Why companies need partnerships to reach sustainability potential

[Editor’s note: This is the last post in a three-part series on sustainability innovation from the Network for Business Sustainability. For more tips, check out the previous two posts, Don’t fear the word 'incremental' and The next level: Designing products to meet your goals.]

In two previous posts, I described how companies can make both incremental and transformative changes that drive a virtuous cycle of innovation, sustainability and profit. These changes are backed by rigorous research: At the Network for Business Sustainability, we’ve dug through the top scientific papers on sustainable business practice so you don’t have to.

This time, let’s explore the third and rewarding stage of innovation: systems building. At this stage, companies see themselves as part of an interconnected ecosystem. Innovation involves reaching out beyond the walls of your own organization. Done right, it can push your company to the pinnacle of sustainable business practice.

Innovations for stage one companies minimize the harm they cause by selling conventional products and service. Innovation at this stage includes reducing product packaging, introducing hybrid fleet vehicles or decreasing the miles sales teams travel. Stage two companies generate revenues by creating products and services that are environmentally or socially responsible. Think of the Tata Nano, a revolutionary car that provided affordable mobility to millions of people in India. (Recent reports, however, suggest Tata is going to have to change its marketing approach.)

Stage 3: Building systems

Systems building is a complex, long-term venture.

Stage three organizations are the most highly evolved forms of sustainable business. They work with partners from previously unrelated areas or industries to build sustainable systems or “circular economies.” In a circular economy, one firm’s waste becomes another company’s raw material. After all, as the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is quoted as saying, “Wastes are merely raw materials we’re too stupid to use.”

Image of 3d small people by Art3d  via Shutterstock.

Next page: Opportunities for symbiosis