Innovation and Sustainability: Ethics and Efficiency

Philips announced a few months ago that sales ofgreen productsaccounted for 51% of its total revenue last year. Similarly, the Siemens environmental portfolio brought in 43%, while General Electric reported that 19% of the group’s earnings came from “clean energy.”

It is a good sign that the ratio of green products is on the rise, considering that up until a few years ago people didn’t even know what a “green product” was. This increase is the result of ethical and efficient innovation.

11 turbines E-126 7,5MW wind farm Estinnes Belgium. Author: Melipal1
11 turbines E-126 7,5MW wind farm Estinnes Belgium. Author: Melipal1

A Trailblazing Industry

In the energy sector, some great pioneers such as those mentioned above offer a wide range of “green” products and services:

  • LED Bulbs
  • Generators, electrical transformers, energy distributors with less power dissipation
  • Wind turbines
  • Solar power transformers
  • Marine energy
  • Optimizations in the use of hydropower
  • Wind and solar farms

These are some examples of energy efficiency, a commitment to renewable energy, along with a consequent decrease in the emission of CO2.

However, to get to this point where innovation has led companies to overhaul their product portfolio, we have evolved by churning through different stages and incorporating new ideas and concepts:

  • Those of us who studied engineering in the ’60s heard about logical theories of efficiency: getting the job done using the least possible energy. However, I do not recall anyone mentioning the environment. One professor said that “fireplaces are a symbol of progress.” That was the prevailing mindset at the time.
  • In the so-called “energy crisis” of the ’70s, we learned that available energy sources were scarce and that we need to avoid wasting energy. Consultants made a fortune designing energy saving plans.
  • In the late ’80s, the concept of sustainability emerged, which reflected people’s concern for future generations and the need for sustainable development that includes making responsible use of resources, preventing pollution, minimizing waste and promoting recycling.
  • Since then, the idea of global warming has led to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and, along those lines, it is now common to talk about the carbon footprints of products being sold as a quantitative element, symbolically linked with the idea of the responsible enterprise.

The furthering of these concepts has fostered innovation aimed at not only creating useful products with lower energy consumption, but also developing new, less-polluting technologies, optimizing the use of fossil fuels, making nuclear power plants safer and using renewable resources.

Green products portfolio. Source: Philps
Green products portfolio. Source: Philps

The central role of ethics

From the ethical point of view, it is plausible to leverage available resources more effectively, stop polluting and take advantage of renewable energy. Living with a sense of stewardship — not as despotic rulers of the natural environment — is an ethical demand that becomes an eye opener when we discover that the means we have are actually a gift, and that we are not the absolute owners of them.

Concern for the common good also leads to nurturing of the natural environment, to make it more human so that it may continue to contribute to life on our planet. And all the while focusing on the current and future population.

It can be argued that “green products” are more expensive. But that is not always true; such an assertion needs to be qualified. A washing machine may be more expensive but save on power consumption, making it worthwhile economically. The same can be said about LED lamps. Meanwhile, eco-awareness is catching on and it is not unusual to find consumers clamoring for technologies with a lower carbon footprint.

The initial news is that there are companies investing in “green” R&D by betting on a more human future in which they also profit. Their goal is to innovate ethically and efficiently: Awesome! But, are all companies like this? How can skeptics be convinced? What contribution can be made by the media and environmental education? Are more legal obligations needed?


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