Market forces compel businesses to innovate or die. But in recent years, sustainability has become an additional—and significant—factor behind successful product innovation.

Increasingly, companies large and small see that sustainability provides a “lens” through which they can view their offerings in a new light. Making a small product change or a radical improvement can result in sharply reducing their environmental impact, while at the same time offering new features and benefits to consumers, or opening up new markets.


Generating Value

Sustainability-driven innovation means much more than simply finding ways to improve the efficiency of operations, processes and packaging design. Through the sustainability lens, businesses find ways to design for new audiences or develop new products that meet sustainability criteria and also serve a market need — this also includes greening their supply chains and taking other important measures to protect themselves from the risks of unexpected supplier resource shortages or externally-driven price increases.

According to Rory Bakke, REV’s Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of Product Development, sustainability is all about value, primarily:

  • Finding opportunities to develop products and services that appeal to new markets, and
  • Generating value by staying aware of potential resource, market and supply chain exposure because it’s too risky not to do so.

“The risk of not bringing this sustainability lens into service and product design also means potentially missing a unique opportunity to really engage both customers and employees,” Bakke says. “Sustainability practices translate into more positive and enduring relationships with customers as well as better attraction and retention of high job-candidate talent. Companies that don’t pursue this approach risk losing out on greater customer loyalty, brand recognition, and employee retention.”


Sustainability-based Innovation Happening Now

Fast Company recently highlighted several examples of “the world’s most innovative companies dedicated to social good,” including:

  • Nike’s new app that serves as an index for different products’ level of sustainability
  • Hampton Creek’s launch of mayonnaise, scrambled egg and baking products “that are completely plant-based”
  • Evocative Design’s introduction of the Mushroom Tiny House, a small wood-framed habitat containing non-toxic mushroom insulation

Plenty of other examples demonstrate the benefits of sustainability-based innovation. London-based Pavegen, a “clean tech company,” manufactures flooring technology that converts wasted kinetic energy from footsteps into renewable electricity. As noted on the company’s website: “Every time someone walks over a Pavegen tile, renewable energy is harvested from the footstep. The energy can be stored in batteries, or used to power applications.” Pavegen tiles recently installed within Terminal 3 of Heathrow Airport power LED lights situated along the corridor.

Sustainability-based innovations need not necessarily rely on new technologies or product design. Analysis and adjustments to current practices also yield results. Maersk Line, operator of one of the largest global fleets of container ships, has taken a bold step forward in its key business processes. According to Aron Cramer, president and CEO of BSR, a global business network, Maersk’s use of “super slow steaming”—running ships at speeds as low as 10 percent of top capacity—has resulted in savings of “U.S. $1 million, 3,500 tons of fuel and 10,000 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions per ship every year.”


Small Businesses Following Larger Businesses’ Lead

Thus far, sustainability-driven innovation occurs most frequently in large companies. Typically, these enterprises require that someone in their product design department has received sustainability training or they opt to include a sustainability expert in the product design department. In this way, sustainability issues are addressed up-front and concerns about environmental problems are built right into the product design.

More progressive companies also foster cross-functional teams (with representatives from design, facilities, HR, manufacturing, financial, marketing, etc.) to generate innovative thinking in design. In smaller companies, one person usually assumes this role. This doesn’t mean sustainability-based innovation can’t happen in small companies—only that it requires more time and resources up-front.

Sustainability involves a successful blend of design and delivery of material inputs and products, with minimal negative impact on our fragile environment, and maximization of product quality and utility. Innovation seen through the sustainability lens offers an abundance of new opportunities to drive change throughout the marketplace—from new and upgraded products to streamlined business processes—that ultimately offer greater loyalty from not only eco-conscious, but all customers.