Andrew Winston - What Sustainability Should Learn from Steve Jobs



In less than three months, we have offered our readers the opportunity to discover already two of the most fascinating sustainability advisors (Ed Gillespie and Burak Cakmak), each one on a very different topic. Now we add up Andrew Winston to this incredible “Sustainability Dream Team”. Andrew has inspired us in many ways. He promotes concrete business solutions and disruptive/heretical innovation with a view to making business models truly sustainable and profitable.

Funnily, while we were thinking of interviewing Andrew, he actually came out with a very thoughtful and meaningful text on Steve Jobs. Before reading Andrew’s comments, we did not intend to speak about Steve Jobs’ passing away at all as there was already too much media noise. In addition, each commentator’s reaction probably did not say much about Steve Jobs himself but rather defined the commentator’s state of mind as perfectly expressed in John Purkiss’ blog: “What your view of Steve Jobs says about you” (you can learn more about John in the interview we published on June 7, 2011)

Last, we felt that Steve Jobs, despite being a genius and incredible innovator, had lacked vision and audacity when it came to making his companies and products sustainable. Andrew came up with a much more positive and challenging view, which we publish below.

Enjoy the reading, discover more about Andrew with the links in the appendix and we look forward to your mindful comments.

Thanks a lot / Merci!

Jardins Florian


by Andrew Winston

The passing of Steve Jobs was in no way surprising – we knew it had to be serious for him to leave the company he loved. But it’s still a shock that we’re robbed of his brain and all the amazing things that he would have invented.

I had always hoped that this once-in-a-generation genius would turn his prodigious mental powers to solving the world’s largest challenges. Imagine a Jobs-designed, must-have iCar that people would want as badly as an iPad…Or an iHome that uses drastically less energy with its iFridge and iWasher…Or how about an iCity or iTrain to tackle urban design and transportation challenges?

We’ll never get those products from Jobs, so other innovators will have to fill the void. But there is one incredibly important lesson that sustainability-minded leaders can learn from Jobs’ legacy: you should lead your customers and show them a better way.

Steve Jobs did not ask people if they could use a tablet computer. In fact, in a long list of amazing quotes from the man, one of the most powerful is this: "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

Before the iPad came out, plenty of pundits asked why anyone would really need a tablet. After all, laptops were fairly small already and we had connectivity and games on our phones. Why add this midsize device to our lives? Steve Jobs made us want to.

In my experience, most large companies today are “fast followers” – a strategy that has seemingly lower risk for a public company. But just look at the playing field littered with tablet computer also-rans to see how expensive second-place can be. And yet it still seems like the preferred (or default) approach for most companies.

This fiscal and strategic conservatism breeds a culture where execs prefer to wait and talk to customers before doing anything drastic. Of course customer (and other stakeholder) perspectives are critical. But as with tablet computers, when it comes to sustainability, often the customers don’t really know what they need.

Companies often gather data on what their business customers think a sustainable product should be, and the survey might show that including recycled material is important, even if that’s a tiny part of the real footprint story. Nobody knows the value chain of your product and service as well as you do (or if someone else does, get them in the room pronto). So figure out where the impacts really lie and what you can do to reduce your customer’s footprint in ways they hadn’t considered. This might require asking heretical questions about whether the product should even exist in its current form or should be converted into more of a service.

Do most people think they need a hybrid car, or would they even imagine that they’d share a car using a service like ZipCar? Probably not, but if the experience can be made fun and profitable enough, perhaps they will. The Toyota Prius has sold well, in part, because it did some exciting new things (ran quiet on no gas at times) in a familiar midsize car framework, much like the iPad looked like a big iPhone but could do so much more.

I wish I could come up with more examples of companies truly leading with sustainable products. It’s a sparse field for now, but that will change. The next generation’s Steve Jobs will most likely focus on sustainability since that’s where the largest challenges and business opportunities lie. Consider the case of William Kamkwamba, a boy from rural Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. At 14, this self-taught “Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” built a working wind turbine from scraps. He’s now at Dartmouth College.

The world contains some true innovators. Will our big companies find these leaders and harness them…or be brought down by them? I know which one I’d pick if I were normally a “fast follower.”

Here’s hoping we find the next Steve Jobs quickly, someone who can bring us green things we never knew we wanted so badly. Rest in peace, Steve.

Andrew Winston



Andrew Winston advises some of the world’s leading companies on how to profit from environmental thinking.  He is a globally recognized expert and speaker on the business benefits of going green.

With a background in consulting (BCG), media (Time Inc., Viacom), and dot-coms, today Andrew is dedicated to helping companies both large and small use environmental strategy to grow, create enduring value, and build stronger relationships with employees, customers, and other stakeholders. His clients have included Bank of America, Bayer, HP, Pepsi, Boeing, and IKEA.

Andrew is the author of Green Recovery a strategic plan for using environmental thinking to survive hard economic times. He is also co-author of the international best-seller Green to Gold, which profiles companies going 'green' and highlights what works -- and what doesn't. He served as the Director of the Corporate Environmental Strategy Project at Yale University's renowned School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Andrew appears regularly in major media such as The Wall Street JournalTimeBusinessWeekThe New York Times, and CNBC. He is also a highly respected and dynamic speaker, reaching audiences of thousands of people around the world and acting as a practical evangelist for the benefits of going green. He also writes extensively on green business strategy, including a weekly column for Harvard Business Online, regular pieces on Huffington Post, and a monthly strategy e-letter, Eco-Advantage Strategies.

Andrew received his BA in Economics from Princeton, an MBA from Columbia, and a Masters of Environmental Management from Yale. 

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Video: We invite you to listen to Andrew in one of his many videos where you can appreciate his engaging, precise and clear tone. Here he is interviewed by Harvard Business Publishing on Green Recovery: “Get Lean, Get Smart, Emerge from the Downturn on Top”

Various articles on Steve Jobs/Apple questionable sustainability approach: John Elkington for the Guardian / Global Changemakers / Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media / The Business of a Better World 

This article is reposted with the permission of the author.