Innovation and Growth through Sustainability
Plenty of systems we use today once begun on a very small scale, with only a handful of enthusiasts using them. Cut to a few years later, and these same systems have whipped up a storm in their respective industries. Think back to the World Wide Web, which is perhaps the best example of this catapulting. Today, we can’t imagine the world without the web — indeed, we wouldn’t be able to write to you about it, without it.
Sustainability is also expected to follow a similar trajectory, and I am inclined to agree.
Sustainability has been a “nice to have” for many years and was the mark of good citizens and conscious planet advocates. More recently though, many businesses are looking at sustainability as an essential part of their functioning, often dedicating departments and teams to CSR and environment-friendly undertakings.
That’s grown into organizations correctly identifying the positive effects of their commitment on revenue and brand value. Indeed, other organizations have made sustainability the crux of their products and services — building around it instead of accommodating it at a later stage.
So how can we expect sustainability-led innovation to pan out?
Sustainability is a rich source of innovation
Many firms survived the dot-com boom of 2000 by innovating in advance and indirectly threatening incumbents. We can similarly expect sustainable enterprises to rise from the ashes of today’s slowdown to change the status quo.
Sustainability has catapulted on the list of goals driving companies today — and it’s about time, too, considering we’re in a critical decade where every organizational and individual action can make or break our very existence.
Introducing design constraints
Sustainability has the power to shape our future products and services, and how much (or little) of our key resources they use. These key resources usually are water, energy, carbon, land, and materials. It’s worth noting that all products use these resources directly or indirectly — so to ask the question “how can we design this product or service to use absolutely none of our key resources?” is altogether another level of constraint to fuel innovation and creativity. Again, it goes back to building around sustainability, rather than building sustainability into something.
A lot of organizations looking to broach sustainability end up shying away because surface-level research maintains that it is expensive. But that’s not the whole picture. Choosing to take an environmentally friendly route, and create planet-friendly products or services, is shown to lower costs. This is because companies reduce the number of inputs they use. They’re also able to reduce their dependency on key resources and aren’t as affected by sudden economic shocks or price volatility. Taking the slightly harder route not only means good clean offerings, but it also means richer top and bottom-lines.
Creating the next best practices
To paraphrase a cliché, the future is shaped by what we do in the past. To develop the next generation of innovations is to first question the current assumptions behind every service or product. In the context of sustainability, these assumptions could look like:
- We have the fossil fuels we need to run our factory (but will we have it in 5 years?)
- Unethical practices fuel many normalized services and products we use today (so what can we do to change that?)
- Plastic is harmful, but we have no alternatives currently (so what do we do to create them?)
Granted, some similar questions can feel ridiculous, because we’ve followed these practices for decades. But that’s the spirit of innovation: to ask all the ridiculous questions because somewhere, there’s the seed of an idea that’ll change the game in the next few years.
There’s also the matter of new ideas emerging at the intersection of industries we previously thought were separate and distinct. Who’d have thought the internet and energy management could collaborate? Yet today, we have the smart grid, which uses digital technology to manage power generation and distribution while reporting lower costs and significantly more efficient use of energy. Could we ever have imagined that the millions of plastic bottles we throw away every year could see new lives as—wait for it—clothing? Patagonia did, way back in 1993. Look at how they’re doing now.
Tips on taking the first step towards innovation through sustainability
In all honesty, the first step depends on your industry, processes, products, and services. But the pre-steps, as it were, are something literally any company can consider working on. Here are a few tips on that front:
Change happens from the top
When we’re talking about enterprise-wide initiatives, it is worth noting that higher management’s inclination on fully embracing sustainability can change the game. When top management decides they want to focus on the root cause—and not on the symptoms or perceptions alone—then change often happens rapidly.
Take GE, for example. In 2004, CEO Jeff Immelt set the company to educating themselves about critical environmental issues. Their strategy, ecomagination, strove to power innovation and returns by taking the environmental bull—energy efficiency and harmful impacts—by its horns. Within five years, they saw a whopping $18 billion in revenues from that scheme alone. Today, they’re unmatched leaders in several industries.
The right team makes a world of difference
Social and environmental responsibility is strongly sought after by new recruits, especially in the younger generations. A company’s position on pressing issues—such as climate change, diversity, and inclusion—can be a critical deciding factor for them. Naturally, it means companies can’t afford to ignore them.
If you intend to take bold steps in the direction of sustainability, or want to uproot old practices for better ones, there’s nothing like the right-minded team to help you along the journey. It goes beyond having teams that do the work and considers their individual stances and commitment to the cause. Conversely, companies that adopt sustainable practices and approaches will find themselves attracting like-minded top talent who don’t need to be inducted into the ideology because they already share it.
Try long-sighted vision on for size
The paradox of enjoying the returns of sustainability is that they’re not immediate. This little revelation has a history of deterring organizations, leaving them stuck in the quagmire of unhealthy and unsustainable practices. When you’re creating a sustainable strategy, it’s always recommended to look at and beyond the horizon. This way, companies can spot the low-hanging fruit to hit the ground running — and they’re also on the lookout for future risks and opportunities to avoid and take advantage of, respectively.
Take a good hard look at your business
Introspection is difficult, and even more so for massive companies. But it’s a critical factor in understanding where your company currently stands on the sustainability spectrum. Only then will you be able to take steps smartly, and in the right direction.
EcoMatcher is committed to the cause of innovation and growth through sustainability; technology and transparency are always at the forefront of our efforts. We’re equally invested in helping our partners capture low-hanging fruit and creating an environmentally friendly culture.