Blog post

Driving innovation-led sustainability

Today, there is a lot of conversation around sustainability. However, sometimes when we talk about sustainability, we refer to it as a trend or a hot topic. Unfortunately, this perspective can often limit how we conceptualize sustainability within the modern business landscape.

Sustainability is not just an important concept; it's a business imperative.

Over the last two decades, sustainable business initiatives have hit new strides, with a critical spotlight shining on environmental ethics and social responsibility. As a result, sustainability has been gradually growing in relevance within business operations and everyday business discourse, going from a dubious marketing tactic to a key strategic driver for business growth.

Along with regulatory pressures, consumers have been leading the way in driving sustainability in business.

Today it is estimated that 73% of American consumers would stop making purchases from companies that do not care about climate change.

This is just way too big of a number to possibly try to ignore for a business.

We see many sectors take on sustainability as one of their critical strategic business pillars. For example, major retailers are introducing green fashion collections to cater to more sustainability-minded consumers. The automotive industry now sees Toyota Prius and Teslas as the fastest-selling vehicles on the market, and energy companies are swiftly pivoting toward green energy solutions.

To truly advance sustainability in business, organizations need to adopt new models that can help build resilience during turbulent economic cycles and amongst shifting consumer trends.

For many organizations, this means looking to innovation.

A perfect match

You may notice we talk a lot about innovation because we believe that it's one of the most important cornerstones of modern business operations.

Innovation has always been a critical strategy for long-term business success. In times of great economic down-turn, it’s companies that remain innovative that prevail during the recovery phase. Importantly, innovation has always been a critical mechanism for driving sustainable development.

Wasteful business models are going out of fashion. Instead, important concepts of sustainable development, such as the circular economy - a model now adopted by major corporations, such as Honda, GM, Unilever, Dell - are driven by innovative thinking.  

While most businesses today understand their practices can not be devoid of ethical considerations, they still have a long way to go in orienting themselves towards more sustainable models.

Why is this?

One of the main reasons is that businesses can no longer afford to simply comply with the ‘status quo’ of doing things, but shifting away from the tried and tested practices of the past can be a complicated business progression to achieve without an innovative mindset.

To introduce a new outlook, organizational leaders need to take a holistic approach, looking at all business functions and, most importantly, encouraging their employees to engage in innovation-led sustainability initiatives.

Propelling innovation-led sustainability

Companies that seek to drive sustainable initiatives need to look for creative ways to tap into their employees’ entrepreneurial potential to help build a culture of innovation focused on addressing pressing environmental problems.

Innovation-led sustainability initiatives can be vast and varied. However, they don’t necessarily need to be disruptive. Instead, organizations must strive to create innovations that drive progress.

But how exactly can managers foster innovation within their organizations to develop sustainable solutions that will give them a competitive advantage in dynamic and volatile markets?

Aligning strategy and purpose

Innovation starts from the top.

Leaders who look to advance sustainability through innovation need to develop a strategic direction that is communicated effectively throughout their entire organization. Setting a clear vision for employees that gives them a purpose to be innovative is critical.  

Once strategy is aligned to individual responsibility, an organization can foster intrapreneurship amongst their employees to motivate them to strive for ingenuity.

Executives need support from their employees to help lead sustainability initiatives and reduce the limitations that hinder employee engagement.

The key:

  • Break down silos and barriers for employees to propose ideas and solutions to upper management.
  • Put a systematic process in place to manage ideas.
  • Create an ecosystem where employees and stakeholders connect and co-innovate.

Position your employees as innovation leaders

Managers are not the only innovation leaders in an organization. Executives need to do their best to promote an innovation-leader mentality amongst all their employees.

How can this mindset be fostered?

Allow your employees to delve into sustainability-focused activities which motivate them. Sustainability is a complex and far-reaching issue. Sustainability might look one way to your executive team and entirely different to your employees.

Motivate your employees and provide them with positive reinforcement to work towards initiatives that align with their ethics. This will help to provide them with the intrinsic motivation needed to drive innovation.

By implementing critical motivational tactics, employees become more encouraged to work toward goals of sustainable growth.

Provide your employees with the right resources to innovate

Having the right resources to foster innovation is crucial - employees must be provided with the right tools to help them innovate.

Resources that help support innovation can be varied. For example, they could take the form of funding opportunities or more intangible assets such as training, education, or support.

Education and training, in particular, could be one of the essential resources to be given to employees. As mentioned, innovation is about going beyond the status quo of doing business. For employees, this may mean they need training to switch on their innovative mindset and to move away from a more traditional business mentality.

When management acknowledges that they need to provide their employees with the right resources to innovate, employees will feel a sense of support to drive critical initiatives.

Treat sustainability projects in a special way

Innovation-led sustainability projects need to be treated as something special in an organization. Timelines for innovation projects should be given more room. Experimentation is key to innovation; tight deadlines and rigid KPIs may significantly hinder the creativity needed to innovate.

Executives also need to consider future hiring operations and look at how they could attract the right talents to lead innovation projects.

These considerations are also key to supporting innovation-led sustainability initiatives inside an organization.

But is looking within the organization enough to propel crucial initiatives?

Creating a sustainability innovation ecosystem

Open innovation is a model we are all too familiar with, a concept based on the idea that real innovation happens when we look outside our walls to source solutions that can propel internal initiatives.

Is open innovation a critical concept when it comes to sustainability initiatives?

The answer is Yes!

Sustainability is not a singular issue, nor is it a company-specific issue. Instead, sustainability is an expansive global issue that connects every individual on this planet.

From concerns of deforestation in major national parks to the rising sea levels engulfing coastlines, globally, sustainably is an issue that threads every nation together.

Therefore, for an organization to truly foster innovation-led sustainability initiatives and foster internal innovation, they also need to look beyond their walls and reach out to external partners that provide them with distinct perspectives. External Stakeholders can help address organizational gaps needed to drive innovation.

When engaging with external stakeholders, organizations take on an interdisciplinary, focus-led approach and source ideas and solutions from individuals and bodies with expertise in different areas. This approach is a sure-fire way to promote ingenuity and creativity.

Final thoughts

It could be argued that innovation and sustainability are everything to business today.

The focus on innovation and sustainability has been particularly heightened during the current global crisis. We have seen the innovative ways companies have adapted to the pandemic's pressures and how innovation has been driving significant social and scientific breakthroughs. Simultaneously, the situation has also significantly impacted how consumers interact with products and goods, with consumers now developing a more heightened awareness of ethical practices.  

The need to adopt sustainable business practices is imperative for creating strategic differentiation and an important concept for our society and our planet.

Many traditional business models still incorporate wasteful business practices. The need for driving innovation-led sustainability in business is clear.

Sustainability driven by innovation gives organizations the competitive advantage and works to help turn the tide on a pressing global issue.

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