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.

3 Stages of Sustainability Innovation

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 innovation

The research team also catalogued examples and case studies from organizations large and small that are actively finding new ways to serve people, profits and planet.

Identify Practices to Innovate for Sustainability

3 dimensions of innovating for sustainability

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.

nbs innovation framework - stage 1Put 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.


Watch the Webinar

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Related Resources

  • swaddell

    Very useful framing. The operational-organizational-systems tripartite perspective fits well with a change perspective of incremental-reform-transformation. Steve Waddell

    • Richard Adams

      Thanks for the comment Steve, I hope we can work on this some more in the future. Richard

  • http://nbs.net/ NBS

    What does Dr. Adams think about the design thinking process being used to foster innovative ways for sustainability?

    • Richard Adams

      This goes back to some of the tools we were spoke of early in the presentation, some of which look at single issues and the more recent design
      tools taking an holistic approach.

      Let me point you to table 2 in the report, Brezet and Hemel’s table of 8 sustainable design strategies covering things from concept development to optimising end of life systems. This is a great resource if you are taking a product or service oriented approach – and of course can be supplemented with the addition of tools for idea generation to liven up the process.

      But, the design literature also talks about things called wicked problems, these are problems characterised by their lack of clarity – we scarcely can begin to define the problem let alone the solution. And I think that wicked problem might describe the challenges associated with being an organisational transformer or systems builder, and there are fewer established tools here to help.

      There is very little evidence to suggest that the transition from operational optimisation to systems building is being achieved in, if you like, in a single bound – Desso is an exception. The big leap is in deciding what you want to be – say by using backcasting and, as in backcasting, uses a series of steps to get there. And, for the firms that are doing it, these steps are experiment – small scale experiments that can be rolled out if successful or ditched or modified if not. This is reminiscent of the concept of the ambidextrous organisation – one that is able concurrently to experiment with new models whilst continuing to exploit the existing model. Let me know if you want to explore organisational ambidexterity any further.

  • http://nbs.net/ NBS

    What role do stakeholders play in innovations for sustainability?

    • Richard Adams

      Stakeholders have a massive role to play in SOI. Think about
      who stakeholders might be – within the firm and beyond its boundaries.
      Internally, a critical task is the diffusion of sustainability thinking
      throughout the firm so that it becomes the culture of the firm. This needs
      strong leadership and a supportive culture – particular where entrenched
      behaviours exist or there are vested interests. Externally, there is a wide
      range of stakeholders who might get involved – from within the supply chain, to
      wider value networks and ultimately extending to include the natural
      environment. There are a number of examples of stakeholder involvement in the report, and the Lafarge/WWF example I presented in the webinar is a great
      example of how previously inconceivable relationships can work in support of
      sustainability. Another example is the story of Greenpeace’s relations with
      Fordon to tackle issues related to refrigerants.

      Are you familiar with the concepts of ‘open innovation’ and ‘user-led innovation’? These are processes that describe ways stakeholders can be involved in SOI and roles they might play.

  • http://nbs.net/ NBS

    What would be the role of SOI in managing environmental impact through the mitigation hierarchy and ultimately biodiversity offsets?

    • Richard Adams

      The mitigation hierarchy and biodiversity offsets are a little outside my area of expertise, but I’ll have a stab at this. As I understand it, the mitigation hierarchy moves through a number of stages from ‘Avoid’ through to ‘Compensate’ and in this model there is some read across to the model we propose. Our model moves in the opposite direction from the mitigation hierarchy, recognising that the majority of incumbent firms are starting from a position (by and large) of being
      unsustainable and would look (depending on the extent to which they are
      affected by any of the range of drivers) to move toward increasing
      sustainability. The mitigation hierarchy is commonly applied to environmental
      impact assessments in new projects and so has a different starting point –
      where possible, avoid the impact. Nevertheless, the activities identified in
      our model have much to inform the conversations that take place at the various
      levels of the mitigation hierarchy.

  • http://nbs.net/ NBS

    Given 70% of firms are still at stage 1 is it possible to fast track this approach so we meet pressing global environmental and social needs in time?
    Or another way: How many firms would need to be at stages 2 and 3 for a successful global outcome?

    • Richard Adams

      I’m not sure that I recognise the figure of 70% being in stage1: what we did do in the report was comment on the split of the literature that we reviewed and that was to say that 70% of the studies we looked at related to Operational optimisation (stage1), 28% organisational transformation (stage 2) and 2% were mixed studies.

      However, I wouldn’t argue with the observation that the greater proportion of firms is operating in stage 1, smaller in stage 2 and fewer in 3. Further, there is also probably a large number of firms who haven’t yet made it to context 1 yet – those for whom, for whatever reason, sustainability is not on the radar yet.

      But the question is still an important one – about critical mass and tipping points.

      We are not in a position to say anything other than, in the most general terms, about how many or what proportion are needed in each context, It’s all relative – it would be no good if 90% of the world’s firms were OT or SBs if the remaining 10% were the worst polluting or most socially unjust or inequitable.

      All we can say at the moment is that we do not have enough firms in any of the categories and more should be encouraged, which raises questions about how this might be done: for example by applauding all those who are doing it and find ways to reward them either through our own patronage or supporting policy in that direction. One area that needs more research is in better understanding the transition points between the contexts – what is it that helps firms move through the model. And, of course none of this can really happen
      without attending to the economic imperative – so we need to make sure that the economics of industry supports the journey

  • Stephen Gee

    I attended the webinar today. Good work by Tim Hortons but interested to hear from Dr Adams whether he thinks this programme is beyond ‘diminishing unsustainability’

    • Richard Adams

      Stephen, It is difficult for me to say too much about this particular
      programme because I know neither Tim Hortons or the case well enough. I thought the Tim Hortons case was great and bore a lot of the hallmarks of the sort of activity one might expect to find amongst organisational transformers – which Carol’s “How we did it” slide neatly summarised.

      Anyway, I congratulate Tim Hortons on what they have achieved, and I applaud any other firm that is attempting anything similar – these are not necessarily easy things to work through.

      One of the themes I developed during the webinar was the embeddeness of firms within a wider system and that it may not be possible for individual firms on their own to be sustainable: sustainability may only be achievable when wider links and responsibilities are acknowledged. I would argue that the same is true for individual programmes within firms – they have to be connected to something wider. As an example of a firm working toward becoming
      a net positive contributor I gave the example of IKEA planting more trees than
      they use in production. However, if this is all they do, is that enough? The
      point is, that a firm may be more sustainable in certain aspects of their
      business than in others.