6 Reasons Your Sustainability Innovation Is Failing

In 2013, Jennifer Woofter wrote an article for Environmental Leader that highlighted some ways your sustainability innovation might be failing. We thought that the article was worth another share. Enjoy!

For the last few weeks, I’ve been participating in Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizationsa course by David A. Owens of Vanderbilt University. It’s a Coursera class, which means that it’s free and open to the public — and it’s huge (with tens of thousands of students “in attendance”). I’m fascinated by the topic of strategic innovation, and naturally want to apply the concepts to my own field of study: sustainability.

And here is the question I’m wrestling with: why is innovation not getting us closer to global sustainability? Climate change, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss—for all the brilliant advances in “green” processes, products, and services, we’re still losing the battle.

But why? Or at least, why is it taking so long?

In particular, I find Owen’s analysis of common innovation hurdles to be a great aid to my quest to understand why current innovation efforts don’t seem to be making a significant dent in our global sustainability problems.

Owen argues that hurdles to innovation can come from six different places. I’ve listed them below, along with my own comments about how they apply specifically to sustainability challenges.

Individuals Don’t Have the Mindset

Are individuals regularly challenged to think differently and challenge assumptions? This holds true for corporate employees, government drones, and stay-at-home moms. How often do any of us really stop and think about why we are doing the things that we’re doing, how they might be done differently, and our role in the larger “system”. Without an innovation mindset at the individual level, we’ll never come up with enough ideas to throw into the mix.

Example: The “average” employees. For most of us, life in the American workforce isn’t a hotbed of sustainability innovation. We get our jobs done, hope for a promotion, and struggle to maintain work/life balance. Rarely do we really wrestle with how to creatively disrupt our daily tasks with sustainable innovation.

The Group’s Culture Doesn’t Support Risk

Maybe individuals have great ideas, but the ideas are killed while still “tiny sweet things” because they are deemed too risky, too expensive, too disruptive, or just too crazy. It might be the boss crushing your dream, or simply a group culture that doesn’t encourage exploring bold new ideas.

Example: The last time your Green Team took a “great idea” to your boss, only to have it shut down because it was too expensive or time consuming. (But definitely go ahead with those cute stickers reminding people to turn off their lights!)

Your Organization Isn’t Structured to Move Ideas through to Production

Even if an innovative idea gets internal group support, the organization (company, government, household, or community) may hold it back. In a company, this is often because there is no clear path for moving an idea through the corporate hierarchy, and the brilliant innovative idea flounders in no-man’s land.

Example: You’ve got an idea to shift your manufacturing plant over to renewable energy using an awesome new program offered by your utility company. But you’re a middle manager, and no one can decide who “owns” the process—facilities, finance, production, or legal—so your idea sits in limbo until the new program’s funds expire.

The Market Doesn’t See Value in Your Innovation

The idea is solid, and the sustainability benefits are tremendous. There’s just one problem: no one wants to adopt your innovation. If you can’t get your innovation diffused through society (or your customer base), your brilliant idea won’t get the traction it needs to scale.

Example: Loud snack food packaging. Need I say more? 

Society Doesn’t Accept Your Idea as Legitimate

The common example given about “societal illegitimacy” is human cloning: a fascinating innovation, but not particularly ethical (or so say the UN and various other governing bodies). The key concept here is that innovation must be seen as palatable — if not to the masses, then at least to the target audience you seek to change.

Example: I love the Zero Waste Home. This is a family that has radically shifted their lifestyle so that they generate zero waste. EVERY aspect of their lives aligns with this principle (they don’t even have a garbage can, just a tiny recycling box for the curb!). Now, this is certainly innovative, but I think we can agree that (at least for 99.99% of society) this is not a palatable lifestyle. 

The Technology Isn’t There

Even if everything else is in alignment, we often need technology to help us achieve the innovation. The technology must be available and feasible, meaning it can’t be too complex, too expensive, or too restricted to use in practical applications.

Example: Space solar power. It is definitely innovative, but the cost of the technology prevents it from being a realistic solution to today’s reliance on fossil fuels.

In many cases, there will be a combination of innovation obstacles preventing us from moving closer to sustainability. Sadly, these aren’t simple solutions to solve. (Just try building and deploying a space solar power array.) So where does that leave us?

Three thoughts come to mind:

First, if you are an individual employee with a great sustainability idea, it can be helpful (for your mental health, if nothing else) to preemptively identify where you are likely to hit a roadblock.

Second, if you are an organization looking for great sustainability ideas that will reduce your environmental impacts and save you boatloads of money, don’t just expect employees to come up with great ideas. Make sure you create an atmosphere that embraces risk (or at least enjoys exploring bold ideas), as well as delineates a clear path to help get those bold ideas into practice.

Third, take the time to understand your stakeholder preferences. Will your customers buy in? Is it legitimate and palatable to your target audience? What assumptions are you making, and how can you test them before launching into full scale innovation production.

The intersection of innovation and sustainability is a hot topic these days, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think is the biggest obstacle to sustainable innovation in today’s world? Leave a comment or join in the conversation on Twitter!