Sustainability for companies – Interview with Samuel Perret

“For us, nothing works without sustainability anymore.”

Samuel Perret is Head of Sustainable Innovation Strategies at our partner office milani in Switzerland.

What does sustainability mean in a company?

Samuel Perret: Simply put, sustainability is the management of responsibility through external effects. Traditionally, sustainability encompasses three areas: Society, environment and economy. What is important for us is a stakeholder approach. That means a systemic view of where and with which involved actors one has an impact through business activities along the entire value chain or across all product life phases. This can be society, people directly or the environment.

You have to talk about these external impact areas within the company. In other terms, up to what point do you want to take responsibility as a company? Companies that are very sustainable see themselves as responsible for a whole range of aspects that are not just related to their core business. But you will start there, of course, because that is where it is most direct.

How does milani support companies in this matter?

SP: We support companies that are at all stages of maturity in terms of awareness of the topic and its implementation. We offer hop-on workshops at the very beginning, in which the first thing is to understand sustainability and bring everyone up to the same level of knowledge. These are followed by a strategy process. This is where areas of responsibility are defined and the company’s own business opportunities are discussed.

It may often be a bit more expensive in the short term but it pays off in the long term. This is also about communication and we help to understand these aspects. In this nine-step strategy process, we lay a solid foundation for a sustainability design project. The design project is a key element of our offering which is then used to start exploratory implementation on an example project, or perhaps the best-selling product.

We have also noticed that companies need something to stabilize sustainability. This involves design guidelines, sustainability guidelines, in other words the anchoring of strategies in the product development and design process. So we offer the whole range from discovering and understanding sustainability, building up strategy foundations, guiding design projects, to stabilizing sustainability.

So the interface with design is the process of how to achieve sustainability in a company?

SP: Yes, we bring together the areas of corporate strategy, sustainability and innovation. That means, on the one hand, we can bring sustainability into the innovation process in line with corporate strategy and vice versa. There are companies that have always worked in innovation processes but they lack the sustainability element. And then there are other companies which probably already have a strong commitment to sustainability but they lack an innovative view of the issue. And that’s where we advise using design methods. That is less industrial design but rather design thinking for innovation processes. And then, we use the appropriate tool depending on the situation.

How did milani get involved in this topic?

SP: The CEO, Britta Pukall, invited me to do a training because she thinks the topic is important. Support from the management are good conditions. After the training, people saw that they should actually take this into account on an ongoing basis from now on. In the meantime, it was firmly anchored in the strategy; for us, nothing works without sustainability anymore. The time is ripe, riper than ever.

A lot has changed in the industrial design world in the last 15 years. The demand pull from customers is also there. We are challenged because some of the customers are already deeply involved into sustainability issues in their specific field. As an external organization, it is in that case a special challenge to provide valuable tips – we like such challenges! But that is of course and unfortunately not yet the majority of companies which are that well-advanced.

Are there examples of models and frameworks that you use?

SP: Yes, there are. The typical and current starting point is the Circular Economy. In the product space, there are the two elements of business models and design principles, both need each other. I cannot design a product without adapting the business model and vice versa. There are different frameworks, and depending on what the specific issue is, we use them. It depends on the product and the ecosystem of the company.

We have also built our own, especially when it comes to sustainability as a field of innovation and the development of business opportunities. Our own milani tool refers to a Korean publication that summarizes 38 design principles related to sustainability. We have slightly adapted this for us and enriched it with examples. It is highly focused on industrial design issues and less on the business model level. We still will be testing it for a while and then certainly present it at WILDDESIGN, so that we have a shared tool. The experiences of both flow in and thus we can support customers efficiently and in an enriching way.

Are there any clues to find out how sustainable a company already is? Where do I start?

SP: Yes, we have a small sustainability check with a few questions on our website. It gives us an overview of where the company stands, where it wants to go and which issues are paramount. This is a very good way for us to start discussions. Of course, there are many other assessments, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals with 17 goals. There are extremely detailed instruments that make sense depending on the situation. I think it is good to start with something very lean which is why we have our own check. It is difficult to make absolute statements, though, because it is a multi-perspective. You have to recognize that and use different assessment and evaluation tools.

Are there any other points of reference where I can get support or information on the subject of sustainability?

SP: It depends on the topic. We are designers, so when it comes to governance issues or internal culture, we are not good at helping. When it comes to optimizing production processes on site, identifying and implementing efficiency measures, we are not the right people for that either. We have a lot of external partners in our network who we call in in such a case. Depending on the topic, you can find good support.

Last question: How can sustainability be implemented specifically in medical design?

SP: The challenge is that the requirements for products are constantly increasing: Standards, safety regulations, but also needs and expectations are becoming increasingly complex and digitalized. That is one side, the other is the use of disposable products. Of course, this runs counter to the idea of sustainability.

For example, we had a project in which a customer asked us to set up a take-back system for a small injector. Then we discovered that the product itself is very complex. When it comes to disposal, we do not know whether it belongs to the medical sector or to electronic waste. That is also the point at which the regulations come into play. Disentangling this complexity and getting a better handle on it is certainly a challenge in the medical field.

Thank you, Samuel, for the interview.

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Lydia writes about design processes and our medical design projects.

Originally written by Lydia Münstermann, 06. August 2021. Last updated 23. April 2023


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