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This blog post is the second in a four-post series on Sustainability-Oriented Innovation (SOI). The first post in the series argued that SOI breaks conventional trade-off thinking. In this second post, we explore different types of SOI and the different ways companies are using it. The series builds on our published work on Accelerating the Theory and Practice of Sustainability-Oriented Innovation by Jason Jay and Marine Gerard.
Sustainability, sometimes under the banner of corporate social responsibility (CSR), used to be a specialty practice used by only a few companies, like Nike and Coca-Cola, to manage risks to their high-value brands.
But times have changed, and as we described in our first post, Nike is now using sustainability to drive the top line by enhancing product development and revenue growth with technologies like Flyknit. Startups like Liquiglide and its super-surfactant products, unicorns like Uber and its on-demand transportation service, and large systems integrators like Lockheed Martin with burgeoning renewable energy and energy storage systems are combining sustainability with revenue generation in various ways. Sustainability-Oriented Innovation (SOI) is the basic enabler of this trend.
Because SOI allows companies to push beyond their usual innovation boundaries and their typical business protocols, it is expanding the range of businesses that are practicing sustainability and finding new fuel for their innovation processes. It is also allowing them to reap the benefits of products and services that create social and environmental good.
The context and intent around SOI influences its final shape and form. Our research has identified three degrees of sustainability orientation: Sustainability-relevant, sustainability-informed, and sustainability-driven.
The most common form of SOI in the mainstream corporate world is sustainability-informed innovation (SII). The aim of SII is to meet a well-defined customer need using a design informed by sustainability considerations. Nike and its Flyknit technology discussed in our first post offer a good example of SII.
Many “green” brands and internal labels, such as Clorox Greenworks and Johnson & Johnson’s Earthward program, also fit this category. Some companies, like Patagonia, build their whole R&D portfolio around SII. Since its founding in the 1970s, Patagonia’s mission statement has evolved from “build the best product” to “use our business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”