The Right Way to Build Sustainable Innovations
The core of sustainability is opportunity, not compliance
While there is broad agreement in the international business community about the social and environmental value of corporate sustainability programs, no such consensus exists around how these programs can best serve a company’s bottom line. This is a shame, since the most exciting developments in the sustainability space are being driven by technologists and innovators, not compliance officers.
According to a recent Deloitte survey of more than 2,000 executives from 21 countries, 79% of business leaders agree that the world is approaching a climate change tipping point; even more of them (88%) believe immediate action is necessary. However, the report found that respondents were uncertain about what such action should actually look like. For example, executives said they were more likely to have “used more sustainable materials” in the past than to have “developed new climate-friendly products or services.”1 In other words, there is a relatively widespread unwillingness among companies to embed sustainability principles into their core cultures.
A Harvard Business Review article from back in 20092 stated this problem clearly: “Most executives treat the need to become sustainable as a corporate social responsibility, divorced from business objectives.” In fact, the true winners in this space will likely be the ones who embed sustainable, planet-friendly thinking into every aspect of their organization, rather than haphazardly and at the margins.
Increasingly, large organizations are waking up to this new reality, but in many cases there is deep uncertainty about where to begin. The scope of a genuine sustainability program can be daunting, and the payoff might seem remote. Indeed, many firms struggle to quantify their carbon footprint—methodological inconsistency remains a big challenge3—let alone articulate a coherent climate action roadmap that aligns with their growth and innovation targets.
An intelligent sustainability program, like a good innovation strategy, should aim to secure options for future growth and, ultimately, grant your organization some operational breathing room in conditions of uncertainty and crisis. In this sense, it pays to get started quickly.
Set your sustainability goals before you figure out how to achieve them
To help integrate sustainability practices into your organization, consider setting your energy goals before assessing and allocating the necessary resources. We might call this the visionary, or target-first, approach to sustainability.
This approach may seem counterintuitive at first, but it has several virtues that may help your organization go from zero to one on sustainable innovation. Adopting a target-first mindset will help you embed environmentally-friendly thinking and sustainable practices into every aspect of your company, from process to product. It will also allow you to actively work towards building a better future instead of passively reacting to tomorrow’s crises.
Some companies may be tempted to make minor sustainability conciliations purely for the purpose of promoting them in a self-congratulatory fashion. This tactic, sometimes pejoratively called “greenwashing”, essentially treats climate policy as a marketing or PR function. Apart from its questionable ethics, the greenwashing approach fails to acknowledge the immense business potential of sustainability.
The sustainability revolution
Source: Allied Market Research
Sustainable innovation is a rapidly growing space that has the potential to fundamentally transform the future of business. The global green technology market size was valued at just over $10 billion in 2020; it’s projected to exceed $74 billion by the decade’s end.4 Partly driving this anticipated growth are a series of breakthroughs in the emerging technologies space, including developments in the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, and artificial intelligence (AI).
The most promising next-gen innovations in the green space include:
- Smart energy management tools: Recent developments in IoT and AI technologies have made it easier than ever to gain effective insights into energy usage data. Read the U+ report How AI Can Save the Energy Industry Billions in 2022 and Beyond for a closer look at the energy sector’s exciting future.
- Air pollution monitoring: Thanks to a combination of next-gen technological solutions and record-low pollution sensoring costs, organizations are increasingly replacing legacy systems with connected ones, allowing personnel to draw upon actionable data in real time.
- Smart waste management: Innovations in wireless sensor technology are creating unprecedented levels of efficiency in the waste disposal process, allowing stakeholders to optimize their operations according to on-demand data.
- Sustainable farming5: Sophisticated IoT and machine learning interventions, as well as new sensor technologies, are driving change across a range of agricultural outputs, from irrigation to seeding. Also, breakthroughs in farming analytics have made it possible to minimize per-acre resource consumption while radically lowering costs. These solutions are all notable for their scale, sophistication, and ambition. A technological leap forward in any one of them could have an enormous impact on the long-term trajectory of their respective sectors.
The demand for genuinely sustainable innovation is as popular with consumers as it is with regulators, and it continues to grow6. The organizations that will capture the largest share of the rapidly expanding green technology market will be those that adopt a target-first mindset, align their environmental plans with their core business goals, and get an early start building tomorrow’s sustainable infrastructure. These tactics make up a long-term strategy that will ensure better results than, for instance, hiring a green PR team and posting pictures of recycling bins on Instagram.
The climate crisis is more urgent than ever. It no longer pays to focus on virtuous messaging. The time has come to innovate, build, and iterate—in short, to invest in virtue itself.
How U+ can help you digitize your portfolio companies
The U+ Method can lead the development, implementation, and improvement of innovations in pursuit of any business goal, including sustainability. To date, we have used this method to bring more than 90 products to market, creating over $1 billion in value for Fortune 1000 companies. Our success stories in the green energy space include building a variety of digital products, including a virtual mass-market solar battery concept, for top European energy supplier E.On.
Ram Nidumolu et al, Harvard Business Review, Why Sustainability Is Now the Key Driver of Innovation, 2009 ↩
Shadaab Khan et al., Allied Market Research, Green Technology and Sustainability Market Industry Forecast ↩
Joel Makower, BehrTech, IoT and Sustainability: 7 Applications for a Greener Planet ↩
Oliver Eitelwein, EY, Why sustainability has become a corporate imperative, 2021 ↩