5 tips to create a sustainability-focused innovation culture

A sustainability-focused innovation culture is a mindset that favours the design of products, production and supply-chain processes that take into account the limited nature of the earth resources.

An anti-planned-obsolescence tagline such as “design to last, not for the dump” describes it quite well!

In past posts, I presented why sustainability-focused innovation was the most critical innovation challenge of the 21st century http://wp.me/p2rMHi-5K and large corporate and institutional players initiatives http://wp.me/p2rMHi-6a.

The first step for your organization is to add this dimension to its corporate culture.

Following “common sense” tips might help you succeed:

1 – Green up boards!

Influential shareholders (e.g. pension funds, insurance companies) can lobby for the appointment of board members and senior leaders with a track record of sustainability programs developments.

This list of the 100 most sustainable corporations in the world might help you identify whom to recruit next… http://global100.org/annual-lists/2013-global-100-list.html

global 100 innovation

As well as the shortlist of the sustainability leaders awards: http://www.edie.net/news/5/Congratulations-to-the-Sustainability-Leaders-Awards-finalists-2013/

2 – Add an innovation twist to the sustainability executive committee

A number of large companies have already set up sustainability steering committees. They defined goals around water and energy consumption, CO2 emissions or waste reduction.

Obviously, NGO pressure helped blue chips to take sustainability seriously. Management education now also boosts the understanding of “the triple bottom line concept” (for instance at Kellogg School of Management: http://www.kinglobal.org/about.php).

3 bottom line

However, many middle-size companies still have a journey to begin and baseline environmental performance indicators to gather.

Besides, for many companies, the sustainability dimension, which is both a must for humankind and a growing aspiration of populations, is not yet fully integrated into strategic planning and innovation processes.

A sustainability-focused–innovation executive committee lead by the CEO will ensure more focus and alignment on “innovation with sustainability inside”. It will review sustainability and innovation goals progresses.  It will ensure that both are integrated and that it encompasses all inputs, outputs, projects and functions of the company.

Who should be appointed?

A new dedicated leadership function: the head of sustainability-focused innovation, the heads of marketing, R&D, operations, supply-chain, sourcing, finance, HR and sales.

Nike took some leading steps in that direction: http://www.nikeresponsibility.com/report/content/chapter/our-sustainability-strategy

3 – Launch a centre of sustainability-focused-innovation excellence

A strong leadership team alignment is not sufficient to develop a culture of sustainability-focused-innovation.

It also requires a dedicated and passionate coordination as well as training activities for all functions. Launching an excellence centre is the perfect tool to promote hand in hand sustainability and innovation.

The excellence centre, under the CEO sponsorship, will coordinate the implementation of initiatives, notably in the area of strategic planning, product design, operations and supply-chain.

It can start as a one-man-show with a director level leader in charge of kicking off, communicating and pushing initiatives. It should then expand with a team of experts, champions and project leaders on an ad hoc or permanent basis depending on the projects scale.

4 – Create symbols of pride showcasing your sustainability and innovation mindset

Design and communicate about your innovative, low energy, no waste headquarters, R&D centers, and plants.

Dutch dairy company FrieslandCampina orchestrated a powerful communication campaign with the opening of its sustainable innovation centre by the Dutch Queen. http://www.frieslandcampina.com/english/news-and-press/news/press-releases/2013-10-18-frieslandcampina-innovation-centre-beoordeeld-als-zeer-duurzaam.aspx

News about your green HQ will provide trendy content to the press and bloggers. They will thank you in return with free corporate image improvement that will resonate positively with customers , communities and employees.

UN Headquarter in Copenhagen: http://denmark.dk/en/green-living/sustainable-projects/un-opens-green-headquarters-in-copenhagen/

Spiegel newspaper headquarters in Hamburg: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/design-architecture/der-spiegel-moves-into-new-green-headquarters/1991

Amazon HQ in Seattle: http://www.sustainableindustries.com/articles/2011/03/amazon-responsible-urban-citizen

It will also prevent negative press coverage such as the one generated by the new “old style” Apple HQ: http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2012/03/13/whats-wrong-apples-new-headquarters

Another way to gain free reputation improvement is to obtain independent recognition of your environmental performance such as expert-based GRI ranking (www.globalreporting.org) or consumer-based rankings (http://www.rankabrand.org).

rankabrand5 – Recognize and reward sustainability-focused-innovation projects

As was done with safety (e.g. Safest plant of the year award, entry sign displaying the number of days without injury), initiatives and achievements related to sustainability-focused innovation projects should be acclaimed publicly and incentivized.

BMW for instance pushes and recognizes suppliers’ innovations in sustainability at the BMW innovation awards: http://www.bmwgroup.com/e/0_0_www_bmwgroup_com/verantwortung/lieferkette/nachhaltigkeit.html

bmw innovation awards

Dow on their side organized a large student sustainable innovation award: http://www.dow.com/sustainability/studentchallenge/

I look forwards to hearing about future sustainable-innovation twists to your corporate culture!

Are you generating sustainability-focused innovation around you? (Part 2: WHAT)

WHAT are large players doing around sustainability-focused innovation?

The last post presented why reducing natural resources consumption is certainly the most critical innovation challenge of the 21st century, notably due to the rise of a large urbanized middle-class in emerging countries. http://wp.me/p2rMHi-5K

International organizations began to set a framework, laws and incentives to tackle the most crucial issues around the use of natural resources. This is good news and a must. However, geopolitical negotiations are always a slow and bumpy process…

The UN report on the « post 2015 development agenda » is a good example of the delicate trade-off between the weight of sustainability versus economic development. It describes innovation as essential to generate growth for developing countries but mostly omits the stress of a much larger urbanized middle-class on natural resources.

http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/untaskteam_undf/thinkpieces/28_thinkpiece_science.pdf (Copy-paste and reload the link if the PDF file does not open)

Of course, other more sustainability-focused initiatives are implemented at the institutional level, but will it be enough?

See following links to OECD, UN and NRDC initiatives:





(copy-paste and reload the link if PDF files do not open)

In the private world, some large corporations began to address the natural resources challenges. Sadly, a major part of Corporate sustainability actions are still too often “green washing” or very borderline in terms of real impact (e.g. bioplastic is still mainly based on generation-1-technology, using food-crops for Soda plastic bottles production…)

Hopefully, when CSR and bottom line meet, the earth is also the winner: shortages of raw materials drive up production costs. A lower consumption becomes a must to please shareholders and keep customers, which as a bonus also benefits the whole society.

This is where innovation kicks in for private companies, because they need to rethink their products and their way to do business in general:

Often, they start by redesigning their packaging. They also try to create more compact products. Think about the impact on natural resources when P&G designs concentrated washing powders: production requires less cardboard, plastic, minerals, trees, water and energy. More products can be transported in a single payload, thereby saving on freight cost and Co2 emission rights. P&G improves it’s bottom line as a result.

This example shows possible win-win situations between the profit objectives of large corporate natural resources consumers such as P&G or Walmart and the protection of the commons; this unique earth that belong to mankind.

See some links illustrating their journey towards sustainability:






Achieving these results that reduce natural resources consumption requires innovation along many dimensions, from product to supply chain and business model. These innovation initiatives are a must but still very mainstream…

In a more disruptive approach, some eccentric or visionary entrepreneurs along with US and European space agencies already envision mining extra-terrestrial raw materials, on the moon and other nearby planets:

The ESA launched a moon base 3D printing project http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Technology/Building_a_lunar_base_with_3D_printing

GoogleLunarXprize incentivizes the landing of explorer robots on the moon (http://www.googlelunarxprize.org/prize-details/why-google-lunar-xprize) with participants such as moonexpress (http://moonexpress.com), Rocket City Space Pioneers that plans to mine the moon for Energy-rich Helium3 (http://www.rocketcityspacepioneers.com/space/mining-the-moon-for-helium-3). Planetary Resource company on their side aim at capturing mineral-rich asteroids (http://www.planetaryresources.com)


(Photo: ESA)

This collection of governmental and private initiatives shows clearly that long-term strategists understand the critical situation looming for many natural resources…

All of us, business leaders, scientists, students, voters should be influencing our companies, universities, political representatives to dream, create and invest in a new type of global modern society that constrains our overall natural resources consumption and wastage.

In the next post, I will present some key best practices to achieve sustainability-focused innovation around you.

In the meantime, speak up for sustainability-focused innovation, products and business models!

Are you generating sustainability-focused innovation around you? (Part 1: why?)

Part 1: WHY is sustainability-focused innovation critical?  

Because limited natural resources are the basis of our modern lives.

Sand is the base ingredient needed to form concrete, glass and silicon chips. Without sand, large-screen TVs would be called theatre, roads would be muddy, mankind would sleep in caverns and computers would have remained counting frames.

Copper is essential to build basic infrastructures for energy transport. It is therefore strategic for emerging countries that are getting urbanized.

Petroleum and now maize crops are key feedstock for producing polymers. They enable you to drive light cars and drink Coke.

Megatrends analysis and demography modelling show clearly that decades to come will add hundreds of millions to the global population and that hundreds of millions will access middle class and urbanize. (see my previous post on Megatrends: https://smartinnovation.org/2012/07/23/megatrends-a-framework-to-strategically-rethink-your-business/)

If emerging countries consume like the developed world did in the past decades, you can imagine that our modern societies on a crowded earth will push the stress on natural resources to their limit…

To illustrate this thought, I would like to share with you the video of the “Story of stuff”, which provides a blunt picture on the workings of our modern societies in relation to natural resources:


Another video, “Sand Wars” from Denis Delestrac that investigated the human lifestyle impact on sand reserves generates a powerful picture: in tomorrow’s world, there will be no beaches anymore for kids to play and adults to relax…


The truth is that reducing by all means natural resources consumption is certainly the most critical innovation challenge of the 21st century.

In the next post, I will tell you more about what large institutional and corporate players are doing around sustainability-focused innovation.

You will hear about United Nations programs, P&G initiatives and NASA’s crazy dreams. From down to earth to the sky’s the limit sustainability-focused innovations…

Stay posted…

Breakthrough time: when all forces converge…

In many industries, one general product design dominates. Design might have evolved slightly over the last decades, but not fundamentally.

A major reason is that dominant players have low incentive to change once the market is at maturity. They invested once. Now, the cash-cow design should be milked. Another reason is that norms and habits are difficult (and expensive) to alter. The human mind tends to satisfy itself with what he is used to, even if it is suboptimal. I prefer not to tell you how many years it took me to switch from a PC full of bugs to a Mac…

But there is one more reason: the overall context must be ripe for the innovation to make sense to all players.

Let’s look at heavy trucks. They did not change so much since you were born did they? They are heavy and rectangular. And I don’t even speak about US heavy trucks, which are monsters compared to their European counterparts. You can easily imagine their Cx (aerodynamic factor) and the resulting fuel consumption. Actually, more energy-efficient designs were suggested to the industry over the years. However, petrol was cheap. Regulations were not focusing on energy-saving or CO2 emission. What incentive did freight companies or truck producers have to invest in new trucks that solved such environmental issues?

But now that regulations, governmental programs, variable costs and customer mindset all converge in the same direction, time has surely come for the development and easier adoption of a new design.

Success time for an innovation is when all forces converge in the market environment.

Has the time come for yours?