Innovating business models for sustainability

Carbon Trust Advisory helps large businesses to harness opportunities and manage risks in the move t

Regulation, cost, reputation, revenue and risk management are driving many organisations to cut their carbon emissions, and become more sustainable. More businesses are looking at how they can put environmental sustainability at the heart of their existing business models. A fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company, for example, may improve manufacturing processes, minimise (or share) logistics, outsource the provision of physical assets used in manufacturing, reduce packaging, or educate consumers in minimising the in-use phase (e.g. use of water) and encourage consumers to recycle.

To maintain competitive advantage and mitigate reduced demand from a saturated or simply more tentative market, incremental improvements may not be sufficient, and step changes may be necessary. As increasing resource scarcity becomes a significant issue, and more businesses start to understand the cost savings that can be realised through minimising resource use, businesses are turning to disruptive innovation for sustainability.

Innovating products, processes and business models can help to deliver revenue streams that are decoupled from a reliance on natural resources. The need for a new approach becomes increasingly critical when one considers the current landscape in which businesses are operating. For example: raw materials and commodity prices are likely to rise in the future; customers increasingly understand the value of accessing physical products and questioning their need to own them; social media is also enabling the development of virtual communities and amplifies customers' thoughts and opinions to a wider audience than was previously possible.
Against this backdrop, there is the opportunity for forward looking organisations to develop alternative ways to deliver the value of a product or service, rather than focusing solely on their immediate features and functions. This will result in less traditional retailing of physical products to consumers - and a greater focus on developing services and experiences that will lead to longer-term engagement with customers.

There are a number of important concepts that organisations can consider when rethinking the products and services they offer:

Dematerialisation involves removing reliance on the physical product altogether - for example, using video conferencing rather than face-to-face meetings, or downloading content to view on eReaders.

Some products are evolving into services through the concept of access over ownership, which involves providing access to a product, and minimising the 'idling time' that occurs when it is not in use, by sharing with others. This is proving a popular model for durable products like cars, bikes, DIY/gardening tools, sports and outdoor equipment, homeware, toys and even handbags. Examples include Peugeot's 'Mu' service, that lets members hire a range of mobility solutions, including pedal cycles electric cars, and O2's leasing of Apple iPhones to customers. Alongside products, peer-to-peer 'collaborative consumption' models even include access to shared skills and physical spaces.

Product substitution is another approach to a new way of doing business. It offers an alternative way of delivering the equivalent value of a product. An example of this is selling insulation rather than electric heaters.

Samsung is a notable example of a company utilising upgradeability through their introduction of upgradeable TVs. Some latest models will have a slot able to take an 'evolution kit' - these will be available in 2013, with the aim of upgrading TVs to include the functionality of next year's sets. This extends the life of the TV and ensures access to the latest new features.

Companies such as Le Creuset cast iron cookware and Miele electrical appliances differentiate with lifetime/extended warranties, providing a strong after-sales relationship based around a durable and serviceable product.

New thinking around consumption and resource use is also encouraging debate on a more sustainable attitude to dealing with products when they reach the end of their 'useful' life. For instance the secondary markets model involves securing a 'second home' for a product once its original owner has finished with it; a franchised previously-owned car dealership is a good example of this, and Patagonia help their customers re-sell their outdoor wear.

Organisations can also consider a closed-loop approach, which means taking back products at the end of their life, disassembling/refurbishing components and creating a 'new', upgraded version. offers a service for the take-back of house removal boxes once customers have finished with them.

Alternatively, if a business could utilise 'waste streams' at the end of a product's life it could adopt the downcycling model. Nike currently utilises this model through using old trainers to make sports court surfaces and playgrounds. Conversely, upcycling creates a more aspirational product from waste - Elvis & Kresse turn old fire hoses into luxury bags, and Freitag transform lorry tarpaulins into messenger bags.

The opportunities above may be relevant not only to manufacturers of durable products, but also for other sectors, including retailers, providers of insurance, servicing/repairs, logistics and IT. Collaboration between and within industry sectors, and in the supply chain, can help stimulate innovation. Some organisations even run 'open innovation' platforms designed to enable customers and third-parties to contribute innovative ideas for new sustainable products and services.

Carbon Trust Advisory is experienced in helping businesses benefit from the opportunities of the low-carbon economy. It assists organisations in developing a view of carbon emissions and resource use along the value chain, and in using this information to build a strategy for sustainable growth. Financial and risk modelling techniques also help these organisations understand the business case for delivering sustainable innovation, and build a compelling case for change.

Richard Waters is a Principal at Carbon Trust Advisory.

Carbon Trust Advisory helps large businesses to harness opportunities and manage risks in the move to a green economy. Its paid-for professional services include strategic business advice, resource footprinting, new product and service design, and value chain decarbonisation.

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.