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How to Collaborate for Sustainable Innovation

How to Collaborate for Sustainable Innovation

Sustainable innovation often requires collaboration to access the skills required and value on offer, but is it not easy.

‘How to Successfully Collaborate for Sustainable Innovation’ was the subject of the 14 October Lavery/Pennell Sustainable Innovation Breakfast in London, which brought together corporates, startups, financiers and not-for-profit organisations (including BP, Balfour Beatty, Interface, Virgin and the BBC). The discussion is summarised below.

Why Collaborate?

The rationale for collaboration is clear (as discussed at the July innovation breakfast), and includes:

  • Many sustainable innovations are beyond the delivery capacity and capability of any single organization, such as those Companies_agile_quoterequiring scale, varied skill-sets, or significant funding.
  • By their nature, some sustainable innovations require peers to work together. An example is the aviation industry in relation to noise reduction, fuel efficiency and alternative fuels.
  • Other innovations are only viable if value is added by different types of stakeholders, such as companies working with not-for-profit organisations to combine beneficial products with credibility and market access.
  • Speed is becoming ever more important for innovation; large companies traditionally do not do fast/agile well – collaboration can help address this.

Figure 1 shows the types of value that different partners can bring to an innovation project.

Figure 1: Different Parties Bring Different Strengths to Sustainable Innovation



Collaborative Innovation Approaches

Recent Lavery/Pennell research identified 11 innovation approaches used by a range of companies[1]. Eight of these approaches involve collaboration (see Figure 2).

Good practice companies use most of these 11 innovation approaches, but many acknowledge that they do not do all of them well.

Figure 2: Innovation Approaches used by Leading Companies



Inspiring Examples

Several successful examples of collaboration for sustainable innovation were identified, including:

  • ASDA/Walmart working with its supply chain to share good practices in resource efficiency to save £1B p.a.
  • Marks and Spencer’s Schwopping program, collaborating with Oxfam and customers, which gives a £5 voucher to customers who bring back used clothes. This increases customer spend at M&S while addressing the licence-to-operate issue of used clothing going to landfill.
  • RBS Innovation Gateway, which invites shortlisted cleantech startups into the RBS estate to reduce its resource use (and bills) while providing a high profile reference customer for each startup to use in its marketing (which also advertises RBS and its community engagement)
  • Interface working with its nylon supplier Aquafil, the London Zoological Society, Imperial College London and local communities in sensitive aquatic environments to recycle old fishing nets in the NetWorks program. This nylon is being used in new premium Interface carpet tiles that have a social and environmental story.
  • Wiles Greenworld working with its suppliers to offer more sustainable office supplies, differentiating it from 4,000 competitors and increasing customer loyalty and staff attraction/retention.

How to Successfully Collaborate for Sustainable Innovation

Successful collaborative sustainable innovation embodies four key principles:

Share. While this may sound obvious, it runs counter to commercial competitive practices. For example, when working Lawyers_quotewith suppliers, ASDA/Walmart established a Golden Rule that those contributing their good practices are allowed to keep all of the savings that they achieve through resource efficiency, in order to encourage participation. Unfortunately, collaboration can break down when lawyers get involved, because they focus on ownership of intellectual property – a blocker to sharing. To overcome this problem, innovation can be done in a neutral space, removing the competitive element. For example, BAFTA is the neutral collaboration space for sustainable television production innovation.

Think beyond your sector. While there may be obvious innovation partners in your sector, leading companies look broader for opportunities. For example, BP is looking at how it can work with imaging technologies from the medical sector to improve its operational efficiency and minimise environmental impact.

Consider value beyond financial. Social value, economic development, environmental value, customer engagement, risk reduction, and brand enhancement all improve the positioning of a company and therefore, indirectly, increase profits. For example, Oxfam brings credibility and community goodwill to the Schwopping program, beyond its functional role/value of distributing returned clothes to those in need.

Continue to Collaboratively Innovate. Staff, customers and other stakeholders like to learn about what is coming next, rather than hear more about known successes. This keeps your sustainability message fresh and demonstrates a deep and ongoing commitment to sustainability that overwhelms one-off media scepticism. In addition, the more an organisation collaborates, the better it becomes at it, enabling the unlocking of more innovation, faster.

What Next?

The next Lavery Pennell Sustainable Innovation breakfast on 19 January will cover the “Why” of sustainable innovation with the topic: “Purpose: How it is reshaping companies and their innovation”. To register your interest, email greg.lavery@laverypennell.com.

More useful insights on sustainable innovation are available at the new information hub called The Innovator. There you can subscribe to receive regular articles on how to innovate more effectively.



Lavery/Pennell helps companies with Rapid Sustainable Innovation. We have identified billions of dollars of value for some of the world’s leading companies both through revenue growth and cost reduction – and established disruptive new startups including Rype Guides and Rype Office.


[1] Companies examined included BP, Coca Cola Company, Denso, Johnson Controls, M&S, Nespresso, Nestle, Orangebox, P&G, RBS, Rolls-Royce and Senator.