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The Innovation Director for a Sustainable Future

Looking back, 2011 feels like the year ‘the brand’ broke through on sustainability and there is now growing recognition, even excitement, in the role that brands can play in creating a sustainable future. It is now time to turn our attention to the mechanisms of making this happen.

The positioning and importance of brands can differ greatly across sectors and organizations, but there are some striking similarities in the way they are managed. For example, while every employee is a brand guardian, some functions have more direct involvement in brand development than others.

Previously I have laid out what sustainability might mean for the brand manager of the future, as those with chief responsibility for the day-to-day running of brands, particularly in consumer and FMCG sectors. This argued that if sustainability is a brand issue, then the skills and practices of those that lead brands would need to change in parallel. Lets look now at another key player, in brand development, who might make an equally critical contribution to sustainability – Innovation Directors.

An Innovation Director has responsibility for managing a pipeline of technologies, innovations and projects in a particular category. As well as ensuring these match new consumer needs, allowing the company to remain profitable and competitive, the Innovation Director for a sustainable future will:

  1. Know their corporate sustainability targets, and be remunerated based on the innovations that help deliver these
  2. Have in depth knowledge of tools and methods to measure the environmental and social footprint of the brands, products and categories they work in
  3. Be familiar and versant with sustainability innovation methods like cradle-to-cradle, biomimicry, lifecycle assessment, carbon footprinting, etc
  4. Scout clean and green technology diligently for promising solutions they can apply to their problems and opportunities
  5. Be steering the company’s overall portfolio towards decoupling the profitability of future innovations from their environmental impacts
  6. Have an extensive network of sustainability innovators, technologists and designers to consult on relevant issues
  7. Be reading Cradle to Cradle and WWF’s Green Game-Changers, and have heroes including Buckminster Fuller, Amory Lovins, Ezio Manzini, Bill McDonough, etc

Think this sounds crazy? Think again. I know the R&D function of several large businesses experimenting with cradle-to-cradle methodologies, plus a leader in corporate sustainability whose Innovation Director has successfully delivered Biomimicry-inspired products to the market. Similarly many business have placed their innovators centre-stage within their sustainability strategy(GE, Du Pont, PG, Philips), with tangible targets for the products, services and technologies to deliver against, plus increased R&D budgets to fuel this.

Yet the point here is less the specific details, and more that these issues will make up the future job requirements of existing Innovation Directors. We don’t need a new function; this is about embedding sustainability into existing roles and ways or doing business.

If brands are to lead us to a sustainable future then Innovation Directors, as a key player in developing great brands, will surely have a critical role to play. Yet only by focusing on the integration of such new skills to compliment existing ones, can we hope to deliver on the promise of sustainability branding, and move from rhetoric to reality.


Innovation & resource performance

Chris, love what you’re saying about integration and embedding sustainability into existing roles. Innovation is moving in the direction of increasing resource performance – of delivering more benefits to customers using fewer resources. This trend (which isn’t necessarily labeled “sustainability”) is more obvious in some sectors than others, but it’s happening across the entire economy. Innovation directors can play a major role in accelerating resource performance improvements by rethinking and redesigning products to do better with less. See our video for more explanation: By the way, Fuller makes an “appearance” in our previous video on design:


Thanks for the positive feedback. I agree with you that resource efficiency (as we call it over here) is an excellent 'Trojan Horse' for sustainability - though not the only one. On good thing about using this approach i that it is familiar territory for existing Innovators, so not quite such a new and scary way into the issues. Very good point. Thanks

Chris Sherwin is Director at reboot innovation, a consultancy on a mission to change what and how we innovate - making them fit for a sustainable world [Read more about Chris Sherwin]

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