Executive Report: Innovating for Sustainability

Executive Report: Innovating for Sustainability

What innovation activities help companies become sustainable? This report outlines 38 innovation practices that drive sustainability. 
NBS December 16, 2012

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

Identify Practices to Innovate 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 1
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

Who Should Read this Report

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


Executive Report
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Systematic Review
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Webinar Slides
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Related Resources

Systematic Review

Research on sustainability innovation by Richard Adams reveals three stages: operational optimization, organizational transformation, and systems building.

Executive Report

Designed for executives and senior supply chain, purchasing and sustainability managers, NBS presents a 3-step framework for sustainable supply chains.