How Sustainability Is Catalyzing Innovation

If necessity is the mother of invention, we would expect sustainability to spawn a new era of innovation. While many organizations across industries have already begun to develop innovative solutions for a sustainable future, there is widespread need for accelerating innovation, and organizations may need to step up their innovation commitments, resources and practices to play their part.

We are at a tipping point with environmental degradation and social inequities as The World Economic Forum (WEF) points out in its latest Global Risks Report 2021. A more recent UK assessment shows that the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation underway has widened. Further, the pandemic highlighted the fragility and resiliency issues associated with our food system, and amplified the need for continued support of agricultural research and development.

Writing in the New York Times earlier this year, Christopher Flavelle explains, “When extreme weather knocked out power and water in Texas, it represented a profound warning for the rest of the country. The nation’s vital infrastructure remains fundamentally unprepared for the shocks of climate change. What’s at stake: Everything that underpins modern life, including roads and railways, dams, drinking water and sewer systems, power plants, industrial waste sites and even our homes.”

In a joint statement earlier this month, 457 investors who control $41 trillion in assets signaled they want governments to “significantly strengthen” plans to cut carbon emissions in the next decade and hit detailed emissions targets to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, The Guardian reported.

The role of business in delivering scalable action in waste reduction is profound. A majority of the 300 C-level executives in a recent Dow survey consider (strategies for a circular economy) imperative, saying that recycling (71%) and waste reduction (68%) have had a “substantial” or “very large” influence on their organization’s strategic direction over the past two years. 

While many organizations have leaned in to demonstrate efforts to mitigate these risks, it is not enough and the pace of action is too slow. For instance, according to the collective analysis of 41 scientists, net zero emissions targets “several decades into the future shift our focus away from the immediate and unprecedented emissions reductions needed. The impacts of the climate crisis are becoming increasingly severe, everywhere. We are experiencing heat waves, floods, droughts, forest fires and sea level rise as a result of global heating.”

Similarly, NextEra CEO Jim Robo thinks that net zero targets are ‘disingenuous,’ saying at a recent conference, “But the reality is that carbon capture technology doesn’t work and you’re not going to come up with a magic small reactor that will be cheap enough.”

In an interim report from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretary-General António Guterres declared a ‘red alert’ for the planet saying 2021 is a “make or break year” to address the climate emergency. “The science is clear, to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must cut global emission by 45 per cent by 2030, from 2010 levels”, he stressed.

Virginie Helias, Chief Sustainability Officer at Procter & Gamble says, “To make meaningful progress in this crucial decade, we must put innovation at the heart of solving planetary challenges. Businesses such as Procter & Gamble can play a crucial role in accelerating technologies that not only protect the planet but also regenerate it.”

To be clear, this is not just an environmental concern. Affluence, overconsumption and other social issues are often cited as key systemic issues that are challenging a sustainable future.

The United Nations has declared 2020 to 2030 ‘The Decade of Action to deliver the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Decade of Action calls for ‘accelerating sustainable solutions to all the world’s biggest challenges – ranging from poverty and gender to climate change, inequality and closing the finance gap.’ Hear what captains of industry like Paul Pullman, Ex-CEO of Unilever, Gillian Tett, Editor-at-large with the Financial Times, and many others have to say on the subject in this groundbreaking 30-minute documentary by Wim Vermeulen, Director of Strategy and Sustainability at Bubka.

The landscape of organizations innovating around sustainability has increased dramatically over the past few years. Today, we are seeing a broad spectrum of approaches from all shapes and sizes of organizations – from startups to large, established firms, and even countries and think tanks.

In the past five years or so a slate of startups have surfaced focused on specific sustainability themes. For instance, Nori is a carbon removal marketplace creating a new way for anyone in the world to buy carbon removals. Imperfect Foods distributes surplus or less-than-perfect foods that would otherwise wind up in waste to help solve food wasteLumen Energy is a software company whose mission is to make getting a fully-financed solar system for a commercial building as easy as applying for a credit card. Raise Green is a financial technology company that allows anyone to invest in community resilience using its SEC Licensed and FINRA approved crowdfunding investment portal. Yobroeco has launched an online marketplace offering superior quality, affordable and sustainable goods – a key feature of the site is each product’s transparent Sustainability Rating label based on 8 different sustainability measures. Lieef is an alternative investment platform focused on bridging the gap between venture capital and mature private markets within the world of emerging sustainable infrastructure.

Meanwhile, large enterprises are pursuing their own innovation initiatives focused on sustainability. Matchbox is shifting towards a more environmentally conscious production and business model, beginning with its Tesla Roadster. Kraft Heinz is pivoting to plant-based products as part of transforming its growth strategy. P&G recently launched a new innovation center aimed at improving supply chain sustainability. Orsted has joined the Newlab community of experts and innovators applying transformative technology to launch the Blue Energy Studio, a collaborative initiative designed to drive innovation towards a future powered by renewable energy. West Paw has launched a new eco-venture with a collection of pet toys and feeding accessories that are made with Seaflex, an exclusive blend of reclaimed and recycled ocean-bound plastic and zero-waste Zogoflex material. Diageo has unveiled a plastic-free, paper-based spirits bottle, with PepsiCo and Unilever joining the brewer in creating a new consortium for plastic-free packaging. As part of its ongoing commitment to environmental sustainability, American Airlines has announced it will invest in Vertical Aerospace, a leading UK-headquartered engineering and aeronautical business developing electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Walmart, Target, Kroger, and CVS have teamed up on the Beyond the Bag Initiative to fund and scale replacements to the plastic bag.

Even countries, government entities and think tanks are getting more involved in sustainability innovation programs. The Maldives is building the world’s first-of-its kind floating island city to mitigate the effects of climate change. The Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm has launched the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Earthshots Initiative to accelerate breakthroughs of more abundant, affordable, and reliable clean energy solutions within the decade. The first Energy Earthshot – Hydrogen Shot – seeks to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kilogram in one decade. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) have partnered to spearhead the Low-Carbon Resources Initiative (LCRI), a 5-year, $100 million research and development initiative with 39 participating companies aimed at identifying and developing commercially viable new technologies and solutions for deep decarbonization of the power sector.

The signals are clear. To ensure sustainable growth, meet changing needs and expectations of sustainably-minded customers, address urgent sustainability issues discussed in part one of this series, and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), organizations must continue to shift direction and resources to innovative business models, products and markets. 

For additional insights on how to pursue an innovation journey, I suggest visiting Innovation Management (IM), a premier destination for innovation best practices written by innovation practitioners working in the field.




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