Sustainability may still not be on the top of everyone’s priority list, but those who do take green action get results, and big ones. Chris Sherwin, Head of Sustainability at Seymourpowell, shares his reaction to this year’s Fast Company 50, where a few pleasantly surprising sustainability innovators could be found among the trend setters.

Recently, I was disheartened to read that ‘green’ innovations’ make up less than 3% of global patents registered (one measure of innovation progress). So this year’s Fast Company list of ‘the 50 most innovative companies’, out this month, makes all together more optimistic reading from a sustainability perspective. Described as the ‘annual guide to the businesses that matter most, the ones whose innovations are having an impact across their industries and our culture’, the Fast 50 is the go-to place for checking the pulse of emerging entrepreneurial and innovation ideas. This year has a notably green tinge as several companies are listed for their game-changing green innovations.

First up, quite rightly in my opinion, is Patagonia, rewarded (No.14) for its now famed marketing campaign, ask consumers to reduce their consumption and ‘not buy their jackets’ unless you absolutely need too’. If you haven’t come across it, do check it out, as counter-intuitively, they claim that this strategy has led to an increase in US sales (through increased market share and consumers trading-up). Perhaps as predictable is Tesla Motors (13) highlighted for its work to design electric vehicles that make heads turn, not lips curl (they are soon to launch their Model S family saloon to the mainstream).

Less familiar, and pleasantly surprising, are the number of green, cleantech, and ethical start-ups making this years list: like SolarCity (10) – who are scaling up  photovoltaic’s in volatile times; Bug Agentes Biologicos (33) – who have created natural alternative to agricultural pesticides, and Amyris (47) – working to scale up biofuels; and I was also thrilled to see Recyclebank acknowledged (39) – for its great work to gamify, incentivize and reward sustainable choices and behaviour. My biggest surprises however, were the inclusion of Airbnb (19) – the collaborative consumption platform matching people with spare rooms with travels looking for somewhere to stay; and remarkably The Occupy Movement (7) – for providing a new voice, and mechanism to campaign for economic reform, fairness and social justice

The focus on innovation for sustainability is not resigned to the ‘little guys’. Google, weighing in at no. 3 on the list, has a long standing reputation as a green innovator, through some progressive performance and efficiency improvements plus its muscular investments in renewables over recent years. Similarly, engineering powerhouse Seimens AG (22), has seen that green can be gold and begun turning its technological and manufacturing competences to the opportunities from things like Combined Heat and Power plants, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, efficient building automation and off-shore wind farms.

Encouraging stuff, and certainly a step up even from previous years when sustainability innovators could be found among the Fast Company 50, but were more scantly represented. It’s as good a marker of the widely held belief that sustainability is a challenge and an opportunity to innovate than anything recently.

I do ask myself if there will come a day when innovation leadership can only truly be attained by some level of progressive, rather than defensive, position on sustainability.

My final observations on the Fast 50 list itself would be two-fold: firstly, it is dominated by hi-tech, and digital innovators, which admittedly, is where much of the exciting and fast-moving innovation is, but does suggest a slight silicon valley, tech-driven bias. A second observation is that, perusing the list; a progressive stance on sustainability is not necessarily a prerequisite for innovation leadership. For instance, the top 10 contains innovators like facebook (2), amazon (4), twitter (6), who don’t really have reputations as sustainability pioneers. This slight contradiction is never better expressed than with Apple’s status at the top of the list (no. 1), which would certainly not be reflected in sustainability listings (117th in Newsweek’s 2011 Green Ranking of the top 500 global companies) or in the views of stakeholders recently. I do ask myself if there will come a day when innovation leadership can only truly be attained by some level of progressive, rather than defensive, position on sustainability.

However, the list left me feeling quite hopeful and hats-off to the Fast Company for some unexpected and inspiring selections. The OECD last week called for a wave of policies to encourage innovation to tackle the urgent and potentially catastrophic environmental challenges we face between now and 2050. Yet if handled correctly, a brighter future might just lie in the hands of this generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, and their ability to innovate our way out of trouble.

By : Chris Sherwin

About the author

Chris Sherwin is Head of Sustainability at Seymourpowell, the leading design and innovation consultancy, where he works on driving sustainability through innovation and new thinking. Chris has 15 years experience of working on environmentally and socially-driven innovation with companies like Akzo Nobel ICI Paints, PepsiCo, Unilever, P&G, Boots UK, O2, Tata Beverage Group, Interfaceflor, etc. Prior to Seymourpowell, Chris held sustainable innovation positions at leading sustainability advisors/think tank Forum for the Future plus worked inside Philips Electronics and Electrolux. He has lectured and presented widely on these subjects and holds a PhD titled ‘Innovative Ecodesign’ from Cranfield University.