At a recent meeting of our Sustainable Business Models Group, Mike Barry – Head of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer – said:

“Sustainability demands disruption.  It demands us to radically rethink our business models.  Not just how we sell stuff in the future but how we create value”.

It’s always heartening when our partners take the words right out of our mouths. It’s helping them turn these words into action which they acknowledge can be tricky.

Our partners tell us that coming up with solutions which will change business models and create customer value isn’t the problem.  The difficult part is making sure that these bright ideas don’t get squashed by business-as-usual bureaucracy. 

The issues that come under ‘sustainability’ – climate change, resource constraints, food security, population growth, poverty and more – are so large, so pressing, that they are changing the  context in which businesses operate.  Businesses who have successfully based their business models on cheap labour, a steady oil price and abundant resources are finding that these foundations are being eroded.

Sustainability issues will drive waves of change in sectors and in the over-arching context of our lives - affecting customer needs, technologies available, resource availability, investor expectations, regulatory requirements and much more. Companies need to come up with radical new products and services just to stay in business.

Our leading partner companies – O2, M&S, Bupa, Kingfisher, B&Q, TUI Travel and Unilever – have come together through the Sustainable Business Models Group to try to tackle this.  By working with them, bringing in business and other sustainability experts and undertaking our own research we have come up with three things that we believe companies must do if they want to make sure that the ideas that will create a better future – for their companies and everyone else - are brought to market.

  • A balanced portfolio of activities is essential.  Some should be aimed at the incremental sustainable innovations which will capture the low hanging fruit such as energy efficiency. But at least some resources need to be devoted to creating and protecting the more radical ideas that will create new markets or shift existing ones in a more sustainable direction.
  • Make sure that sustainability and an innovative mind-set is embedded in your culture.  It should be evident in who you recruit, how they are managed and incentivised and where you look for new ideas.
  • Formal structures such as an innovation fund or company competition protect fledgling ideas from the grind of day-to-day business and allow them to flourish. 

If you’re one of our members or partners you can find out more at our Forum Network Event on 26th June: “Mini-revolutions: enabling brilliant ideas to flourish in your organisation”.  At the event, you’ll hear insights from leading companies who are testing out ways to create and foster disruptive innovation and can find out how you can implement it in your company.

We’re still working on our research. If you’re not a member but would like to see it once it’s complete (26 June) – or if you have any thoughts or examples of disruptive innovation for sustainability in the meantime - then get in touch with Zoe Le Grand.