This article is part of an ongoing series that describes the concept of “Sustainable Business Model Innovation” (SBM-I) and how companies are putting it to use.
You may have noticed that every day there’s another announcement about companies making new climate commitments, asset managers outlining their plans for ESG integration, or regulators proposing new disclosures or extending producers’ responsibilities. Corporate coalitions like the World Economic Forum International Business Council and the US Business Roundtable endorse a more stakeholder-inclusive corporate capitalism while industry coalitions work to solve their members’ shared sustainability challenges. And employees and consumers call on employers and brands to take environmental and social challenges seriously. All of this makes clear that we have entered a new era for business, one in which sustaining competitive advantage requires companies to transform their business models for sustainability.
Company leaders need a broader, more systemic understanding of these dynamic sustainability challenges and the ways that their companies can play a part in addressing them. Fortunately, as some farsighted businesses are discovering, the most powerful opportunities for profitable innovation are embedded in these same challenges. Let’s consider three examples.
The first is Telenor, the leading Norwegian mobile operator. In 2008, having entered Pakistan three years earlier, it joined forces with the microfinance bank Tameer. With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), they launched a new service called Easypaisa, providing mobile-based financial services to the unbanked and underbanked. By the end of 2019, Telenor Microfinance Bank (the result of Telenor’s acquisition of Tameer) boasted the largest branchless banking service in Pakistan, growing its Easypaisa mobile wallet user base to 6.4 million, its depositor base to 17 million, and the transactions volume through its agent network to about PKR 1 trillion (approximately $6 billion). This service has significantly advanced financial inclusion in Pakistan and established Telenor as a major telecom enterprise there.
Or consider Ajinomoto, a global food and biotech company based in Japan. It produces seasonings, sweeteners, and pharmaceuticals. As part of its 2030 vision and growth strategy to “help one billion people worldwide lead a healthier life,” Ajinomoto is exploring a new “personalized nutrition for health” business. Combining its core nutrition expertise and new technology, the company aims to provide customers with digitally enabled diagnostics, analytics, and product recommendations. These would guide people toward the kind of well-balanced amino acid intake that boosts cognitive and physiological functions and helps prevent aging-related diseases like dementia—a prominent societal issue in Japan.
Another example is Indigo Ag, a US-based agricultural technology startup that was valued at $1.4 billion in 2017. In 2019, the company launched a service called Indigo Carbon to help incentivize farmers to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in their soil. The service provides technologies and recommendations for regenerative agriculture practices. The ultimate goal is to pay farmers for each ton of carbon captured and then sell certifications to companies looking to offset their carbon footprints. By supporting a transparent carbon credit marketplace, Indigo Carbon creates benefits for all participants: the farmers, the companies buying the offsets, the planet, and its own business.
What do these three companies have in common? Regardless of industry, geography, or size, they (and dozens of others like them) are innovating business models—building on and expanding beyond their core assets and capabilities—to address significant environmental and societal challenges in their local contexts. In this way, they create new sources of value and competitive advantage for their business.
THE FOUR-STEP INNOVATION CYCLE
In our research, we have studied more than 100 cases of companies that are practicing what we call “Sustainable Business Model Innovation” (SBM-I). We have found that the most advanced of these companies, the “front-runners,” combine environmental, societal, and financial priorities to re-imagine their core business models and even shift the boundaries of competition. READ MORE
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