Executive Report: Innovating for Sustainability

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What innovation activities help companies become sustainable? This report outlines 38 innovation practices that drive sustainability.

38 Innovation Practices Drive Sustainability

Leaders at 16 Canadian corporations and non-profits asked NBS: "What innovation activities help organizations become more sustainable?"

Those leaders understand that new approaches to products and services, stakeholders and systems present opportunities to become more sustainable. They also recognize that the pursuit of sustainability can itself product innovations that support the bottom line.

Innovation & Sustainability Drive Profitability

Whether you produce a bicycle made entirely of post-consumer content that biodegrades at the end of its useful life (innovation motivated by sustainable goals) or develop a clean-burning fuel additive that improves vehicle performance (sustainability motivated by innovation), the result is the same: novel products and services for your customers, financial gain for your organization and healthier relationships with people and the natural environment.

“The combination of innovation, sustainability and profitability is powerful," said Grete Bridgewater, Director, Environmental Services for Canadian Pacific. "If research can unlock the potential in our organizations to view our business models differently and encourage sustainable innovation in a meaningful way, then we will learn, adapt and lead change.”

Choose Your Approach: Innovate Incrementally or Radically

NBS selected Richard Adams of the University of Exeter to conduct a systematic review of the academic and industry literature on sustainability innovation. With direction from a Guidance Committee comprising academic and industry experts, Adams and his research team analyzed 127 academic and industry sources - from an initial scan of more than 4,000 articles.

The research revealed three stages of sustainability innovation: “Operational Optimization," “Organizational Transformation” and “Systems Building." Firms can innovate toward sustainability through a series of small incremental steps or through more radical, disruptive transformations.

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The research team catalogued 38 practices for fostering innovation across the three stages. Examples of innovation practices that support sustainability includes:

  • "Back-casting"

  • Collaborating with universities and colleges

  • Product servitization

  • "Designing green first"

  • Jugaad, frugal and reverse innovationThe research team also catalogued examples and case studies from organizations large and small that are actively finding new ways to serve people, profits and plane

Identify Practices to Innovate for Sustainability

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The report outlines three dimensions shown above: (1) whether it focused on technology or people, (2) the firm’s view of itself in relation to society, and (3) the extent to which innovation extends across the firm. The framework builds on these dimensions and presents a new model for assessing and planning your company’s approach to sustainability.

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Put the framework to use. Use it to evaluate current activities at the level of individual products, product lines and business units or their entire organization. Identify the stage that best aligns with your company’s sustainability goals and then apply the practices for innovating at that stage.

What's Included in this Report

  • A three-stage framework for sustainability innovation. Business leaders can use the framework to identify their current approach to sustainability innovation within their team, within their division or across their entire organization.

  • 38 practices for driving innovation across the three stages.

  • Case studies from leading organizations, large and small, that are actively finding new ways to serve people, profits and planet.

Who Should Read this Report

Internal and external change agents alike can lead sustainability innovation. This report is designed for:

  • CEOs looking for new markets or who are concerned about future-proofing their organizations.

  • Business leaders and internal change agents who want their firms to generate positive environmental and social impacts as well as economic ones.

  • Directors of product development and research and development who want tho offer their teams new approaches to product development.

  • Environmental and social justice organizations trying to make the case for corporate investment in system-wide change.

  • Industry associations that want to support the collective success of their member organizations.

Above all, this report is for anyone who sees the potential of innovation to reveal new products, services and business models that benefit people and the environment. It is for the visionaries and frame-breakers who see environmental and social initiatives not as cost centres but as opportunities.

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