How to shape the future

6th September 2013


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Nick Coad and Paul Pritchard explain why sustainability professionals must develop skills to support innovation

Concepts such as the circular economy and shared-value business models show how radical and potentially disruptive innovation is at the heart of new sustainability thinking.

Leading firms – including BT, Kingfisher, Kyocera, Marks & Spencer, Nike, P&G and Unilever – are focused on creating business opportunities from sustainability and developing new green products and services. Fostering innovation is an increasingly important part of the role of high-level sustainability professionals.

Innovation covers both the generation of ideas and their successful implementation. There is a big difference between coming up with ideas and ensuring they go on to achieve something. As the famous entrepreneur Thomas Edison said: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

It is also important to remember that innovation is a discipline that can be managed, but it requires a different approach to the traditional command-and-control processes used to manage environmental or social impacts, such as ISO 14001.

Three phases

Innovation and sustainability activities can be classified using three phases based on the degree of change involved:

  1. Incremental changes – such as improving operational efficiency and altering existing products and processes.
  2. New products and services.
  3. Systemic or disruptive change that may involve new business models, platforms and ultimately the transition of whole sectors/economies.

The skills needed by sustainability executives and departments are very different for organisations working at phase I, compared with those at phases II or III. The table below summarises the opportunities for innovation and the skills needed to support it.

Phase I requires organisations to develop new processes, standards for operations and reporting – traditional command-and-control tools where technical subject matter expertise is vital.

Moving up to phase III requires executives and teams with experience of leading innovation or managing change, to create new business plans and brands.

Correspondingly, there is also a need for a greater understanding across the business in the non-sustainability functions of the environmental and social impacts of their roles.

Leadership position

Sustainability is about the big picture and provides the “meaning-of-life” type questions that are important in creating a sense of purpose for innovation. This means that sustainability professionals are well placed to lead on innovation in their organisation. Furthermore, they are also used to:

  • working collaboratively with colleagues and external groups;
  • working transparently in a way that builds trust in partnerships; and
  • having large networks of like-minded contacts.

We are starting to see a convergence of sustainability and innovation and this trend is expected to continue.

Nike is one organisation bringing the two elements together with spectacular results. The sports goods company describes sustainability as the world’s greatest innovation challenge. It says that retrofitting and fine-tuning the approaches of the past will simply not solve the problems the world is facing.

“The world needs new systems, new business models, new relationships and new ways of thinking. Sustainability requires transformation, and innovation lies at the heart of that process,” states the company’s sustainability strategy.

Innovation will play an increasingly important role in the careers of sustainability professionals. There will be significant opportunities in the future for them to support and lead innovation but, unless they develop the right skills, they are likely to face increasing competition from those outside the sustainability profession for these roles.

Nick Coad and Paul Pritchard are partners at the consultancy Sandwalk and authors of Leading sustainable innovation.

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