Creating sustainable products and ensuring the long-term profitability of your business aren’t mutually exclusive. Consumers are increasingly shifting their purchasing behavior, loyalty, and priorities to support companies that prioritize sustainable production and consumption.
In 2021, the Global Sustainability Study (GSS) conducted by Simon-Kucher & Partners, surveyed over 10,000 consumers from 17 countries to better understand their attitudes towards sustainability including their willingness to pay for sustainable products.
Nearly 80% of respondents said environmental sustainability was important, with 63% indicating they’d already made modest to significant changes to their consumption behaviors towards being more sustainable.
The focus on sustainability skews younger, with Millennials and Gen Z more likely to have made significant changes in their behavior versus Gen X and Baby Boomers. But even older generations are making changes to better support sustainability.
The future of sustainability begins before a product goes into production, in sustainable innovation that addresses the long-term social and environmental impact of how a product is made, used, and discarded.
What is sustainable innovation?
Sustainable innovation is a conceptual framework that requires companies to make intentional changes to their philosophy, values, products, processes, and practices with the goal of delivering environmental, social, and economic value through innovation (e.g., the successful commercialization of new ideas.)
Sustainable innovation vs. traditional innovation
Sustainable innovation differs from traditional innovation because it factors environmental and social sustainability into product development. As with traditional innovation, sustainable innovation seeks to achieve long-term economic success, but without compromising the environment, societies, and people.
Sustainable product innovation intentionally incorporates and addresses the following three principles as part of the development process:
- Long-term impact – It requires businesses to assess the long-term impact of a product, process, or service to human rights, climate change, and the environment. Long-term impact balances the needs of today’s consumers against how something will impact future generations.
- Broader thinking – It requires businesses to look beyond their own goals or needs, towards how their products/services and company impacts local and global communities. Broader thinking means a company must consider how their actions and products impact the natural environment, their own stakeholders, suppliers, and employees, and even their competitors.
- Embedding sustainability in company culture – It requires companies to find ways to innovate in new, fast, and efficient ways and prioritize the environmental and human impact of the processes and products they create or revise. Sustainability must be baked into the company’s culture from the top down, with leadership actively engaging and communicating with employees on sustainability initiatives.
10 groundbreaking sustainable innovation examples
As consumer demand for green products and companies grows, more companies are employing sustainable innovation to help minimize the environmental impacts of human consumption.
From a smog vacuum cleaner to herb gardens in grocery stores to an autonomous balloon, below are 10 exciting examples of sustainable innovation at its best.
1. A giant smog vacuum cleaner
As part of an initiative to reduce air pollution and create clean air in public spaces, Daan Roosegaarde, a Dutch artist and innovator, created The Smog Free Project which, among other things, employs a 7-meter tower (dubbed “The Smog Free Tower”) to produce smog-free public spaces.
The tower functions as a giant vacuum cleaner, using “patented positive ionisation technology” that cleans 30,000 cubic meters of air per hour. As an added bonus, Roosegaarde uses the smog residue to create jewelry. The machine, powered by green electricity, works by sucking in the polluted air and releasing purified air through vents located along the six-sided tower.
Roosegaarde’s team compresses carbon-filled smog dust to create jewelry items like rings and cufflinks, which they then sell to raise money to fund additional Smog Free Project initiatives.
Smog Free Ring—Source: Studio Roosegaarde
2. A self-sufficient balloon
Founded in France by Julie Dautel and Cedric Tomissi, EONEF is a social and solidarity economy company that designed a self-sufficient aerial platform (a.k.a., a giant autonomous balloon) to bring energy to people in crisis situations. The humanitarian solution is a plastic helium-filled balloon powered by solar technology that can be deployed in 1 hour by just one or two people.
EONEF Aerial Platform—Source: EONEF
It can fly anywhere from 15 to 150 meters above a crisis site with wind resistance of 60 KM/h. The balloon has a payload capacity of EO-10 up to 1K and EO-20 up to 5 kg (11 pounds) and produces solar power that can be transmitted to the ground with a nylon cable.
The energy it produces supports onboard communication and camera technology. It’s essentially a flying, solar-powered generator that stores excess energy in batteries that can be used after sundown.
3. A planter that uses 90% less water
Currently, water use for agriculture accounts for 70% of total water usage, primarily for irrigation. By 2050, the food demand will have increased by 60%, creating an even higher increased use of water for food. This mounting crisis is what motivated Pieter Hoff, a Dutch lily breeder, to create the Groasis Growboxx®, a biodegradable planter (e.g., “plant cocoon”) that can hold up to 16 liters of water.
Per the Groboxx website, “The Growboxx stimulates capillary, prevents evaporation caused by the sun and prevents competition caused by competitive herbs.”
Groboxx uses 90% less water than traditional growing methods. It is an affordable way for residents and farmers in drought-stricken areas to grow food.
4. An AI-driven vision technology that helps control food waste
Winnow Solutions uses computer vision technology and AI to help commercial kitchens track, manage, and reduce food waste. Marc Zornes created the company in 2013 after working at McKinsey on Resource Revolution, a report that explored opportunities for saving natural resources like food, land, and water.
Winnow’s technology tracks waste usage by capturing discarded food via “intelligent” bins. Built-in AI-driven vision technology recognizes, weighs, and calculates the cost of the discarded food. This enables commercial food providers to understand how much food is being dumped and much money is being wasted in the process.
The AI-powered vision system automates the food identification process, minimizing the time needed to manually input data while generating daily reports that can be used to plan waste minimization strategies.
IKEA has achieved 50% food waste reduction in the UK since they partnered with Winnow. This translates to 1.2 million meals saved.
5. Herb gardens in grocery stores
In 2017, Albert Heijn, a Dutch supermarket chain, wanted to reduce packaging and plastic waste associated with buying herbs. They partnered with studiomfd, a design agency, to create live herb gardens in their stores.
Image source: studiomfd
The “help yourself” gardens capitalize on consumer demand for fresh herbs while reducing the use of packaging and plastics. The gardens are housed within two vertical walls that comprise 8 sqm of space in the produce section of the supermarkets.
The herbs are grown off site and transported to stores when they’re ready to be harvested, enabling customers to pick what they need (just a few sprigs or an entire plant). Customers can wash up at a nearby sink and continue shopping with clean hands and environmentally-friendly carts.
6. Turning carbon emissions into sustainable plastic
Newlight Technologies founded in 2003 by two California-based entrepreneurs, produces plastic from carbon emissions in a process that’s meant to one day replace oil-based plastics.
The company uses a biocatalyst that combines air and methane and reassembles carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules to form a biodegradable thermoplastic they’ve dubbed AirCarbon.
AirCarbon addresses two environmental issues: the need to replace oil dependency with something more sustainable, and the threat of climate change from carbon emissions.
It took a decade of research and development to come up with AirCarbon, which contains methane captured from landfills, farms, water treatment plants, and the like.
Methane is processed into pellets that are turned into products like chairs, bags, and cell phone cases. AirCarbon is a carbon-neutral material that’s 100% biodegradable. Nike, in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, recently announced a partnership with Newlight to use AirCarbon as an alternative to plastic.
7. Trash cans for the ocean
The Seabin Project was founded in 2014 by Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski, two Australian water lovers who created Seabins, trash cans for the sea. The Seabin V5 is a trash skimmer made of 100% recyclable plastic mesh which has the ability to capture microplastics down to 2 mm.
The units act as floating garbage bins. They skim the surface of the water, intercepting floating debris including macro and microplastics, microfibers, and other floating refuse. The units are designed for marinas, yacht clubs, and ports.
Per The Seabin Project’s website, “Water is sucked in from the surface and passes through a catch bag inside the Seabin, with a submersible water pump capable of displacing 25.000 Lph (liters per hour), plugged directly into either a 110V or 220V outlet. The water is then pumped back into the marina leaving litter and debris trapped in the catch bag.”
A single Seabin can collect a staggering amount of garbage each year, including 90,000 shopping bags, 12,000 plastic soda bottles, and nearly 36,000 disposable cups.
Seabins are part of the larger movement of seaside sustainability which includes efforts like beach clean-ups, legislation and advocacy, and the removal of harmful chemicals in sunscreen that impact ocean wildlife and ecosystems.
8. Clothing made from recycled coffee grounds
Coffee-as-clothing is a concept that Jason and Amy Chen, sustainability pioneers and founders of S.Café, came up with while taking a coffee break in 2009.
S.Café innovated a way to turn coffee grounds into yarn using a low-temperature, high-pressure, energy-efficient process that blends coffee grounds with polymer. This changes the properties of the yarn filament which, when turned into cloth, dries 200% faster than cotton. Coffee grounds also efficiently absorb odors and reflect UV rays.
S.Café partners with local coffee shops to collect used coffee grounds for their raw material. They also collect used coffee grounds and plastic bottles from landfills.
9. A biodegradable plastic bottle
VEGANBOTTLE® is the world’s first bio-based, biodegradable, compostable bottle. Manufactured by LYSPACKAGING, the bottles are made from biomaterial that serves as an alternative to traditional oil-based plastics. The bottles incorporate organic and mineral matter including flax, hemp, reed, shell, seeds, kernels, stones, and wood fiber.
VEGANBOTTLE® products—Source: VEGANBOTTLE
Products include bottles, jars, pillboxes, flasks, and caps which are transformed into bioplastic that can be blown or injected like traditional plastic.
Per VEGANBOTTLE’s website: “Developing an ecological product must take the resource into account. Agricultural land is intended to feed living beings and not to produce biomaterials. This is why Nicolas Moufflet, president of LYSPACKAGING sought renewable resources and bio-waste to develop his innovation and register his VEGANBOTTLE brand in a new circular economy ‘from earth to earth.’”
10. A net that turns fog into drinking water
Developed by the German Water Foundation, The CloudFisher collects atmospheric water vapor via a net that “catches and harvests water droplets” in the air, providing top-quality potable water to arid mountainous and coastal regions that are prone to foggy weather.
The CloudFisher was designed by Peter Trautwein, an industrial designer who spent over two years perfecting the process of producing drinking water from fog.
The CloudFisher fog collector—Source: Wasserstiftung.de
The CloudFisher can withstand winds of up to 120 kph and can produce peak values of 600 liters of water per day. In addition to supplying drinking water, harvested fog can be used by farmers, for reforestation projects, and for industrial uses.
Per the German Water Foundation’s website, “The innovative fog collector is simple to install and maintain, requires no energy. All used materials are food-safe. The CloudFisher can supply hundreds of thousands of people with top-quality drinking water complying with the WHO drinking water standards.”
Sustainable innovation is a global initiative
Innovation and sustainability can—and must—be connected to support meaningful change that addresses the social, human, economic, and environmental issues that collectively impact all of us.
At MassChallenge, our mission is to support innovation by driving increased connectivity across key government, corporate, media, entrepreneur, and VC stakeholders. We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to driving a stronger future through collaborative innovation.