If you were to ask me what the greatest challenge facing innovators today is, I’d have a very simple response – sustainability. But while it’s just one word, the concept, demands and implications are far from simple.
This complexity is perhaps best illustrated by a couple of examples:
- Which is the most sustainable – a cucumber in plastic wrapping or one sold ‘naked’? Surely it’s the naked one. But no, not necessarily. Because while there’s no single-use plastic, it’ll be rotten three times faster than the wrapped one. If it was a country, food waste would be the world’s third biggest carbon emitter .
- What about a reusable cotton bag versus a plastic one? Again, the cotton bag seems the obvious answer. If it’s reused over a long period of time, then yes. But it has a higher carbon footprint, so it needs to be used 130 times before it’s as environmentally-efficient as a plastic bag. This increases to 393 times if the plastic bag is reused just three times .
But even in the complexity, there is hope of a way forward.
Defining a sustainable future
Ultimately for something to be sustainable, it means it can continue indefinitely. Which is why we’ve seen such a focus on finite versus renewable/reusable resources in recent years. However, the concept of sustainability goes much further than this.
The famous 1987 Brundtland report, Our Common Future, defined it as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” .
So essentially it’s progress that considers not only a wide range of criteria – environmental, social, economic, health and more – but also the long-term ramifications of decisions made. A sustainable today AND a sustainable future.
Why it’s a challenge for now
Rising wealth – and everything needed to meet this accelerating consumption – means that we’re now exceeding the earth’s resources. Climate change, caused by our ever-growing CO2 emissions, is triggering unpredictable weather patterns worldwide. We’re also witnessing a huge loss of biodiversity and indigenous ecosystems globally as economic gains are prioritised over environmental and social benefits.
In short, as each day and year passes, these problems get worse. We just don’t have the luxury to wait. So even though we don’t yet fully understand all the challenges, and despite the complexities we face in finding solutions, we need to find a viable way forward right now.
Consumers want change too
88% of consumers now consider sustainability when considering which brands to purchase . Plus with the rising influence of GenZ – currently 40% of all consumers, soon to overtake millennials – the desire to have a positive personal impact will increasingly affect lifestyle and purchasing choices .
As a result, 97% of CEOs now believe that sustainability is crucial to their future success.
So if it can’t just be business as usual, we need creative solutions – and this is the realm where innovators truly flourish.
Using disruption to break the mould
If we need to move the world away from a linear ‘take-make-waste’ model of consumption to one that is sustainable, disruptive innovation offers a way to kickstart the process.
By definition, it significantly alters the way in which consumers, industries or businesses operate by offering an alternative solution – which may be technically superior, at a lower cost, more widely available and/or meeting a different need. Disruptive technologies deliberately target the bottom of the market (the customers that incumbent providers don’t care much about), gradually improving their offering and moving upmarket to displace the incumbent’s share.
It’s not about ‘better’ technologies per se (e.g. higher quality, more performance etc). They don’t disrupt the market, they just build on it, and are what the incumbent companies will tend to focus on – i.e. ‘sustaining technologies’. Instead, it’s about how the technology introduced enables new adoption, business models and behaviour. I like to define it with a formula:
New entrant + target non/poor-customers + new business model = disruption
Streaming giant Netflix is a great example of this. It started at the bottom of the market providing an online ordering service for mail-delivery of rental DVDs, something that only appealed to limited customer groups (most of us carried on going to Blockbuster)… and now it has totally transformed the home entertainment industry.
This is why disruptive innovation offers hope in the search for true sustainability. It provides a mechanism for tipping the balance of the status quo into a major paradigm shift.
Finding sustainable disruptive solutions
Find a framework for your business that actively explores some key levers that help to holistically assess sustainability. By making sure factors such as durability, waste reduction, and material sourcing are considered at the innovation stage, you can see where the opportunities for sustainable disruptive technologies lie.
Another perspective that I think is important is working with what’s available – in other words, adopting a ‘scarcity’ mindset (as opposed to an ‘abundance’ mindset where we start with a blank canvas). One of the most powerful ways to do this is to use the ‘4As Framework for Innovation in Scarcity’ which covers Availability, Affordability, Acceptability, and Awareness . By starting with the energy, materials and finances that we actually have, we’re far more likely to identify workable and scalable solutions that meet sustainable parameters.
It also means that ‘waste’ becomes a much more valuable commodity. Rather than just ignoring it as an inevitable by-product, our ‘scarcity’ mindset instead asks ‘how can I monetise this?’. Like my colleague who found that he could use scrap on the factory floor as the ballast he needed to stabilise his new fan heater design; or Apple using waste metal from the iMac monitor to construct the keyboard.
A new mindset
We need to look beyond our own factories and companies, and collaborate to see where mutually-beneficial sustainable solutions exist. I love the example of McDonald’s coffee grounds being repurposed to make light covers for Ford!
But to get there, we need a different perspective. Instead of just thinking about our narrow piece of the supply chain, we must look horizontally – to open our eyes to the vast array of parallel supply chains, industries and needs around us and how it might all join up. These potential new ‘ecosystems’ are where the disruptive solutions to the sustainability crisis will be found.
However, making these changes takes a big cultural shift and new processes. So one way we’re helping our clients adapt is by connecting them to other company leaders in similar situations via a ‘learning exchange’.
As Einstein reputedly said: “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.”
If disruptive innovation is to offer the world an answer to finding a sustainable future – which I believe it can – I want to leave you with three important conclusions to consider:
- Don’t focus on better performance than the incumbents. You only need to be good enough to drive adoption and enable the new sustainable business model.
- There is no ‘waste’, only unrealised value.
- Look horizontally to seek out collaboration and learning exchanges, rather than vertically within your own industry.
Finally, if you’re interested to learn more about some of the ideas, tools and frameworks I’ve shared here, or are seeking your own disruptive sustainable solutions, I’d love to connect.
 Environment Agency Study (Aldridge)
 Adapted from Jadgish N. Shethand Shah, 2003 and C.K.Pralahd’s book “A Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid”