How sustainable innovation helped these five corporates reinvent themselves

It’s easy for corporates to see sustainability as a cost. But what if sustainability is an engine for innovation and the transformation of a business? A Harvard Business Review study...

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June 7, 2021
SDG & Sustainability

In this blog, I wanted to share five corporates that inspired me with their mix of sustainability and innovation.

Nike: new shoes, new materials

Sneakers are hugely popular. Which in turn, has led to concerns about the environmental impact of shoe production. Nike is at the forefront of tackling these issues, among other examples, by inventing a range of new materials.

They launched Flyknit, a lightweight fabric for the upper part of the shoe, that produces 60% less waste. On top of that, it comes with a whole range of advantages: the tissue is breathable, and creates ventilation. At the same time it adjusts more tightly to the foot shape, thereby creating a better running experience.

Another example is Flyleather, Nike’s new alternative to real leather. Leather has one of the highest environmental impacts of shoe materials, so Nike combined recycled leather, that is generally left in the production halls, and combined it with synthetic tissue to create the touch, feel and durability of real leather, but with significantly less environmental impact.

So not only do these materials reduce the waste of shoe production, they also offer a range of advantages for consumers and production efficiency.

IKEA: not just furniture

Another corporate that places sustainability at the core of their innovation is IKEA. The Swedish furniture giant incorporates sustainability in their product design. They use recycled elements, such as plastic or wood, in their furniture, and by 2030 they want to be completely circular.

But sustainability also helped IKEA diversify their business model. The restaurants at IKEA stores have become popular stand-alone businesses: in 2017 the company even revealed that 30% of restaurant visitors came there just to eat. A big part of that success are the vegetarian options: their plant-based hot-dogs and meatballs are legendary in their own right. On top of that, IKEA wants their restaurant meals to be 50% plant-based by 2025. IKEA has also expanded into building solar panels on houses, which they hope to offer in 30 markets by 2025.

Microsoft: funding change

Sustainable innovation can also mean incentivising change outside your own organisation, and Microsoft is a great example of this. The US software icon does, of course, have hefty internal sustainability goals: it wants to be carbon negative by 2030.

Yet it also finances clean technology opportunities outside of its own company borders. A key part of their effort is a Climate Innovation Fund, which will invest 1 billion dollars in sustainable solutions between 2020 and 2024. Another area on which Microsoft is focusing is carbon removal. Combating climate change won’t only require expelling less CO2, but also capturing and removing existing emissions from the atmosphere. Microsoft has opened a call to remove 1 million metric tons of carbon in 2021, which other companies can fill in. Thereby they push the development of this key new area of sustainable technology.

Shell: from oil to hydrogen giant

Royal Dutch Shell is of course a highly controversial pick for this list. The Anglo-Dutch oil company has contributed heavily to climate change. Yet even Shell is seeing that the future is sustainable, and they’re trying to change their business before fossil fuels finally make their exit.

For Shell hydrogen is a key to that transformation. The company invests heavily in the new fuel. They even started up a project where the production of hydrogen is tied to offshore wind farms, thereby producing so-called “green hydrogen.” In this way the old oil expert is trying to stay relevant in this new age.

Walmart: innovating supply chains

Corporates have tremendous power to change supply chains, which the massive US retailer Walmart has proven. Until recently the company had quite a negative reputation on sustainability. In 2005, up to 8% of shoppers stopped going to Walmart because of environmental reasons, which pushed them to change.

Among other actions, they forced their entire supply chain to innovate. Walmart pushed Unilever to introduce smaller packaging for detergent, even though research showed that customers leaned towards bigger boxes. They started Project Gigaton, which aims to prevent the release of a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. And they even prepared their supply chain for (climate-change induced) disasters.

So whether it’s through new materials, new products, new business models or change inside or outside your organisation, sustainability can be a key pillar for innovation. Time to stop looking at it as merely a cost and get into the commercial ‘saving the world’ mindset that nexxworks Partner Steven Van Belleghem describes in his latest book “The Offer You Can’t Refuse”.

Interested in what sustainable innovation could mean for your company? Contact Eline for a coffee and a chat at

Eline Lostrie
Eline Lostrie
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June 7, 2021
SDG & Sustainability