Life cycle-driven business models to increase sustainable impact

Many companies have embarked on the road to sustainability and are looking to adopt sustainable business models. That’s great news. However, there's a big risk in following the latest trends without making sure that that’s the right choice for your business.

There are a lot of interesting-sounding trends in sustainable business models: sharing economy, eco-design, circular economy and many others, all with their good points and their fifteen minutes of fame. Even if companies have good products and a thorough understanding of their customers’ needs, using the wrong business model means not all of them succeed in achieving their sustainable business goals.

Know what your hotspots are

Why do they fail? The reason is simple. Companies often don’t determine objectively where their hotspots for improvement are – that’s where their impact is largest – even though that determines which business model works best for them. For example, if your impact is biggest at the end of life of your product, a circular business model will work for you. If your hotspot in the use phase, however, it won’t make a big sustainability difference to embrace a circular business model. Companies like Unilever and Interface realized how important is to be aware of their company hotspots throughout a product’s life cycle, and have successfully implemented sustainable business models.

Sound approach needed to gather insight

Gaining valuable insights is only possible with a methodologically sound approach. Materiality assessments carry the risk that you’ll be influenced by what others find important instead of looking objectively at where your biggest impact is. One of the most accepted and proven methodologies is life cycle analysis (LCA), successfully used in sustainability for the last 20 years.  In recent years, however, it hasn’t been used as the standard approach as much. Sustainability professionals may have felt that it focused too much on scientific progress and methodology and not enough on benefits for businesses.

However, as Unilever and Interface show, LCA is still a powerful tool. Life cycle thinking helps you find out what your hotspots are, as it shows how much each phase – from the extraction of raw materials right up to the end of life – contributes to your total impact. Those metrics and insights can also help you pinpoint who in your business ecosystem you can collaborate with to become more efficient and co-create new, sustainable products or services.

Tackle the trade-off

Before choosing your sustainable business model, you need to understand multiple environmental impacts. Focusing on one aspect only might– unintentionally – create undesirable results. For instance, reducing  CO2 emissions might lead to an increase in particulate matter, as is the case with some new car engines. This trade-off can make the overall impact on the environment worse, even though the car meets carbon reduction targets.

You can only make deliberate choices if you have a complete overview of your product’s impact on multiple indicators in your system. These systemic insights can be generated with an LCA based on public data from databases like ecoinvent or company-specific data collected throughout the supply chain.

Relevant business models per stage

The question is how this proven methodology can be linked to the latest developments in sustainability. Inspired by the general principles of LCA and a study of Chun and Lee at Ajou University in Korea, we connected the dots between life cycle stages and some of the most popular sustainable business models to show how they can contribute to improving your impact.

Understanding your total impact in each of these life cycle stages helps you select what kind of sustainable business model would best help your company achieve your sustainability goals.

If you have a car lease company, it doesn’t make sense to look into a circular economy. When you’re a producer of electronics or plastics, it does make sense to have a waste strategy and close the loop. For a services firm, the situation may be completely different, leading you to focus on a collaborative business model to crowdsource your services.

A rich source for business model innovation

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. It doesn’t cover the social aspects of sustainability, for instance. But it is a good place to start, and might even spur additional ideas about sustainable business models. That shows exactly how powerful life cycle thinking is when applied in a pragmatic way that takes your business perspective into account: it gives you new insights and ideas about how you can innovate your business model and become a more sustainable company.

This interview was originally published on Thursday, June 26th, by Sustainable Brands

Eric Mieras

Managing Director

Sustainability is all about impact. Positive impact makes you meaningful. But first you have to know where you are making an impact and where you can create shared value. That’s where PRé comes in. Pinpointing your impact is an essential starting point for taking joint action with people and organisations in your ecosystem. The combination of sustainability and social business can make a real change in the way we do business.

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