Let’s not be too downcast- we know it can be done. B&Q is developing power tool rental and repair options- a circular economy holy grail switch from product to service. Interface's commitment to closed loop, modular carpets was famously triggered by Chairman Ray Anderson's 'spear in the chest epiphany.' There are plenty of nascent examples of ‘green’ product innovation, particularly in the automobile sector where the penny has well and truly dropped that electric cars are the future. (See my blog on BMW’s i3).
Despite all this, the responsible innovation tide has not turned yet for most businesses. So what’s stopping us? Justin Adams, The Nature Conservancy’s new Managing Director for Global Lands in the UK and former BP renewables executive has some interesting insight from his time at the oil giant:
“I…learned how hard it is for any organization to innovate away from its core competence. There were all sorts of forces that constantly brought BP back to its core purpose of extracting fossil energy as efficiently and responsibly as it can. Large corporations want to work more responsibly but can’t get there on their own—that’s why our work with corporations is so important. Part of protecting the lands and waters on which all life depends is determining how to make that mission an integral part of economic development”
Although Justin doesn't elaborate on what these forces might be that so efficiently prevented BP from innovating 'away from its core competence', one can well imagine they ranged from investor interests, urging more immediate returns, to cultural factors and a strong temptation to stick with a tried and tested profit generator that doesn't require major restructuring or risk-taking. History has a few lessons to share from companies who clung grimly to their original business model despite warning signs that the market was beginning to shift under their feet- and paid the ultimate price. (See the follow-up blog from Jesper Ekelund elaborating on this here)
I have to agree with Justin on the huge potential of partnerships to tip the balance. It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect businesses founded on a particular model to make fundamental shifts towards more environmentally and socially regenerative methods of income generation in isolation. The status quo is often too strong a straitjacket. This is where the power of partnerships comes in. Not just partnerships between businesses and NGOs, but collaboration at every level, incorporating insights and challenges from customers and stakeholders, competitors and sceptics. 'Critical Friends' with the ability to ask the obvious, sometimes uncomfortable questions and suggest left field solutions. Such an approach doesn't neutralise those cultural and institutional forces every large organisation will inevitably face, but it might just help you pull in the right direction.
After all, if you wanted to rewire your house to make it safe- you’d probably ask an electrician. As a business, if you want to rewire your business model to fit within planetary boundaries- you surely need input from organisations whose mission, expertise or interests are geared to this purpose.
by Jenny Ekelund