is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, innovation encourages us to
consume. We feel we must have that latest version of the smartphone, with all
the consequent negatives involved in the mining of the materials inside it and
in end-of-life disposal. On the other hand, innovation can help us to contribute
to the world and to reduce our impacts.
Our research shows that conscientious businesses can,
and do, innovate new products, services and business models, that both appeal
to consumers and help reduce consumption impacts. This is not because these
businesses are more virtuous than others (although sometimes they are), but
rather because they see the potential of innovation to deliver social,
environmental and commercial benefits.
at the way Spanish fashion brand, Ecoalf, enables us to buy products made of
recyled materials such as used car tyres, coffee grounds and plastic, and
support the work of Mediterranean and Thai fishermen to upcycle the oceans
through the recovery and reuse of waste.
Why conscientious innovation?
conscientious approach to innovation is rooted in the belief that by thinking
critically about stakeholder needs (including those of the planet) it is
possible to do the right thing and to build a profitable business.
such as Patagonia and Unilever (numbers 1 and 2 on the 2023
GlobeScan/SustainAbility Leadership Survey) adopt this approach because they
are driven by a transformative purpose, but they also reap the benefits of more
engaged consumers, ecosystem partners and employees.
In this way,
conscientious innovation goes beyond traditional approaches to corporate social
responsibility and sustainability as adjuncts to business strategy, and makes them
core to what the business does. As Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, notes, the big
and escalating challenges of climate change and social inequality "requires
business to step up and play a key role."
How to be a conscientious innovator?
To become a
conscientious innovator, a business has to look outwards to understand the
stakeholders within its ecosystem and inwards to assess its own competencies
and resources. In so doing, it needs to assess the role of sustainability in
the decision-making of stakeholders and the viability of developing new
conscientious business models.
different strategies a company can adopt, such as slowing down consumption by
enhancing durability and encouraging consumers to change their behaviours,
designing circularity into processes, promoting repair, resale and rental, and
making social impact integral.
of a conscientious innovator is the Swedish fashion brand, Asket. Founded in
Stockholm in 2015, Asket had a clear purpose from the outset, which was to
enable consumers to live with less, by promoting a limited range of classic,
high quality fashion items that would be long-lasting.
implication of this was that the products had to be researched and tested,
supply chains had to be rigorously evaluated, repair and resale offered and
total transparency practised as a means of validating quality. When someone
purchases an Asket product they get an Impact Receipt, which shows the water,
energy and CO2e emitted at the different stages of the production process and
the margin made by Asket.
customer research, the receipt also specifies the number of times the product
can be expected to be worn.
August Bard Bringéus says:
"So even if you don't care about social conditions
or environmental impact, so long as you're interested in quality goods you will
appreciate that storytelling and knowing where your goods come from. And that's
kind of the key driver to helping people live with less also. Once you know the
story of your garments, you will appreciate them more."
can be a driver of progress, as long as it a) creates value that strikes a
reasonable balance among a company's stakeholders; b) fosters sustainability
and helps to regenerate the planet; c) delivers social impact.
there are challenges that have to be tackled. Balancing the needs of
stakeholders is not necessarily a win-win and often involves a moral cost: what
might seem a win for consumers might be a loss for employees and suppliers.
Also, changing consumer behaviour is challenging.
Sustainable Living Plan (2010-2020), which involved decoupling growth from
environmental impact, was difficult to realise, because around two-thirds of
that impact came from consumer usage.
some stakeholders argue against the involvement of business in social and
environmental issues and see only costs and not opportunities. Ranged against
the sceptics are businesses that use challenges as inspiration for thinking in
new ways and using conscientious innovation as a way of both doing good and