The global Sustainable Brands community continues to impress and inspire with the growing levels of creativity companies are applying in their sustainability efforts, especially when it comes to elevating the level of priority of environmental and social criteria in product innovation processes. Products with a purpose are popping up in many shapes and forms, and many of them are proving they can perform really well financially. Indeed, the world’s first several billion-dollar purpose-driven brands are now a reality, as long-time analyst of the space Freya Williams observes in her brilliantly-put-together new book Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability into Billion-Dollar Businesses.
Not only can such sustainable products be highly profitable and responsibly produced, but they can also encourage desirable new behavior patterns among consumers, supporting smarter shopping and moderate consumption. Sometimes newly-minted products with a purpose can even disrupt entire categories in the marketplace, enabling forward-looking brands to pivot their product portfolios for greater sustainability without losing customers.
Below is a list of 5 types of sustainable products that I believe are particularly noteworthy right now, with solid prospects of becoming even hotter in the next 12 to 36 months:
1. Products that give new life to previously unused waste streams
A different way to put this would be to say that we are seeing a surge in products designed in line with the fundamental principles of a circular economy. And that shouldn’t be surprising – the proliferation of circular business models is a direct response to growing concerns about resource scarcity and troublesome waste streams resulting from the current take-make-waste economic paradigm, as well as powerful epiphanies about the potential economic value of many types of waste. A few months ago adidas celebrated its new partnership with Parley for the Oceans by unveiling the world’s first shoe with an upper made entirely of ocean plastic waste. While still just a prototype, this concept shoe clearly illustrates the kind of consumer-ready ocean-plastic products that adidas plans to reveal in the coming months.
Content creators for good
Join us as we explore a brand guide to collaborating with influencers and their audiences, as well as the role of content creators as brands themselves in the behavior-change movement, at Brand-Led Culture Change — May 22-24 in Minneapolis.
Other remarkable examples in this category come from startups Terracycle and Looptworks. They excel at ‘making garbage great,’ as Terracycle puts it, by upcycling various kinds of waste into uniquely-branded consumer products, furniture, decoration and other material assets ready for a new life.
2. Products based on bio-materials and biomimicry
The rise of bio-materials and bio-products has been more than noticeable over the last few years. With many categories of bio-innovation seeing sharp upticks in consumer demand and ROI, some products of this type are visibly causing non-trivial disruption in their respective industries. Global chemical giants BASF and Dow Chemical are rushing to pivot their portfolios in favor of more sustainable solutions, each with its own set of highly ambitious goals and initiatives underway.
And then there is a whole range of emerging niche players such as advanced biofuel startup bio-bean, the first company in the world to industrialize the process of recycling waste coffee grounds into advanced biofuels. Its business model is so promising that this year it won the Mayor of London’s inaugural Low Carbon Entrepreneur Award, while the company’s founder, Arthur Kay, became the youngest ever Guardian Sustainable Business Leader of the Year.
Last but not least, there is a special emerging class of products developed following the principles of biomimicry. The 2015 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, hosted by the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, asked participants to tackle any aspect of the food system that could be improved by looking to nature for design guidance, and has just selected 8 finalists to join the first-ever biomimicry venture accelerator program.
3. Products resulting from crowdsourced innovation processes
There is a growing list of brands encouraging social and environmental entrepreneurship through crowdsourcing campaigns. Typically, the ultimate goal of such initiatives is to fold winning ideas into the sponsoring brand’s portfolio, incentivizing and rewarding a wide pool of innovators in the process in order to achieve transformative innovation faster than the brand’s internal R&D processes would.
One prominent example is Unilever’s Foundry IDEAS platform, which acts as a digital hub for consumers and entrepreneurs to work together on tackling global sustainability challenges. The platform just announced the winners of its first three sustainability challenges, after the debut round of idea-sourcing saw over 70 community members submit more than 150 ideas across the three categories. Another example is LEGO’s Sustainable Materials Centre, a commitment to tapping all employees of the company in an effort to come up with alternative, non-fossil-based raw materials to manufacture LEGO toys and packaging.
The intersection of corporate sustainability and city sustainability carries a lot of potential for win-win public-private partnerships, though it remains relatively unexplored so far. Still, a few early movers are excelling at creating shared value, and reaping new business and brand benefits along the way. Among them is a particular type of product that I believe will thrive in the future, as smart city programs mature and start realizing the potential of more and more public-private partnerships – products specifically designed to exist in symbiosis with densely populated environments. Take Pavegen, the flooring tile company that converts kinetic energy from people’s footsteps into renewable electricity. It has attracted large amounts of attention thanks to the uniqueness and elegance of its value proposition, which is best suited for application in urban areas or other densely populated environments such as the Olympics. Attention-grabbing products such as Pavegen’s tiles will be instrumental in building the smart cities of tomorrow, profitably.
5. Products that aren’t products per se
I am talking about services, of course. Many of the brightest minds in the sustainability space would argue that if we are to transition to a sustainable economy, many products would have to turn into services in the interest of decoupling economic prosperity from resource demands. As with all previous categories, there are more examples than can fit in a blog post, so I’ll list my current favorite – Mud Jeans. The company leases jeans instead of selling them, encouraging customers to swap or return them after use. It’s not trivial to do that in the apparel industry, which is one of the poster children for the take-make-waste mentality currently ruling the global economy. Multiple kinds of novel partnerships are needed for a model like Mud Jeans’ to catch on, but the successful trajectory they have been on to date gives me hope that this type of model will grow impressively over the next few years.
As always, I’d be curious to hear what sustainability, brand and innovation professionals think about all of this — feel free to share your reaction in the comments section below. We at Sustainable Brands are strongly in favor of wider adoption of the five types of sustainable products described above, and we are doing our part to help. We’ll be tackling all of these topics at Sustainable Brands ’15 London next month, with virtually all of the companies mentioned above available on site to learn from and network with.