Sustainability and Innovation

• Sustainability isn’t the burden on bottom lines that many executives believe it to be. In fact, becoming environment-friendly can lower your costs and increase your revenues. That’s why sustainability should be a touchstone for all innovation.

• In the future, only companies that make sustainability a goal will achieve competitive advantage. That means rethinking business models as well as products, technologies, and processes.

• Becoming sustainable is a five-stage process, and each stage has its own challenges. Here’s how to tackle them and emerge from the recession ahead of the pack.

There’s no alternative to sustainable development.

Even so, many companies are convinced that the more environment-friendly they become, the more the effort will erode their competitiveness. They believe it will add to costs and will not deliver immediate financial benefits.

Talk long enough to CEOs, particularly in the United States or Europe, and their concerns will pour out: Making our operations sustainable and developing “green” products places us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis rivals in developing countries that don’t face the same pressures. Suppliers can’t provide green inputs or transparency; sustainable manufacturing will demand new equipment and processes; and customers will not pay more for eco-friendly products during a recession. That’s why most executives treat the need to become sustainable as a corporate social responsibility, divorced from business objectives.

Not surprisingly, the fight to save the planet has turned into a pitched battle between governments and companies, between companies and consumer activists, and sometimes between consumer activists and governments. It resembles a three-legged race, in which you move forward with the two untied legs but the tied third leg holds you back. One solution, mooted by policy experts and environmental activists, is more and increasingly tougher regulation. They argue that voluntary action is unlikely to be enough. Another group suggests educating and organizing consumers so that they will force businesses to become sustainable. Although both legislation and education are necessary, they may not be able to solve the problem quickly or completely.

Executives behave as though they have to choose between the largely social benefits of developing sustainable products or processes and the financial costs of doing so. But that’s simply not true. We’ve been studying the sustainability initiatives of 30 large corporations for some time. Our research shows that sustainability is a mother lode of organizational and technological innovations that yield both bottom-line and top-line returns. Becoming environment-friendly lowers costs because companies end up reducing the inputs they use. In addition, the process generates additional revenues from better products or enables companies to create new businesses. In fact, because those are the goals of corporate innovation, we find that smart companies now treat sustainability as innovation’s new frontier.

Indeed, the quest for sustainability is already starting to transform the competitive landscape, which will force companies to change the way they think about products, technologies, processes, and business models. The key to progress, particularly in times of economic crisis, is innovation. Just as some internet companies survived the bust in 2000 to challenge incumbents, so, too, will sustainable corporations emerge from today’s recession to upset the status quo. By treating sustainability as a goal today, early movers will develop competencies that rivals will be hard-pressed to match. That competitive advantage will stand them in good stead, because sustainability will always be an integral part of development.

It isn’t going to be easy. Enterprises that have started the journey, our study shows, go through five distinct stages of change. They face different challenges at each stage and must develop new capabilities to tackle them, as we will show in the following pages. Mapping the road ahead will save companies time—and that could be critical, because the clock is ticking.

Conclusions

Leadership and talent are critical for developing a low-carbon economy. The current economic system has placed enormous pressure on the planet while catering to the needs of only about a quarter of the people on it, but over the next decade twice that number will become consumers and producers. Traditional approaches to business will collapse, and companies will have to develop innovative solutions. That will happen only when executives recognize a simple truth: Sustainability = Innovation.

(By Ram Nidumolu, C.K. Prahalad, and M.R. Rangaswami: A full version of this article appeared in the September 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review).

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