Uniting Innovative Approaches with Sustainability Practices

Although widely used, the concept of innovation is often misused. The same could be said with the concept of sustainability. For our definition of greenovations, we combined our description of business innovation with a synthesized concept of sustainability as articulated by a number of leading global organizations:

Greenovations create and capture new value by meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

With this definition in hand, we have conducted extensive research on all types of businesses, initiatives, projects and technologies to identify the best examples of truly sustainable, green innovations — concepts that make money and improve the environmental equation.

One important characteristic that connects all these examples of innovation together, as well as the specific companies and organizations that are featured in these cases, is that these stories are about greenovations in the here and now. In contrast, there are many books that have made compelling arguments about how to link the markets and environmentalism in the future. Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism, for example, made a splash by positing that of all the capital existing in the world, “natural capital” is the most undervalued. Governments could address this imbalance with a combination of incentives for good environmental behavior and taxes for bad. Although we heartily applaud his contention that natural capital makes “life possible and worth living on this planet,” waiting for governments to become the prime impetus to push this kind of change in attitude may take longer than the planet can itself sustain.

For those of us more impatient to see business in sync with the needs of the environment, these examples of greenovations demonstrate that we don’t have to wait for huge changes in the world’s laws or in political movements or philosophy to make the planet greener and make money while doing it. In other words, one message underneath these stories is that it’s time to stop debating about whether we can or should make money off greenovations; instead, it’s time to get busy.

In many ways, “greenovation” amplifies the message of Daniel Esty’s influential Green to Gold, which offers a very useful argument to business executives on how to green their businesses by integrating environmentally beneficial processes and products into their strategy. Strategy always comes first, Esty reminds us, because it blazes the path to sustaining profits. Green turns to gold when environmentalism is folded into that strategy. We wholeheartedly agree that all businesses cannot forget profit, no matter how philanthropic some of their goals may be.

In our research, we open Esty’s lens on profitable green businesses geographically and economically, including many businesses and organizations of varying sizes from all over the globe. We also devote some attention to businesses whose goal is to transform the lives of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid — Grameen Danone in Bangladesh being one of the most striking instances. In examples such as these, we implicitly agree with Jack Hollander’s main argument in The Real Environmental Crisis, which critiques the implicit contradiction held by many people between environmental goals and making money. Far from contradictory, it is affluent societies, he argues, that have the luxury to devote resources to environmental preservation and conservation. The US’s Endangered Species Act is a prime example of an initiative that would find little support in impoverished countries whose populations are focused mainly on their own survival — unless, as has been demonstrated by many countries, such programs are integrated into tourism and sustainable development programs.

Many disagreeing with Hollander would contend that making money in a capitalistic system is inherently un-environmental because capitalism’s need to grow continually cannot be sustained. But, we suggest that if capitalistic businesses grow from a foundation of sustainable practices, then capitalism’s drain on limited resources can be limited — as long as we’re innovating in a green way.

Editor’s Note: This article is an introduction to the IXL Center’s upcoming book Greenovate! Companies Innovating to Create a More Sustainable World by Dr. Hitendra Patel, Ronald S. Jonash and Tyler McNally. The book features more than fifty of the best products, services or initiatives that simultaneously provide real value to customers, companies, and / or shareholders and improve the environment. For more information on the book, please email us at books@ixl-center.com.