What is Sustainable Innovation?

It makes sense that sustainability and innovation go together naturally in business

Hand with a green lightbulb.
The best innovations leave the earth better than they found it.

With individuals and businesses becoming more concerned about and involved in sustainability issues, innovation has embraced sustainability more fully in recent years. So closely intertwined are the two concepts that today’s sustainability leaders are 400 percent more likely to be considered innovation leaders compared to non-sustainability leaders, as you can see in our downloadable infographic on the topic.

What does “sustainable innovation” mean? In many ways, it means traditional innovation boosted and driven by concern for resources and the environment. Businesses are embracing the idea that resources shouldn’t be used faster than they are replenished, and that waste generation shouldn’t exceed the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. This belief is driving new innovations across industries.

Three Ways Sustainable Innovation Transcends Ordinary Innovation

Compared to most types of innovation, sustainable innovation is more disruptive, fueled by a better rationale, and is more collaborative

Sustainable innovation is more disruptive because it is creating entirely new and better business models that make it harder for corporations to defend the status quo. Read more here about the differences between disruptive innovation and incremental change.

It has a stronger rationale because consumers are demanding greater sustainability in the companies that produce the products and services they want. It is also intrinsic to building a strong planet, because any organization that is bent on depleting resources will ultimately lead to a plundered planet. Increasing commodity prices and the development of cleaner technologies are other factors that strengthen the case for sustainable innovation. After all, if we don’t rebalance for sustainability, no one will be able to do business on a dead planet.

Finally, sustainable innovation is more collaborative because it is a cross-discipline concept. Companies must reach out across industries to unlock the value of sustainable innovations. It changes the corporate “value chain” to more of a “value web.”

Sustainable Innovation Is Good Business

Sustainable innovation is good for business in many ways. For one thing, it addresses consumer demand for greater sustainability. With sustainable innovation, businesses achieve economic performance because of (rather than despite) environmentally and socially aware design and operation. The result is a cleaner, healthier, fairer, and more stable world – a higher tide that lifts economic performance across the board. 

Woman standing in triumph with her arms raised.
Sustainable innovation is just plain good business.

Moreover, ignoring the need for sustainability is becoming more difficult. The fact is that population growth and higher levels of waste cause environmental concerns to become more prominent. As these concerns increase, so does the market power of the sustainable business, with non-sustainable businesses ultimately being left behind. 

Some Examples of Sustainable Innovation

Sustainable innovation is happening all around us, and that is something to celebrate. Here are just a few of the many sustainable innovations going on in the world today:

  • The Green Building Initiative (GBI) establishes standard best practices for building new and upgrading existing structures. The ultimate goal is making buildings more resource-efficient, healthier, and environmentally sustainable. 
  • In-store supermarket herb gardens significantly reduce plastic packaging needs for fresh herbs. Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn started using them in 2017. Customers can cut their own herbs in the store and only buy as much as they need.
  • Many types of sustainable plastics are being introduced. Some are not made from petroleum like traditional plastics, and some use carbon-neutral production. One company is making plastics from carbon emissions that would otherwise be released into the air. 
  • The PowWow Energy app is a simple mobile app that notifies farmers when sensors in their irrigation systems indicate problems. It allows farmers to monitor their own water usage data and identify pipe leaks or breaks right away. This way, they can avoid waste while maximizing crop yields. 
  • Joro is like Fitbit for your carbon consumption. It’s an app that sucks in your purchase data and analyzes it for its relative carbon impact so that you can see how much of a footprint that you are leaving behind each day. It also has great features like the ability to immediately offset your flight once you purchase one.
  • UBQ just may save plastic recycling as it automatically transforms unsorted heaps of garbage into re-usable plastic pellets that can be used to make a number of new products.
  • Gates has funded Heliogen which recently hit a new milestone. By using artificial intelligence to direct a field of mirrors to reflect sunlight to generate a heat above 1,000 degrees celsius (about a quarter of the of what you’d find on the surface of the sun). This means we can sustainably generate heat that is used for manufacturing.
  • We are still at the beginning of elecric flight, but Harbour Air’s e-plane has already flown the first fully electric flight.
  • An important aspect of protecting against the worst impacts of climate change is reforestation and protecting those green spaces still left to us. It turns out that drones can plan trees 150 times faster than other methods and Dendra Systems has a goal of planting 500 billion trees!
  • One idea emerged in an IdeaScale challenge: ROCAPET. The recycling of plastic bottles and combining it with processed sand to make a new form of roadway material.

Sustainability and innovation are natural partners because innovation is about making things better in the long term. Check out this post to read more about overcoming barriers to innovation. If you’re ready to put innovation to work and get measurable results, we invite you to download our disruptive innovation infographic.

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