Alex Rose-Innes

With governments, companies and activists in a collaborative race to save the planet, policy experts believe that more is needed than voluntary action. The major driver of a sustainable changed environment will be innovation.

Harvard Research had proven time and again that innovation and sustainability go hand in hand. As informed consumers demand eco-friendly and humane products, smart companies are now leading the race towards a new frontier.

Termed the mother lode of innovation, the quest for a greener earth with sustainable organisational practices are already affecting bottom and top-line returns. Whereas executives previously believed that becoming environment-friendly would impact profit, innovation is now the holy grail of corporate goals.

While it is agreed that sustainability is an integral part of innovation, competitive advantages will rewrite the status quo and change business models, processes and technologies. Timing is critical as the Earth’s clock is ticking. Environmental regulations vary by country and had become more stringent as non-governmental agencies had already two decades ago started calling for change.

The Harvard Review showed how innovation could uncover new innovative business models for tomorrow. While it could be tempting to adhere to primary environmental standards for as long as possible, it would be more fruituous to as soon as possible, comply with the most stringent rules before it is enforced.

Those enterprises focused on meeting emerging criteria would be ahead of the latest innovative trends, technologies, and processes. Hewlett-Packard (HP) led the way in the office automation industry and their innovation in the Nineties is the benchmark adopted by the European Union (EU).

Hewlett-Packard’s executives already foresaw in the 90’s that governments would one day ban lead solders because of its toxicity and started experimenting with alternatives. Innovation-driven methods enabled this global company to developed new eco-friendly chemical agents. While their not so future-oriented competitors saw the EU’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive become law in 2006 and scrambled to meet them, HP saw its market share increase substantially, enhanced its reputation with consumers and turned tough regulators into allies.

Many large corporations offer incentives to their suppliers to become environment-conscious. Multinational corporations such as Unilever responded to concerns about the destruction of rain forests and wetlands. The company invested in innovative technology development and partnered with farmers to develop sustainable practices, resulting in improved crop yields and seed production.

Innovative tools measuring carbon management and life-cycle assessment now provide environment-related inputs and outputs of entire value chains, from raw-materials supply, to product use, to returns. Operational innovations lead to greater energy efficiency and reduce companies’ dependence on fossil fuels.

FedEx, delivering parcels across the globe, is reducing its carbon footprint by replacing its fleet of 700 aircraft and 44,000 motorised vehicles which consume millions of litres of fuel per day. The company had also developed a set of 30 software programmes to optimise aircraft schedules and flights, while embarking on the use of hybrid vans across Europe and powering its distribution hubs in the United States (US) with solar technology.

Most of IBM’s staff is now working from home, saving millions in commuting costs and office costs. These savings are now used to fund innovation. When companies create enviro-friendly value chains, monetary benefits of energy efficiency and waste reduction, are uncovered. During the recent pandemic, Procter & Gamble’s cold water detergents became the trend across the world, saving 80 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 34 million tons of carbon dioxide in the US alone.

To design sustainable products, companies need to understand consumer concerns and product life cycles. Those who continue to invest in innovation towards eco-friendly would dominate future markets.

Innovative technologies provide start-ups with the ability to challenge conventional wisdom. Mimicking coral reefs, a US start-up developed technology to extract carbon dioxide from industrial emissions and bubble it through seawater to manufacture cement.

The answers to innovation lie in changing existing paradigms. To develop innovations leading to next practices, our current world was based on questions such as can we create a carriage which can move without horses pulling it? Can we fly like birds? Can we dive like whales? By questioning the status quo, people and companies had previously changed the world. The world is now presented with another opportunity to do just that as innovation leads the quest towards a sustainable planet and a legacy for future generations.

Leadership, vision and talent are critical for saving the planet. The current economic system had placed enormous pressure on the planet. Traditional approaches to business will collapse and companies will be forced to develop innovative solutions. That will happen only when executives recognise that sustainability IS innovation.