Sustainability is about thinking long-term. It's about avoiding risk, improving your company's reputation, and finding revenue opportunities in socially and environmentally responsible products and services.
There is a clear business case for sustainability: aside from the obvious cost savings from energy efficiency, the challenges of today's complex world offer opportunities for innovation. Andrew Winston, an acclaimed speaker and author of "Green to Gold" and "The Big Pivot," says challenges as massive as climate change and resource scarcity call for "a deeper level of innovation that challenges our long-held beliefs about how things work." We have to ask crazy, out-of-the-box questions. We have to commit heresy.
Here are nine heretical questions Winston suggests entrepreneurs should try asking:
1. What would happen if we were completely transparent?
Think about this one. It may lead you to think about whether you have anything to hide, anything that might not look so great if people found out about it. Here are a couple of my own follow-up questions: is this business decision something I'd be proud to tell my mother about? Is this something that would still look ok if it were printed on the front page of a newspaper? In the rapidly evolving world of sustainability, it's ok to be just starting out on your carbon-cutting journey as long as you state clearly where you are, set goals on what you want to achieve, and measure yourself against them.
2. What if all our investments went through a climate screen?
All our investments go through plenty of other screens, such as an assessment of their returns. If we think we might be investing in a product rapidly going obsolete, we don't do it. If we are in a water-intensive business, we're unlikely to invest in a location with chronic drought. What would change if we took the precautionary measure of mapping out climate risk and applying it to our strategic thinking?
3. What would a clean economy company in my industry look like?
This might require visualizing things differently. For example, we are used to the idea of retrofitting homes not built for energy efficiency with solar panels installed on their rooftops. But what if the paving stones in the front yard, the windows, and the paint were also helping to generate solar energy? What would shoe manufacturing without carbon emissions look like?
4. What could we radically collaborate with competitors on?
Often the best way to solve a systemic problem is by joining forces. The tire industry has gotten together to find market solutions for old tires to become a resource, not a landfill carcass. Cocoa and coffee companies have found they could source more sustainably if they banded together. The pulp and paper industry is working on the tough question of deforestation in round table discussions.
5. How can we manufacture without water (or another scarce resource)?
Winston cites the example of Adidas, which decided to ask the heretical question "Could we dye clothes with no water?" The company identified a partner to help solve the problem, and piloted a "DryDye" process using heat and pressure to force pigment into fibers. This type of innovation can become an interesting new source of revenue, in addition to solving a fundamental sustainability challenge.
6. Can I subject my product to a heretical design change?
As an example, Winston cites Kimberly-Clark asking this question: "Why do toilet paper rolls need cardboard cores?" The company launched a new product without a core, which became a successful part of its $100 million Scott Naturals Brand.
7. Why do we need packaging?
Hard thinking about whether packaging is needed at all, and whether there are better ways to do it, can lead to cost savings, environmental improvements, and possibly even new revenue streams (such as the "mushroom packaging" invented by the company Ecovative).
8. Why can't innovation come from the bottom of the pyramid? Or here's another one: Can we invite everyone into our innovation?
Winston writes: "The whole idea of open innovation is heretical. R&D has always been a highly proprietary pursuit." And yet there are so many examples of great innovation platforms that are not based on open sourcing. Tesla recently released its battery patents in the hope that industry collaboration could lead to innovation beneficial to everyone. Winston cites the success of General Electric's Ecomagination Challenge.
9. What if we asked customers to use less of our product?
This is happening. Certainly electric utilities, prompted by regulators, are asking customers to be more energy efficient. Some innovations, like stockings that don't run or light bulbs that last a long time, have meant that industries compete on quality and service and not quantity. There are plenty of business opportunities in reducing waste.
The subtitle of Winston's latest book is "Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World." Radical strategies start with heretical questions, and lead to great opportunities. Isn't it time to start asking these questions?