Supporting Environmental Sustainability through Frugal Innovations

There is no planet b. This is a climate action slogan. A reminder that we have only this one earth. This perfect planet which grows our food, gives us water, and even manufacturers the air we breathe.  This is it. And we are quickly destroying it. Plastic fills our oceans. There will soon be more of it than fish. Cities are so polluted landmarks are not visible any longer. This is our everyday reality and it isn’t getting better.

Frugal innovations are inherently environmentally sustainable. Environmental concerns in emerging economies are fuelling more frugal innovations. Whether it is a product or a process, frugal innovation is changing our relationships to the environment for the better. 

Impact Hub Vienna defines Frugal Innovation as an innovation process resulting in “high-quality, resource-light and affordable products and services in response to the specific needs of a target group. They address issues that are often underserved, through resource-efficient solutions that are affordable and easily available.”

The relationship between frugal innovation and environmental sustainability is directly stated in the definition. If fewer resources are used to make a product or as a result of a service then, in some measure, the product or process is more environmentally sustainable. As Mathias Weichhart from the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) said, using frugal innovation automatically makes something sustainable because less resources are used when focusing on the features that are really needed. This is a bold statement which also happens to be true.  The scientific and sociological literature is actually very clear on the real and strong partnership between frugal innovation and environmental sustainability, it is even considered “straightforward” by some scholars

So, let’s look at some examples locally and globally where companies are using frugal innovations and increasing their positive environmental impact. 

Environmental Impacts Stemming Directly from Frugal Innovations

Companies the world over, from global furniture giants to Vienna’s own local clothing makers are using frugal innovations. One of the easiest and most visible environmental impacts is waste reduction. It is measurable and visible. Frugal innovations help companies save money by reducing resources used and waste outputs.  

One of the best examples of frugal innovation in media is Ikea. The Swedish furniture manufacturer has been changing their packaging, products, and shipping processes over the last decade so that there are less resources used and less waste.  One of the biggest changes and one of their most famous frugal innovations was the shift from the Expedit shelves to the Kallax. The Expedit was known for its square shelves and chunky frame. But that required a lot of wood for the veneers and chipboard construction.  But it also needed a lot of cardboard for the packaging, which meant a lot of consumer waste.  Ikea designers removed a few centimeters from the chunky frame, making essentially the same product (just a bit shorter and thinner).  The thinner shelves enabled them to use less wood, which saved on material costs (fewer trees were cut down for the wood and to make the cardboard). Considering Ikea uses over 1% of the world’s wood supply, this is significant. But there was still more cost saving (and environmental impacts) to be had. Ikea was able to reduce its shipping carbon footprint as the smaller design meant more Kallax shelves could be shipped at one time.  It is amazing the savings, both fiscally and environmentally, the reduction of a centimeter or two can make.  

Waste reduction immediately brings to mind consumer waste, like fast fashion and electronics. Circular economies are a frugal innovation and a waste reduction process.  Companies can expend fewer resources fixing something rather than designing and shipping an entirely new line. And consumers get to keep a product they love and save money at the same time through repair rather than purchasing new.  

It can be difficult to innovate clothing.  A t-shirt is a t-shirt, after all, the design hasn’t changed since 1898.  So sometimes, it is about using frugal innovations to create new consumer services. Montreet, one of Impact Hub Vienna’s own, and Patagonia both offer repair services for their clothing. Reducing consumer waste by extending the longevity of products. Not a hiker but your company is doing team building on a trail?  Montreet also offers rentals of its clothing. This circular economy approach is a great example of frugal innovation being applied to a business model.  The service saves the consumer money and prevents clothing waste from ending up in a landfill. 

Environmental Drivers for Change 

Some companies start out with an environmental problem.  Like Green Watech, Salma Bouagarrani looked at her home country and saw environmental devastation and a lack of clean drinking water as a result. So, she decided to do something about it, she worked with partners to create a low-tech and low-cost filtration methodology which uses materials from the region.  The system is accessible and maintainable.  It is used to filter the water for 10,000 homes currently and they are expanding

Coal is used to power sugar production in some of the world’s developing economies, and these countries are often the most polluted. The sugar cane is harvested and the leaves and stalks are burnt in the field to make the sugar more accessible. Then the sugar is processed in coal burning plants. The minds behind The Cane Trash Burner offer inexpensive (relatively) factory retrofits to enable producers to burn the biomass for production energy.  The companies doing the processing do not have to purchase coal, saving money, and do not have to use it, saving the environment.  Additionally, the biomass from the leaves and stalks is technically renewable as they will be continually growing more. While this process doesn’t eliminate carbon emissions it certainly reduces them significantly. 

However, sometimes frugal innovations can be applied broadly, from medicine to farming.  AfroBodies set out to make a low-cost and low-tech diagnostic tool for physicians in remote rural locations. It would enable rapid diagnosis. However, what the company has is that and more. There was an added benefit, their nanobodies could be used to test pesticides and other chemicals used to process fresh fruit, easily and inexpensively. Too many or too few chemicals mean the fruit cannot be sold on the international market, which means food waste and environmental waste from land and water use.  And the farmer loses income. If all the fruit can make it to market, it means less land needs to be developed for farming, less water is used, less food waste, and greater income security.  

The environment as a driver for change has led to some of the most flexible and easily implementable frugal innovations. These dynamic start-ups have changed the way we view innovation and their economies made frugality necessary.

New Funding Opportunities for Frugal Innovations 

The “Innovation for a Better World: Advanced Solutions for Sustainable Development” project is here to help organizations navigate these dynamic markets and through funding. The project is a pilot funding scheme on frugal innovation jointly developed by Austrian Development Agency (ADA) and Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) to help organizations from Austria and the Western Balkans make meaningful contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals

The funding packages are substantial for companies in Austria with working partners in the Western Balkans. For projects using innovation processes with significant involvement from key actors and with a maximum cost of €150,000 euros the FFG is offering €75,000 euros for eligible projects. ADA has a generous funding package for eligible projects, at €200,000 or 50% of direct costs. And there are further provisions for feasibility studies.    

Implementing partner Impact Hub Vienna is organizing a final online information session on November 19, 2020, for organizations and individuals who would like to learn more about the project. Each of the three events focuses on one theme that was selected after a series of interviews with stakeholders from the Western Balkans and Austria.

Join the final information session to learn about frugal innovation and its potential for the region, find out more about the project and funding opportunities, ask questions to representatives of ADA and FFG, get feedback on your project ideas, and network with potential partners in Austria and the Western Balkans.  




Jennifer Cornick - Impact Hub Vienna
Jennifer Cornick Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even […]