How to Save the World—and Build Your Brand—Through Sustainable Innovation

By Tom Zara

“The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”—Albert Einstein

As we move forward into the second decade of the 21st century, the situation looks rather bleak. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is, as of this writing, approaching 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since the Pliocene Epoch, three million years ago. Scientists insist we have years—not decades—to avert the worst effects of climate change. Complicating and exacerbating the issue, mind-boggling levels of pollution, extreme poverty, resource scarcity, and an exploding global population provide only more evidence that we are facing a crisis of scale and urgency unprecedented in recorded history.

Corporations are often singled out for the role they’ve played in these problems. Considering the amount of resources they use and the impact of their outputs and activities around the world, the concern is certainly legitimate. And while it’s encouraging to see so many businesses making strides in CSR and sustainability, these efforts are largely behind the scenes and focused on mitigating risk or reducing costs. Social issues are frequently addressed through philanthropic gestures that aren’t always connected to a company’s core business. One-off corporate citizenship initiatives and traditional approaches to sustainability like “rationing” or focusing solely on operational efficiency are not only insufficient to address today’s challenges, but also miss opportunities to lift brand value. The big opportunity is to align CSR and sustainability with competitive advantage—and use solution-oriented strategic innovation to create shared value.

Solution-oriented strategic innovation for sustainability means finding new ways to improve performance through innovation in all three dimensions of sustainable development: environmental, social, and economic. It means thinking bigger, going bolder, and aligning your business purpose with a greater purpose. It means using the power of your brand to engage the imagination of employees, stakeholders, and consumers to bring new awareness and influence behavior in ways that are meaningful and socially and environmentally transformative.

Innovation 2.0

Innovation literally means to introduce something new, such as a new method or device. However, innovation for sustainability is more dynamic as we are not just talking about improving a single technology or altering a single approach, but taking account of numerous drivers at play within an organization or in the larger environment or social sphere.

Most companies, especially in the years since the financial crisis, have innovated in a more incremental, step-by-step fashion. More daring companies take a radically innovative approach, creating new business models, but doing it within a traditional business framework. The companies at the vanguard of sustainable innovation are leading the charge for systemic transformation, attempting to reinvent business systems that are inherently unsustainable or founded on outdated assumptions. What has become clear is that the businesses that are most advanced in the area of sustainability are highly flexible, adaptive, consider the economic as well as social and environmental impacts of their business, and think decades ahead of competitors.

Even ten years ago, very few companies were willing to consider something like climate change as a strategic issue, let alone a driving strategy. Yet, an increasing number of companies, including some top global brands, are coming to terms with the world that is emerging and finding ways to reframe trends, turning potential growth inhibitors into competitive advantages.

Take Ford, for example. Though Ford Motor Co. has been making automobiles for over a century, the company is only now on the cusp of some truly monumental changes. Describing the evolving car as a “rolling group of sensors” in a recent Los Angeles Times article, Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. spoke of dramatic changes to “the car as we know it and how it’s used in people’s lives” as well as a revolution in the transportation industry. In addition to addressing changing user needs, like the demand for more auto-driving functions, high-tech safety features, and “smart” cars that communicate with each other, Ford also acknowledged the growing world population and the inevitability of “global gridlock” as the number of cars on the road surpasses today’s one billion.

The idea of moving people in a hyper-congested world with different infrastructure challenges in every city—in addition to energy challenges and climate-altering levels of pollution—stands to change everything for the automobile industry. Now, solutions like electric power, hybrid drivetrains, and alternative fuels such as hydrogen aren’t just limited to concept models. In tomorrow’s world, smarter, cleaner cars will be the norm, not the exception. “If we don’t start imagining this future, and then start trying to help shape this future,” Ford said, “we’re going to be left behind, because this future is going to happen with or without us.”

How brands can make a difference—and boost their bottom line—through sustainable innovation

No single company, NGO, or government can bring about the scale of environmental, social, and economic change that will be required to deal with the many challenges the world is facing but, even so, brands have the potential to make a huge impact—and even turn the tide.

Think differently

Instead of focusing on what "should" be done and what everyone may feel guilty about not doing, develop a vision of a positive future. This helps people move beyond short-term thinking and encourages a reframing of the issues. What must be sustained in the long-term in order for your organization to thrive? What are the various impacts of your company’s sourcing, supply chain, production, and distribution? What is your biggest area of impact overall? That is where the thinking should start. Short-term frameworks and goals must be replaced with long-term flexible thinking. This can in turn enable organizations to stop making decisions in a reactionary way, and instead embrace a positive, proactive approach that will allow them to focus on, and seize, the opportunities at hand.

Summon the courage to lead

Following sometimes mitigates risk, but it’s those who lead that shape the future and ultimately succeed. If ever there was a time when we needed visionary leadership, that time is now. By having the courage to break with tradition, see things differently, and use their position and influence to help others see the importance and possibilities of sustainable innovation, today’s business leaders can start new conversations, initiate change, and cultivate a collective sense of purpose. Going into unknown territory is never easy, but for those who begin to question business as usual and explore bold new solutions—discovery, transformation, and remarkable leaps in sustainable innovation await.

Leverage your core competency

The most innovative sustainability leaders carefully identify the material sustainability issues for their business, match their business skills to them, and set an ambitious goal to fix them for their business and for everyone else by default. What great strength lies at the core of your business? Ensure that strategy and sustainability performance are embedded in core processes, where they can drive change, rather than being add-ons. Taking a more strategic approach to sustainable innovation will help you better address issues at the heart of your organization, allow you to apply your core competence to real problems that need to be solved, and help others, both internally and externally, better understand why your business is great at what it does—and that you do it efficiently and responsibly.

Remember, each consumer-facing facet of a brand—products, services, packaging, new business models, and initiatives like take-back programs are part of the differentiated promise a brand is delivering. The experience that stakeholders want must be integrated and manifested through every touchpoint. The best green brands walk their talk, are fully aligned around a single, clear idea, and know how to leverage their brand power in innovation to disrupt, transform business models, and inspire new behaviors.

Share your vision

Most businesses will sail along with the status quo even if the consequences of doing so are disastrous—which is why leaders with a credible, inspiring sustainability vision must step forward. While it may be true that the risk of being attacked increases the more you expose your point of view, it is equally true that your potential to reap the benefits of favorability, loyalty, and a differentiated position also increases. Don’t be afraid to share your vision of the future and the efforts your brand is making to test and implement innovative solutions. Use your sustainability story to build a culture of innovation internally, excite investors, and inspire consumers to adopt new thinking and behaviors that will have a positive net benefit for all.

Embarking on the hero’s journey

Ecological and social problems are generally not the result of conscious or deliberate intentions to harm, but can be attributed to the unintended consequences of production and consumption. It’s these unintended consequences that stand to threaten the continuing operations of global capitalism, not the natural desires of individuals to buy and use things that they want or need. In fact, the vast majority of humanity shares an interest in sustaining the complex and interdependent modes of economics, trade, and business that have improved quality of life for so many. Yet, to ensure continued prosperity and avert the worst future scenarios that scientists have predicted, the pace of change in the corporate sector will have to accelerate. After all, brands, by their sheer presence and scale, affect consumer behavior (for better or worse)—and their influence is enormous.

Right now, brands have an opportunity to achieve what governments lack the political will to do and individuals feel powerless to do. The journey toward sustainable innovation will be a challenge of epic proportions, but on the other side of that journey, we will be in an entirely new world—hopefully, a more balanced and equitable world where nature is no longer stretched to its limits, but managed with thoughtfulness, respect, and care. Who will take us there? Who will lead the charge? Heroic brands can reverse the course of destruction that is now playing out and have their names enshrined upon people’s imaginations—as those who stepped forward to act when the world was on the brink.