Posted on 03 August 2020
As businesses respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, innovation is needed to fundamentally and sustainably reset our economies, writes Mark Griffiths.
Innovation is often cited as the solution to the challenges facing our planet - from the climate crisis to the unsustainable use of natural resources. The pandemic has highlighted just how fragile our systems are to major shocks, and how broken our relationship with nature truly is. As we begin to reflect, respond and rebuild, innovation can help us solve many of the challenges that remain - but we need to be sure we embrace the right kind of innovation.
In order to ensure our economies are more resilient than we were pre-COVID-19, we have to enact sustainable innovation. This is broadly defined as a process where environmental, social and financial considerations are integrated into a company’s systems from idea generation through to research and development and commercialization.
Types of innovation
We need to see innovation incorporated at different levels in businesses, so it is truly baked into the company’s processes and has the most impact.
- Product innovation: This is when a completely new or radically improved product is brought to market, disrupting existing industries and potentially changing ways of doing business. Examples include “meatless” burgers made from plant-based proteins, such as those from Impossible Foods.
- Process innovation: This level of innovation focuses more on the systems behind a product or service. For example, sportswear brand Adidas has designed a running shoe made from just one material and no glue, allowing it to be completely recycled and establishing a circular, zero-waste loop. The ABALOBI initiative is working to support more sustainable fishing and empower local fishers through a suite of mobile apps co-developed with local communities, connecting cooks with the catch.
- Revenue generation innovation: Furniture maker IKEA is trialing rentable furniture, in an effort to prolong the life of its products and ensure they can be repaired and reused many times. This combines a process innovation with a potential new revenue stream for the company. Enterprise/
- Entire business model innovation: Innovations can result in a fundamental shift in how a business operates. For example, sustainability is now a major business factor for flooring company Interface, which aimed to first be carbon neutral, and then to have a positive impact on the environment.
- Sector/ industry innovation and collaboration: This is when entire sectors or companies in related industries come together to support innovation. For example, a coalition of textile, apparel, and footwear brands, value chain affiliates and their associates are working to achieve zero discharge of harmful chemicals to protect workers, consumers and the environment.
We should also consider regenerative innovation – stimulating sustainable consumption from the bottom up. We can take inspiration from ‘Doughnut Economics
’ which aims to provide a framework to “meet the needs of all within the means of the planet.”
A doughnut-shaped system would focus not on endless growth with disregard to the costs this brings, but rather on living in balance with people, nature and our climate. Many of the innovations mentioned above could fit into this model, as resources and products would be reused and so reduce the strain on natural systems.
Climate innovation at WWF
WWF has long believed that innovation is key to solving many of the challenges facing our societies. We are active in the climate and energy innovation space in a number of ways, including through an initiative called Climate Solver
, which highlights innovative technologies that provide immediate and practical solutions to climate change. The Climate Solver Awards honour climate-smart entrepreneurs and businesses from China, India and the Nordic countries.
At WWF, we are always interested to hear where we can make a unique contribution at the intersection of climate, business and innovation. We welcome a dialogue on sustainable innovation with companies, entrepreneurs and investors to accelerate our economies to net-zero.
Mark Griffiths is the Global Leader of Climate Business at WWF International.