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Three Hurdles to Sustainable Innovation

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“Everyone agrees that sustainability is our defining innovation challenge, but why is it still so difficult to make it happen?”: The question put to me by a mainstream innovation consultant, and former colleague, as we discussed the state of sustainability and innovation. Like many of us, he had experienced innovation projects where sustainability falls-off-the-radar, does not feature when it should, or where sustainable innovation budget is not forthcoming. It’s one of the central dilemmas of sustainable innovation: few disagree with it in principle, but why doesn’t it happen enough?

Many barriers and obstacles exist in the operating conditions for sustainable innovation—the sustainable innovation investment gap, an unclear policy landscape for sustainable innovation, or business inertia on sustainability. All this can lead to a gap between sustainable innovation needed and delivered.

Yet sustainable innovation can also be hindered by more immediate and internal barriers too, like the tools, processes, and mindsets our innovators use today. Many of these more personal barriers are within our direct influence and control today, so are a great place to start. This article unpacks three important hurdles to sustainable innovation, introducing and exploring them through real comments I’ve heard people say recently.

Hurdle #1

“I’d never even thought about looking at our products through sustainability lenses”

Sustainability Is Not Even Considered by Innovators. Many innovators don’t think about sustainability in their projects, failing to see it as relevant or an opportunity. Here a CEO explained to me how every innovation project started with consumer focus groups to unearth product/category pain-points and unmet needs—which is often a major driver for innovation. I pointed out that competitors were most likely talking to the very same focus group and so “starting with sustainability can bring a new perspective and a potential advantage.” So how do we go beyond traditional approaches to get sustainability on these innovators’ radar?

Personally I’ve always found a strong business case and inspiring or relevant case studies to be essential tools. These can highlight i) that ‘sustainability means business’ and the potential size of the prize, and ii) that the issues are really relevant to a particular innovator’s category or world. Sustainability can be a powerful creative lever, as well as a driver for growth and differentiation, so we must work harder to get social and environmental responsibility on the agenda as an innovation opportunity.

Hurdle #2

“Sustainability isn’t really a big driver for new product development. We’re looking at other things…

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