has got a little waylaid).

*UPDATE* Dec 18th 2014 - BMW have confirmed they are continuing to invest in Hydrogen (in partnership with Toyota) - see Autocar for more information.

Honda FCV

Honda FCV
  • Successor to the FCX Clarity
  • Expected 2016 release
  • 300+ mile range (Honda hope!)
  • 3-5 minute refueling time
More information here.

Hyundai ix35 FCEV

  • Plans to manufacture 1000 vehicles by 2015
  • 369 mile range, on 3 minutes fuelling

More information here.

Mercedes B-Class F-CELL

Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL

  • 200 vehicles were delivered to customers in December 2010

More information here.

Toyota Mirai

Toyota Mirai
In 1997, Toyota changed the rules of the game, by introducing the Prius.  Well, it's at it again, so we should probably take this pretty seriously - the Mirai.

To attract motorists on the West Coast of the US, they have developed a pretty impressive microsite - check it out here.

*UPDATE - Jan 2015* Toyota have opened their fuel-cell patents to others

Volkswagen Golf SportWagen HyMotion

VW Hymotion

  • Uses a low-temperature proton exchange membrane (LT-PEM) - presumably very similar to their sister group Audi use in the A7 h-tron, above
Some more details from Autocar here.


Back in 2010, Volvo announced work to develop the C30 DRIVe Electric to incorporate a hydrogen fuel cell, to help extend the range.

Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric
More information here.

Public Transport is joining in...


For London 2012 Olympics, five iconic black cabs were launched, powered by hydrogen.  Here's a (not that exciting!) video showing them:

They were refuelled at Heathrow, and used to take dignitaries into London.  Apparently, they have a range of 250mph, and one has been as fast as 95mph on a test track.


Transport for London (TfL) runs a fleet of 8 hydrogen buses on its tourist-friendly RV1 bus route:

RV1 Hydrogen Bus, London

More information can be found here from the 2010 press release.  This of course misses the subsequent news that the buses were temporarily withdrawn from the route during the London 2012 Olympics, as part of a hazardous materials ban.

Refuelling Infrastructure

Of course, having hydrogen vehicles is only part of the puzzle, you also need viable options to refuel them (much like the current 'range anxiety' issues with EVs).  For the UK though, there is some good progress:

*UPDATE - January 2015* In Japan, Tokyo's making investments in hydrogen infrastructure ahead of the 2020 Olympics, in helping reduce its reliance on Nuclear.  As reported by Bloomberg, they are hoping to build 35 refueling stations, and have 6000 hydrogen cars on the road by then.

But where does the Hydrogen come from?

Having tailpipe emissions of just water is pretty attractive, especially in cities like London, which are under incredible pressure to reduce their emissions.  However, it's important that any environmental impact isn't just externalised somewhere else, namely at the point of hydrogen manufacture.

Hydrogen is of course everywhere, in fact it's earth's most abundant element.  The snag is that it tends to hang-around pretty closely with its other element friends, and it takes a fair bit of energy to separate them.  So, the trick is to be able to isolate it, and store it safely.  There are a few options (taken from Toyota's helpful site):

  • Gasification - high temperature organic waste
  • Steam reforming - high temperature reaction between methane (natural gas). and steam
  • Electrolysis - passing current through water, to separate hydrogen and oxygen

Some of these sources aren't free of emissions, so there needs to be an ongoing push to source the energy needed from low-carbon sources, else we won't have delivered a net environmental benefit.  And on that note, it's worth celebrating a UK first, courtesy of Honda, who have recently launched a solar-powered hydrogen production and refuelling facility on their Swindon site - what an incredible achievement!

Honda's hydrogen production and refuelling facility

19 November 2014

Will climate change help clothing retailers hit a circular target?

One of the main challenges to the sustainability of our environment is consumerism. Fuelled by cheap credit, a key sector which relies and exploits this phenomenon is clothing retail.  This blog will argue that although some clothing retailers are proactively tackling some key sustainability issues, there is an elephant in the room - retailers want you to buy more of their clothes.  This, I'm afraid, is a nut which needs to be cracked before retailers can proudly talk about taking a leadership position on sustainability. And if they get this right, mindsets of consumers can change, and we might see a change in behaviours impacting other sectors too.  Re-writing a business model isn't easy (ok, as an incumbent, it's almost impossible), but in this case, climate change may be a useful nudge.

Sustainability for clothing retailers today

In a very simple model, we can look at clothing retailers as sitting between their upstream supply chain (making the clothes), and the consumers downstream (who buy lots of clothes):

A simplified 'value chain' for clothing retail

I've applied a simple 'RAG status' against each area to grossly generalise where the sector is progressing well, and where there's much more to do:

GREEN - Clothing Retail (own operations)

Leading clothing retailers have realised that resource efficiency is a good thing - for meeting regulation, reducing operational costs, and enhancing reputation.  This is fine, but is expected behaviour now, so meeting targets like the following are expected (by me!):
  • Ongoing reductions in (scope 1 and 2) carbon footprint - e.g. emissions associated with running stores and fleets of owned transport; new (ok, not that new) technologies like LED lighting and store refit programmes should deliver ongoing savings - and there's a business case in cost savings there for the taking
  • Zero waste to landfill.  Helped with proactive reuse and recycling, and as a last resort, waste-to-energy conversion
  • Low-carbon stores - either as new build, or significant retrofit, but acknowledged to be challenging for some older estates
  • On-site/near-site energy generation - PV, etc.
  • Minimising net water use (use of water harvesting from roofs, etc.)

 AMBER - Supply Chain / manufacturing

The conditions of supply chains is frequently under the spotlight, and rightly so. NGOs have been incredibly effective in highlighting problems in developing countries to western consumers, and things are improving - take the 'Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh' following the Rana Plaza disaster as a good example.  I don't think any retailer is complacent about this area, and acknowledges robust auditing through multiple layers of organisations is not watertight.  Typical targets include:
  • workers' rights (hours, conditions, pay, etc.)
  • pollution control in factories
  • increased use of fair-trade /sustainably-sourced materials
  • zero tolerance on child labour
If you're interested in this area, check out Honestby, who have taken supply chain transparency to a refreshing new level!

RED - Consumer

Some retailers are engaging with their consumers around sustainability, and helping shift behaviours, e.g. providing collection points for unwanted clothes.  But, for the vast majority of retailers, they're pretty keen on you buying as much as you can, each time you shop. The reality is that the business-as-usual metrics (or KPIs) retailers run their stores businesses on include:
  • Sales per square foot of selling space
  • Footfall (number of people going into stores)
  • Average Basket size (number of items / value of items in typical transaction)
So, simply put, they want to maximise the value of every square foot of retailer space, by getting as many people through the door, and nudging them into buying as much as possible.  Doesn't sound too environmentally sustainable does it?  

Hang on a minute though, a clothing retailer might argue that they do take sustainability seriously (see green and amber areas above).  "...And sure, we like to sell lots of clothes, but then customers love buying and wearing our clothes, shareholders are happy, bonuses are paid out, we're proud of our Christmas ads, and we're better than the competition." Happy days... or is it?

Where does climate change fit into this?

Traditionally, clothing retail (in the UK) has relied on a couple of concepts around our seasons:
  • Predictable seasonality
  • That each repeat season, fashion trends will mean consumers want to replace items with the latest version (even if they don't necessarily need to)
Whether you believe there's a link between climate change and extreme weather, or whether climate change is caused by human action, there's no doubt that weather patterns are becoming more volatile, triggering various impacts for clothing retail:
  • It is much more difficult to plan merchandising, e.g. should the Autumn/Winter range go into stores in September, October, November December, etc.?  And when should discounting start, when stock can't be shifted, e.g. what if there's a 'cold snap' in April after a mild March?
  • Virgin cotton price volatility, as extreme weather impacts crop yields
  • Global supply chains exposed when extreme weather impacts key logistics routes
  • National deliveries to stores (or to homes) exposed to UK's weather, e.g. flooding
  • Consumer appetite to visit the traditional High Street in poor weather (offset partly by online, of course)
This may or may not be a boardroom issue (I expect, as it's a gradual shift over many years, it may not be yet, but I expect we'll see more and more press releases like this one), but forward-thinking retailers might consider how the circular economy can help them adapt. Could we see a world where clothing retailers combine climate change mitigation and adaptation sustainability strategies?

The Circular Economy for clothing retailers

Lots has been written about the Circular Economy (I even had a go back in 2012 before the name was introduced), and I'm a huge fan of the concept.  For clothing it's so much more than recycling bins in stores though (albeit this helps highlight the huge problem of clothing going to landfill and nudge customer behaviour in the right direction).  It ideally needs to tackle business models and service design from the ground-up.  For clothing retailers, this is a real challenge of course, as it means moving away from selling as much new clothing as possible, to a model where revenue streams come from other routes.  But there are some notable examples which are demonstrating some real innovation:

There is also an increasing number of upcycling initiatives, which help provide a second life for what might otherwise be a waste stream going to landfill:
  • Timberland are partnering with a tyre manufacturer
  • Nike upcycling plastic bottles into football jerseys (video)
Note, there's a bit of a blur between whether these are clothing manufacturers who retail, or retailers who manufacture.  But it's quite insightful when thinking of corporate strategies that having control of manufacturing operations is a key enabler.

The way forward for clothing retail

So, we've identified that clothing retailers are doing some great work reducing the environmental impact of their own operations (and reducing costs), and that most are tackling the social and environmental challenges in their supply chains.  But we've also acknowledged that whilst the existing 'sell lots of new clothes' business model still pervades, a societal shift away from consumerism won't work.

We've also seen that climate change may introduce the need for adaptation as well as mitigation, so this introduces another nudge to think differently.

So, rather than the traditional retail metrics, and the set of sustainability metrics to minimise impacts on own operations, I'd like to see retailers challenge themselves with a new set of targets.  Here are some ideas to stimulate some thinking:

  • 25% of clothing sales are for 'previously loved' clothes (with a % of proceeds to charity)
  • 5% of floorspace is for clothing repairs/alterations/cleaning
  • 50% of stock items (SKUs) are sold for at least three seasons/years
  • 30% of stock items (SKUs) are manufactured from reclaimed yarn (or maybe a larger proportion of stock items are manufactured with a high proportion of reclaimed yarn)
  • All new clothes are durably designed, so that they can come with a 12 month no quibble guarantee (could a stitched-in 'manufactured on mm/yyyy' label become a badge of honour?)
  • You can rent infrequently used items, maybe a suit and tie, or a handbag, perhaps even hosting peer-to-peer sharing like rentez-vous
  • Stores become a hub for the community - floorspace is offered for library, adult education, local clubs...
The business model needs to explore:
  • Revenue diversification and driving brand loyalty through services (not new products)
  • Increased vertical integration upstream with clothing manufacturing

Within the next two years, it would be great to see some/all of these concepts at least trialled in existing stores - there's a reputational prize for such an investment, even if the financial rewards aren't immediate.

A sign outside a store in Boston, US