Product innovation still lacking among businesses, claims sustainability expert

EXCLUSIVE: For businesses battling the perfect storm of volatile raw material prices, international conflict and global warming, the best form of defence is attack and product innovation holds the key to prepare for an increasingly uncertain future.

That’s the view of Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability at Seymourpowell, who believes company’s “must adopt an innovation mind-set rather than arguing, disagreeing or trying to manage their way out of trouble”, but fears “the penny still hasn’t dropped for many”. 

Speaking exclusively to edie, Sherwin said: “The best way to prepare for an uncertain future is to be ahead of any future risks. A business’s R&D and product development teams must start seeing these risks as innovation opportunities. 

“Any company’s core business is its products. But it’s still possible to be a sustainability leader without ever really touching your products. Two or three years ago, I thought there was going to be a new wave of sustainability driven innovation, but it hasn’t quite come through in the way I would have expected. 

“Even the real leaders are still designing, making and selling the same stuff made in slightly more sustainable ways rather than thinking about what new stuff they need to do. Concepts like the circular economy are starting to change that thinking, but it’s not happening anywhere near as fast as I had thought and hoped.”

Disruptive innovation 

Sherwin, who has 15 years’ experience in the sustainability field and was previously head of innovation at Forum for the Future, will be among the expert speakers at the brand new Sustainability Live Conference in April; featuring in a session about ‘Managing Risk and Embedding Resilience’ on the first day of the show. 

And if ‘resilience’ is a proxy for what we need to do to prepare for a sustainable future, Sherwin says businesses must be nothing other than disruptive with their strategies going forward – or else face falling behind in the race to a sustainable future. 

“Creating the disruptive ideas is actually the easy bit, implementing those ideas is the difficult bit. And when you add sustainability into that mix, things get even harder.,” he added. 

“I can really imagine many businesses being too late on this – after a few years of working in the field, the lack of any urgency or pace of change is really worrying. There’s something about the long-term timeframes that don’t seem to be able to kick businesses into real action. I fear that lots of existing businesses are not doing anywhere near enough.”

Opportunity knocks 

There are, of course, businesses that are doing enough to mitigate risks and build resilience into their strategies – Sherwin pointed to InterfaceNikeNestlé and Ecover as examples of companies that are pushing boundaries with their approaches to sustainability, both within their own organisations and through collaboration with the supply chain. 

“It all goes back to innovation,” Sherwin concluded. “From my experience, the best way to manage risks is to see them as real opportunities to innovate. I question whether we’re going to be able to manage our way out of trouble. 

“Adopting the mind-set of an innovator for your big risks – whether those are climate risks or material risks – is absolutely crucial.”

Sherwin’s views go hand-in-hand with those of Richard Miller, head of sustainability at Innovate UK, who said 2015 will be the year that sustainability becomes an integral part of business innovation, with an increase in collaborative research and development projects and a gradual reconfiguration of supply chains to encourage closed-loop production processes. 

Chris Sherwin at Sustainability Live

From international conflict to climate change and extreme weather conditions, Chris Sherwin will address the issues surrounding the management of risk in your supply chain and how to build resilience into your business model during his discussion at the Sustainability Live Conference in April. 

View the full agenda for Sustainability Live 2015 and register to attend for free here.

Luke Nicholls

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