Sustainability Through Innovation

From companies growing rich to addressing ecological and social concerns

The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer makes sober reading for anyone in the business world. More than 40% of those surveyed said they don’t know what companies to trust, while 56% thought companies that only think about profit are bound to fail.

These are easy results to understand when you consider the sustainability challenges that society faces, from growing urbanisation, automation and climate change to diminishing access to natural resources, concerns over wealth and wage disparity and fears about the manipulation of the media and global political systems. No wonder numerous studies show that consumers (especially those all-important millennials) want more sustainable products, services and experiences. They also want companies to back any sustainability claims with clear evidence of action. But how can companies win public trust when they’re often seen as contributing to all these problems? I’d argue they should start embracing innovation as a means of driving meaningful, sustainable action, both in the workplace and society generally. They need to show the public that business can provide solutions.

If that sounds like wishful thinking then let’s now consider the ways that business is already leading the way through sustainable innovation in the energy, food and apparel sectors:

The energy sector

Most people are aware of Elon Musk’s headline-grabbing work to create a scalable, renewable energy battery infrastructure but less is known about the global shift by traditional energy producers into renewable technologies. This year, Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest state oil company, will invest $7bn in solar and wind projects. And Denmark’s biggest oil and gas company, DONG, has turned its back on fossil fuel production altogether in order to concentrate purely on renewable energy.

This diversification has taken time and has been partly driven by the significant breakthroughs in renewable energy technology that have reduced the cost of solar and wind power production. The real innovation, though, has come from the way that the global investment community (led by US state pension funds and sovereign funds such as Norway’s) have come to value fossil fuels. This new thinking views fossil fuel investments as a long-term risk rather than an asset and this reimagining of what is valuable is forcing other sectors to develop sustainable products.

The food industry

Here’s a sector which faces the daunting challenge of feeding nearly ten billion humans by 2050, with an ever-increasing percentage of them wanting to eat meat. Yet currently, food and dairy livestock uses nearly 30% of the world’s ice-free landmass and produces 14% of all greenhouse-gas emissions. 

Weaning the world off its unsustainable love of meat is going to be a lot tougher than simply promoting flexitarianism. It will involve a radical rethink of how we get our protein. Food tech companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods (page 48) and Califia Farms believe the solution is to replace meat with ‘green protein’ from plants. Giant meat producers such as Tyson Foods are also diversifying by investing in animal-free meat innovation. 

The clothing business

Currently, this is one of the most unsustainable sectors in terms of energy, water, raw materials and the way it treats employees. But in 2014, Levi Strauss created its WaterLess jeans range, which slashed the 1,800 gallons of water needed to produce a single pair by around 96%. Nike, meanwhile, developed its Flyknit range of running shoes that reduced production waste by 75%. 

At the heart of this focus on sustainable innovation is an acknowledgement that consumers want accountability of sourcing. Nike, Everlane and Patagonia have all created online communication strategies that demonstrate the transparency of their supply chains. In 2017, labelling company Avery Dennison partnered with IoT startup Evrythng to produce a new generation of net-connected labels. These allow consumers to check the authenticity or manufacturing history of products as well as sourcing and recycling options.

Ultimately though, the greatest innovation for sustainable apparel may be the business decision to tackle overconsumption by persuading consumers to buy less. Privately-owned Patagonia has started this journey through its “Don’t Buy this Jacket” and “Worn Wear” consumer behaviour change campaigns. “As individual consumers, the single best thing we can do for the planet is to keep our stuff in use longer,”  explained Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario.

Now that’s how a business can stand out by innovating sustainably.

Matthew Yeomans is the author of Trust Inc. How Business Gains Respect in a Social Media Age

For more on trust, sustainability and other topics, sign up to our free weekly newsletter.