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  • Flickr image by Doc Searls

    As Climate Week drew to a close last month, the media and sustainability experts lauded the private sector for its can-do attitude towards addressing climate change. That level of action is especially welcome coming from the thousands of companies calling for a global price on carbon.

    That increasing level of commitment and action from companies must also be applied to water scarcity challenges. From droughts in California and Ohio to the continuing water shortages in India, water scarcity will become only more pressing and affect billions more people with each passing year. …

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  • Flickr image by Tim Reckmann

    When Warby Parker launched its prescription eyewear brand four years ago, it broke the industry mold by offering a unique business proposition. Whereas most eyeglass shops depend on storefronts to bring in customers, Warby Parker created a business model based on bringing the glasses to the consumers. Using their “Home Try On” system, the company’s customers can order up to five pairs of glasses to try on in front of their bathroom mirrors – for five days at no charge.

    Much has been written about Warby Parker’s hipster brand identity as well as its social mission: for every pair of glasses sold, the company donates a pair to a person in need. What I find unique about its model, however, is the potential for sustainability by way of reduced resource usage. Just like Netflix and other virtual brands that have come before it, Warby Parker is cutting energy and resource use by streamlining operations.

    Once, the consumer marketplace was almost exclusively comprised of single-purpose brick and mortar stores – the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer and even the optometrist. Later, grocery stores – and, eventually, big box stores, retail outlets and shopping malls – put several of these services under one roof. It isn’t hard to see why the department store model was so profitable: erecting a store on every corner or in every town provides customers with convenience, builds brand recognition, and can even create a sense of community. …

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  • Image © CC Ilias Bartolini

    An abbreviated version of this piece was originally published in the summer issue of Radar Magazine – Issue 04: Better, Connected.

    Although a proposed increase in the US minimum wage stalled in Congress in early 2014, inequality has not lost momentum, and if anything, is poised to remain high on the global agenda. The Initiative for Responsible Investment at Harvard held a webinar on “Income Inequality and the Potential Risk to Investors” earlier this year, concluding that any company that furthers inequality could face substantial revenue losses from disengaged employees, lawsuits and reputational costs. McDonald’s echoed this sentiment by including inequality as a material risk in its latest 10-K. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund has become an unusual, though strong advocate of the need for countries to address income inequality because of the “dark shadow it casts across the global economy.”…

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  • Flick image of step pyramid by Ed Yourdon

    In 2004, the late CK Prahalad, an influential management professor and author, published The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, a book that urged companies to use a new lens to view the poor. Prahalad advocated for envisioning those at the bottom of the economic pyramid as producers and consumers of products, rather than merely as philanthropic beneficiaries.

    Ten years later, several large companies have adopted Prahalad’s ideas and, in the process, have demonstrated that serving the “base of the pyramid” consumer can make good business sense. I analyzed several of these “base of the pyramid” business models — what we call “Building a Marketplace” — in Model Behavior: 20 Business Model Innovations for Sustainability, a report that I co-wrote and released earlier this year….

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  • Flickr image by Barefoot Photographers of Tilonia

    Rice paddies and colorful tractors are common sights in remote parts of south India. So, too, are small shanties, brightly painted shops and coconut palms. But nowadays, in some villages, solar panels have also become part of the landscape, covering shingled roofs and competing with the palms for sunlight.

    The panels are helping to catapult energy-poor villagers – who previously had no, or only very limited, electricity – into a more sustainable future. This leap to renewable energy is the result of an innovative business model that’s being rolled out to low-income communities in the state of Karnataka.

    The company behind this new model is Simpa Networks, a technology company that aims to make sustainable energy affordable to all – even those who make less than $2 a day. In particular, Simpa targets customers who have limited access to electricity and use kerosene lanterns, which can pose health and safety risks, to illuminate their small homes. It also targets customers with little, if any, disposable income, who can’t afford to buy its solar products for $200 to $400 each – even though Simpa claims its system could yield significant savings over its 10-year lifespan. …

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  • The idea of business model innovation—that a company could launch a new business model never conceived of before, or transform an existing business model—has long captivated business leaders. And yet, executives are often held back by vested interests in their current approach: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But as global trends—environmental, social, political, technological—continue to shift the foundations of our current business models, incremental innovation will become less effective in enabling companies, industries and whole economies to adapt and succeed. There is an urgent need for fundamentally different approaches to value creation….

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  • In December we wrote about the top trends that our team tracked in 2013. If you missed them, here’s a summary to help you navigate to the main articles….

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  • Beyond executive pay, we’ve seen the inequality conversation manifest itself into ‘living wage’ campaigns rippling through the service sector in 2013. Image by Ari Moore, Flickr

    This is post 1 of 10. See next.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    “‘How can it be,’ he wrote, ‘that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?‘” That was President Obama quoting Pope Francis in a wide-ranging December speech on income inequality, which he called the “defining challenge of our time.” It also represented a high water mark in what has been a remarkable year in raising the profile of inequality as not only an urgent societal issue, but also a critical business one….

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  • Image by ravensong75 via Flickr

    Transparency on the rise

    Corporate transparency is a wide and complex terrain, including everything from legally required disclosures to employee tweets, much of it having nothing to do with sustainability. However, an increasing number of transparency initiatives are focused on social and environmental outcomes, from the rise in sustainability reporting over the last twenty years, to more recent bursts of open innovation. This increase in transparency represents a tremendous opportunity for business, the environment, and society at large if six key elements are done right.

    Transparency spreads far beyond reporting

    With the generation and capture of ever-larger streams of data, many sustainability professionals are asking, “What is the future of reporting?” Given the pace and nature of the changes afoot, that might simply be the wrong question for those working to drive the sustainability agenda forward.

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  • Prominent business sources have been making the business case for equal marriage rights on both sides of the Atlantic.

    Between traditional news channels, blogs, and social media, it can be hard to keep up with what’s making waves in the field of sustainable development. In this roundup we aim to cut through the noise with a handful of highlights that have caught our eye.

    The Business Case for Gay Marriage

    John Browne, former CEO of BP wrote a piece in the Financial Times expressing his support for gay marriage in the UK, framing the argument in economic terms: “Anything that fosters an inclusive environment makes good business sense.” He contended that gay marriage will “eliminate one more barrier to a true corporate meritocracy and deserves recognition as a matter of strategic importance in the global market for talent.”…

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  • At the risk of showing my age, when I was very young I was fascinated by the man that passed by our house every other week with his horse and cart letting out the cry of “any old iron!” He was a rag and bone man and one of the last of a dying breed that made their living collecting anything that people wanted to get rid of – metal or not. “Put it outside for the rag and bone man” was a familiar refrain in our house.

    The rag and bone trade came to my mind towards the end of the first Global Sharing Day, another step forward in the emergence of the “sharing economy”. …

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  • As SustainAbility’s web and digital media manager, I’ve been looking at how online tools and technologies can be used to support our work on The Regeneration Roadmap.

    The ambitions for the project are high, and engaging the right people in the right way will be key. Online platforms can play a significant role here: today there are fewer barriers than ever in mobilising people from all backgrounds and geographies to shape and get behind a campaign. From video blogging and social discussion forums to idea generation and crowd sourcing websites, the options available are seemingly endless. But where do you start?…

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  • Copyright (c) Kyra Choucroun

    Despite years of thinking about the traditional model of economic growth, it wasn’t until I drove through rural Ghana that it truly hit me just how spectacularly it has failed to deliver on the promise of global prosperity.

    In my last blog I challenged the widely held belief that infinite growth is both necessary and viable. That piece generated a flood of responses, from howls of protest at one extreme to speaking invitations at the other. And it was one of those invitations that led me to Ghana in the first place, to share my views on how Africa can play a part in tackling the world’s most complex challenges at a youth-led conference in Kumasi.

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  • On the heels of the launch of Appetite for Change, our team has spotted a number of developments and received interest in working together to transform our food system. And the overall theme of access to good food remains in the limelight, most recently with…

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  • With the backing of First Lady Michelle Obama and her campaign to end childhood obesity, Walmart announced a plan to open up to 300 new stores over the next five years in U.S. “food deserts”, wisely aligning its company’s growth plans with the high-profile, publicly-backed initiative. The company, which has reported falling same store sales in each of the past eight quarters, sees urban markets as a critical growth opportunity, and its push into food deserts is an important arrow in its quiver against recalcitrant community members that see only negatives in Walmart’s entry.

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  • Organisations as diverse as the US Government, the New York Mass Transit Authority and the World Bank have started publishing their previously-closed data for the world – and more particularly, their stakeholders – to see and use. This move to open data has many benefits, from fostering stakeholder participation in solving complex problems, to enabling third parties to dream up completely new services (such as mobile applications that tell you the fastest way to get around your city).

    Companies, however, have been slower to embrace the move to open data, and this was the subject of a recent webinar for our Engaging Stakeholders network members.

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  • In just the last few weeks, one of the worst E. coli outbreaks in history has killed 37 people and made more than 2,600 ill, academics concluded that climate change will have more negative consequences for agriculture than expected, and the UN’s Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization released a guide warning “world farming needs a ‘major shift’ to more sustainable practices as intensive crop production since the 1960s has degraded soils, depleted ground water and caused pest outbreaks.”

    Industry and food system experts interviewed for SustainAbility’s latest report, Appetite for Change, read trends such as these and conclude that the food industry is failing…

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  • Photo: Flickr user Meena Kadri

    A week ago, as I waited at a traffic light in Mumbai, I witnessed an incident of grand theft auto—well, perhaps it was not grand, but something was stolen, and it involved an automobile. Here’s what happened: A barefoot woman in a grubby green sari scurried into the street, carrying a big empty water jug under her arm. Without shame, she went straight to the back of a brightly painted water tanker truck which was waiting for the red light to change. On the back of the water tanker was a large faucet, and when the woman turned the valve, water spurted everywhere, soaking her sari and filling her jug within seconds. The woman’s children and husband watched by the side of the road as she stole the water

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  • 400 scientists from 34 countries worked for two years on the Global Food and Farming Futures report commissioned from the UK government’s think tank Foresight, and gathered an impressive amount of evidence on the state of our food system and the challenges that need to be tackled in the years ahead. Conclusion: to ensure food security in a sustainable way, nothing less than a redesign of the whole food system is required, and the change is needed now.

    Although I have a hard time calling this a bold statement in a world that is currently failing the nutritional needs of roughly one third of its population

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  • Lindsay Clinton is in Mumbai to round off 18 months of research on sustainable solutions to urban poverty.

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