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A lost opportunity

There is an old saying that when handed lemons, one should look at the situation as an opportunity to make lemonade. That's also the message conveyed by Hartmut Esslinger, founder of frog design Inc., a high-profile industrial design firm known for its work with Apple and other big-name manufacturers.

Esslinger feels the lemons-to-lemonade argument is particularly appropriate for “green” topics. Legislation mandating more efficient operations and cleaner technology should be viewed not as constraints to be fought against but as avenues by which companies can prosper. The classic example, he says, is the situation in which domestic automakers found themselves in 1990. That's when the California Air Resources Board adopted regulations that mandated some number of cars sold in California be zero-emission vehicles. The Big Three vehemently protested and tried to water down this measure, with moral support from the federal government. After a lot of lobbying effort and political posturing, the legislation got diluted to the point of irrelevancy.

Wrong approach, says Esslinger. This was a golden opportunity for the Big Three in disguise. They should have embraced the situation and used the California mandate as a rationale for creating a new market in innovative clean vehicles.

It's safe to say the industrial history of the U.S. would have been quite different over the past two decades if domestic automakers had adopted Esslinger's way of thinking. Of course, it takes a certain kind of outlook to recognize when current difficulties have an upside. Even Esslinger himself admits Detroit didn't have the right culture in place to design and launch such revolutionary products. For example, Ford Motor Co.'s early attempt at electric vehicle was realized through its TH!NK effort, run through a firm Ford acquired in Norway. Started in the 1990s, it ended up producing only a handful of cars. Ford dumped the company in 2003.

Fast forward to today and mandates of a different sort are making headlines. Big retailers, most notably Walmart, are dictating that suppliers answer questions about their use of resources. Congress has mandated use of more efficient induction motors. California's Energy Commission has set energy use limits for TV sets. Companies on the receiving end of these prescriptions may feel that lemons are being lobbed their way. But many lemons, much opportunity.

In his book called A Fine Line, Esslinger uses his experiences creating innovative products to convey a few observations about how to develop successful yet sustainable goods that might capitalize on the good fortune of stricter regulations. The most innovative products, he reminds us, convert technology and market knowledge into things that are emotionally compelling and don't just function better than their predecessors.

Some kinds of super-efficient products do indeed connect on an emotional level, but they tend not to be the least expensive alternatives. On that score, Esslinger claims there's a silver lining to the economic clouds that have rained on manufacturers' parade for the past few years: At least for consumer products, cruddy worldwide conditions have hastened the collapse of most low-cost manufacturing strategies and their “poisonous, boring output of useless stuff that nobody needs or wants.” He also says the growing concern for worker safety and rights in Asia has dimmed the financial outlook for strategies relying solely on cheap labor in that part of the world.

It's a remainder that a product strategy based on energy efficiency is likely to have more staying power than one depending on maximizing short-term profits.

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