Three Hurdles to Sustainable Innovation

Most people agree on the importance of sustainability in innovation, so why is it difficult to deliver? In this article, we’ll explore three hurdles to sustainable innovation: it’s often not considered by innovators themselves as they plan their projects; sustainability is not framed as an exciting and imaginative opportunity; and that sustainable innovation may not fit into a company’s ongoing processes.

“Everyone agrees that sustainability is our defining innovation challenge, but why is it still so difficult to make it happen?”: The question put to me by a mainstream innovation consultant, and former colleague, as we discussed the state of sustainability and innovation. Like many of us, he had experienced innovation projects where sustainability falls-off-the-radar, does not feature when it should, or where sustainable innovation budget is not forthcoming. It’s one of the central dilemmas of sustainable innovation: few disagree with it in principle, but why doesn’t it happen enough?

Many barriers and obstacles exist in the operating conditions for sustainable innovation—the sustainable innovation investment gap, an unclear policy landscape for sustainable innovation, or business inertia on sustainability. All this can lead to a gap between sustainable innovation needed and delivered.

Yet sustainable innovation can also be hindered by more immediate and internal barriers too, like the tools, processes, and mindsets our innovators use today. Many of these more personal barriers are within our direct influence and control today, so are a great place to start. This article unpacks three important hurdles to sustainable innovation, introducing and exploring them through real comments I’ve heard people say recently.

Hurdle #1

“I’d never even thought about looking at our products through sustainability lenses”

Sustainability Is Not Even Considered by Innovators. Many innovators don’t think about sustainability in their projects, failing to see it as relevant or an opportunity. Here a CEO explained to me how every innovation project started with consumer focus groups to unearth product/category pain-points and unmet needs—which is often a major driver for innovation. I pointed out that competitors were most likely talking to the very same focus group and so “starting with sustainability can bring a new perspective and a potential advantage.” So how do we go beyond traditional approaches to get sustainability on these innovators’ radar?

Personally I’ve always found a strong business case and inspiring or relevant case studies to be essential tools. These can highlight i) that ‘sustainability means business’ and the potential size of the prize, and ii) that the issues are really relevant to a particular innovator’s category or world. Sustainability can be a powerful creative lever, as well as a driver for growth and differentiation, so we must work harder to get social and environmental responsibility on the agenda as an innovation opportunity.

Hurdle #2

“Sustainability isn’t really a big driver for new product development. We’re looking at other things like conscious consumption and conscious kindness at the moment”

Sustainability is not Framed as Innovation. Many innovators, and businesses, are aware of sustainability but don’t see it as an issue for innovation, creativity, and new business. This quote comes from a Head of Product Development (and long-term client) in a major UK retailer. In this case my client associated sustainability with ‘all that reporting, monitoring and accounting stuff’, seeing it as disconnected from his product development world; of trends, consumer insights, new technology, stage-and-gate processes, etc.

It’s puzzling that he would see conscious consumption and caring capitalism as separate from sustainability, as I think of them as one-in-the-same and as such the problem here is terminological. Guilt-free shopping, considered consumption, conscious kindness, positive luxury, and such terms, all sound like really imaginative triggers to open up innovation opportunities, and deliver benefits to customers, rather than being the obligation, risk reduction or cost saving that so often frames sustainability. These interpretations make sustainability sound inspirational, stimulating, deeply transformative and as a result, really interesting for early-stage innovation. We must get better at framing sustainability as the exciting and imaginative innovation opportunity that it surely is.

Hurdle #3:

“The big problem is that (our sustainable product) doesn’t have a consumer insight. All innovation projects inside our business have to start with a compelling consumer insight to make it through the business”

Sustainable Innovation Does Not Fit the Process. Here, my client’s ongoing obstacle is that his 5-year, sustainable innovation plan is driven more by the businesses internal sustainability commitments, rather than by a compelling customer need. In contrast, his company’s innovation process requires all projects to start with the consumer/customer insight. Sustainable innovation can be hindered by the way a company structures innovation; which is a tough, but not insurmountable problem.

The obvious answer is to re-write the innovation process to be less customer-insight driven. Great innovators like Dyson, IKEA, and Apple are famously dismissive of consumer insight, while lots of leading innovations did not emerge from insight or tested badly in research, so there is a compelling case for doing this.

Admittedly though this may be a tall order, much easier for small rather than larger organisations and out of reach for many innovators, so another route comes straight out of sustainable marketing 101, which is to link sustainability to other more primary customer benefits. Most purchases are and will always be driven by the ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ question, rather than being altruistic in nature. The trick is to support these self-interested drivers with sustainability as a secondary benefit—such as eco-products being cheaper to run, lighter to use, safer to put on yourself, making you look caring, portraying you as an innovator/first-mover, etc.—effectively pushing sustainable innovation through businesses without customers asking for it.

What should innovators do if sustainability does not fit current ways of innovating: simply not do it? We must continue to reinvent today’s innovation rules, taking sustainability beyond customer insight-driven approaches.

These are three hurdles to sustainable innovation I have faced recently; I’m sure you may have your own to add. We should continue to work on wider system barriers – financial, organisational, technical, structural. In parallel we must also hurdle the barriers ‘within’—like a lack of awareness, poor framing and inflexible processes—if we are to take sustainable innovation to a new level.

By Chris Sherwin

About the author

Chris Sherwin is the Director at Reboot Innovation, a creative consultancy on a mission to change what and how we innovate – for a better world. We fuse world-changing innovation, marketing and design with cutting-edge sustainability and ethical business. We are the sustainable innovation partner to brands and innovators who want to practically design a green, fair and prosperous world.

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