Sustainable innovation: Is there any other kind?

Sustainable innovation: Is there any other kind?
Doing business in a way that means you can keep doing it for the foreseeable future

Unless you work in a business that uses roller desks and cartridge pens, you will have noticed that sustainability is more than just a fad invented by people who knit their own yoghurt. Sustainable business really just means doing business in a way that means you can keep doing it for the foreseeable future.


How to find where the grass is greener

Envirostep (www.ecoverification. envirostep) is an online tool to help small businesses understand, improve and communicate their environmental performance. It can also be used by larger organisations to assess the performance of their branches, suppliers or members.

And check out www.ecoverification. envirostep/Documentation/ WebBasedTools for a comprehensive list of other similar options.

Another way of looking at it from an innovator’s point of view is that the world’s drive towards sustainability has created one of the biggest new global markets for goods and services. A key driver of innovation will be about adapting to this reality and exploring the opportunities it represents.

Sinclair Knight Merz, civil, mechanical, electrical and environmental engineers and consultants, is taking a lead on this, partly because the stuff it makes is so big that everybody would notice if it fell down or made a mess.

Green thoughts to greenbacks

The term ‘lifestyles of health and sustainability’ (Lohas) describes a segment of the population identified by market research as ‘conscious consumers’. These people have been shown to express concern for environmental, social and economic justice partly through purchasing decisions and their support of socially responsible businesses.

They represent an enormous global market. Research commissioned by NZTE in 2008 found the global Lohas market is worth an estimated $910 billion. Other estimates put its value at US $290 billion in the US alone.

“If something is not sustainable long-term, the public are going to know about it when their rates for maintenance increase or when their services no longer work properly,” says Sarah Sinclair, SKM’s sustainability practitioner. “For us, sustainability is about building something that is going to last 30, 50 or 100 years. So you have to look at whether resources you need are going to be readily available throughout that time, whether it is a particular material like oil for maintaining tarmac, or water for cooling, or specifically skilled staff.”

As Nike found out to its huge cost during the sweatshop debacle of the 1990s, if you want to be seen as ethical all your partners have to be ethical too. This message is not lost on SKM.

“Our innovation and sustainability culture is the basis for our alliances,” says Sinclair. “We look for clients with that same culture of thinking outside of the box. We also have procurement tools in place for our suppliers. The main barrier to sustainability is people thinking that it is just about environmental sustainability, and they see it in terms of a cost rather than a value. Sometimes just the word is a barrier, but when you actually talk to people, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we totally believe in all that.’”

Instant karma

It’s not easy being green, but not being green is getting harder too.

If you are sociopathic enough to think, ‘Forget sustainability, I don’t care about everybody else, we are going to sell the whole thing as soon as it turns a profit,’ you are increasingly likely to find that everybody else doesn’t care about you or your product.

• Those investing in you don’t want to see you waste their money on unsustainable practices.

• Those buying the business will want to know they can make it run smoothly for a few years so they can earn off it, too.

• Governments no longer believe it is rampant socialism to stop businesses crapping all over the nation’s doorstep. Politicians are in the business of getting votes, and a growing number of the voting public seem remarkably keen on keeping their little bit of the planet in some semblance of working order. Politicians’ expert advisors recommend not letting businesses trash people’s health (because it costs a fortune in healthcare costs and lost earnings) or the natural environment (because it costs a fortune to clear up, and ruins the natural raw materials that keep the country working).

• This has passed on to government and local authority procurement people, so if you want to sell anything to them, you’re gonna need a lot of green bits of paper (and I don’t mean cash, unless you are reading this in Zimbabwe).

• And the all-important consumers might not care enough to boycott your product if there is no competition, but if the competition is good and green they will salve their conscience and shop there instead.

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