Graphic of DNA. Industrial background. A\J AlternativesJournal.ca

In September 2012, the Leadership Council of the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) identified innovation as one of the top sustainability challenges for businesses. Luckily, NBS, a Canadian non-profit established in 2005, has been exploring what innovation activities firms engage in to become sustainable.

Building on over 20 years of research, including a review of 127 academic sources, NBS authored the Innovating for Sustainability report, which outlines a three-stage framework that businesses can use as an “aspirational vehicle” to guide their innovation towards sustainability. As companies move towards the third stage, from small improvements in efficiency to larger societal impacts, they approach the “ideal of true sustainable business.”

Source: Executive Report: Innovating for Sustainability from NBS.

Examples of stage one actions (“operational optimization”) include pollution controls and reduced packaging – making changes to current practices in order to do less harm. Stage two (“organizational transformation”) includes new products that change consumption habits, or leasing products instead of selling them. Stage three (“systems building”) is cooperating with other organizations to create a circular economy, in which one company’s waste is another’s resource and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

NBS provided Landskrona, a Swedish multi-sector program, as an example of stage three “industrial symbiosis.” Companies and public organizations united to find solutions to sustainability challenges. In one case wastewater from a car glass manufacturer was treated and used by a printing company, instead of using potable water and creating more wastewater.

Based on the studies reviewed, 70 per cent of businesses are at stage one, 28 per cent at stage two and the remaining two per cent are “ambidextrous organizations”, a combination of stages. While many companies are undertaking sustainability initiatives, it is clear there is still a great deal of progress to be made, since the review found no organizations in the ideal third stage.

According to NBS, “Canadian companies are not taking the risks required to generate innovations.” The value of the Innovating for Sustainability report is its applicability to all levels of sustainability commitments, therefore serving to reduce risks associated with deviating from business as usual.

You can also apply the framework on a personal level, increasing your own sustainability and pushing for better practices from the people and organizations that you interact with.

You can innovate towards sustainability in your own life by doing the same things better (like eating more local and organic food), doing good by doing new things (growing your own food) and then doing good by doing new things with others (starting a community garden, swapping preserves or advocating for a food charter in your city).

What great examples of innovating for sustainability have you come across – or implemented in your own life? Share them in the comments!

Julie is an urban planning graduate student at the University of Waterloo, focusing on sustainable transportation.

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