Simple and elegant solutions to complex environmental problems



If your goal is to let astronauts write in deep space, you could spend millions of dollars researching, designing, and prototyping pens that will work without gravity—or you could simply hand out a box of pencils. Maybe they could even be special pencils that make a deeper, darker writing imprint and don\’t fade quickly (such pencils already exist).

Just as in the space program, in the world of complex environmental problems, the best solution is often surprisingly simple and very elegant. And we as green business people need to find those solutions, bring them to consumers—and market their benefits.

The massive consumer products company Procter & Gamble understood this concept and has capitalized on it. Company engineers realized that one of the biggest consumers of energy in households is heating water, and one of the largest uses of hot water is laundry. You could attack that problem with complex solutions such as heating the water with solar systems — or you could market a detergent that works perfectly well in cold water.

P&G chose the latter course, and developed Tide Coldwater, which it actively markets both as a green product to the green market, and as a money-saving product for the general consumer market. If you visit on a Flash-enabled computer, the first thing you get is a calculator that allows US residents to figure out exactly how much they\’d save by washing in cold water, state by state, according to their own laundry habits.

Of course, you don\’t really need Tide Coldwater for these savings. I find that my clothes come out just fine in cold water, using a store brand high-efficiency liquid detergent. But P&G\’s marketing for this brand has focused heavily on the green benefits, and they are reaching a lot of people who had been using hot water to wash.

But the big lesson here is the simple and elegant solution. For the average householder, it\’s going to be far cheaper to reduce water heating energy by 30 percent or so than to install a greener hot water system. For tenants who would never pony up a big capital investment to improve a property they don\’t own, cold-water washing is an extremely sensible choice.

In my latest book, Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green, I discuss in some detail the work of two practical visionaries who are really good at solving complex problems with simple elegance: John Todd and Amory Lovins.

Decades before most people had ever heard of concepts like \”zero waste\” and \”cradle-to-cradle,\” Todd grasped the simple and elegant concept that the waste from one production process could almost always be raw material for another one. And you can create an ecosystem of several of these processes layered together. Thus, spent grain at a brewery turns out to be a perfect growing medium for commercial mushroom production, and that in turn generates a very nice fish food. He has used this single insight to develop biological systems that actually clean and restore polluted wetlands, rivers, and lakes. Another of his innovations in water purification is a simple tube running through the desert that uses the natural range of temperature conditions to sterilize safe drinking water in a refugee camp, no chemicals needed.

For Lovins, the three simple and elegant ideas are:
1) You can design for such deep conservation that you don\’t need to buy big expensive systems like furnaces and air conditioners—and the savings on these capital costs, along with the savings on energy, pay for the improvements. He has designed homes that didn\’t need heating or air conditioning in climates ranging from the deep-winter Colorado Rocky Mountains (where his own 1983 home is a showplace for what\’s possible) to places where temperatures exceeding 100°F/40°C are common.
2) Enormous amounts of energy is wasted in transmission losses. If you generate power where you need it, you need considerably less than if you transport it across great distances.
3) One design component can achieve multiple purposes.

Here are a few more examples of simple elegance addressing other environmental issues:

  • Pole-mounted solar collectors allow the ground underneath them to be used for agriculture
  • Bicycles, bike trailers, pedicabs, and all the other variations on pedal-powered transport of people and goods
  • Small-space \”vertical gardens\” let apartment-dwellers grow their own food in about one square meter/square yard
  • The simple mesh nets we use to keep birds from devouring our berry crops—no pesticides needed or wanted.

Each of these is a huge market opportunity for pioneering green entrepreneurs.

Shel Horowitz, shel at, shows you how to “reach green, socially conscious consumers with marketing that has THEM calling YOU.” He writes the monthly Green And Profitable column and is the primary author of the award-winning book Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green (John Wiley & Sons).