Amanda Steele

1 April 2014 — “Innovate or die!” It’s been the mantra for business since the end of World War II. And, if you use outperformance as a measure, it’s the innovative companies that have outperformed. Think Apple, GE, Nike and, at a local level, Cochlear and Planet Innovation.

Businesses and commenters alike acknowledge that innovation is a key to driving performance, growth and profitability. However, a short-term return on investment focus too often spells the demise of corporate innovations before they have begun.

In the area of sustainability there are more opportunities for innovation than in any other business unit. It’s a key reason why more businesses should be investing in sustainability and seeing this function as one that goes beyond compliance, as is too often occurring.

Look at what’s been happening with energy. Through efficiency, automation, sensors and zoning, re-lamping, insulation, glazing, onsite energy generation and certification, Australian green buildings are using 66 per cent less energy than average buildings. That’s big money when considering our escalating energy costs.

Creative renewal

The sustainability approach extends well beyond the environment. Take for example the excellent work that Renew Australia has done in activating empty spaces with creative, emerging small businesses, art spaces or craft galleries. This community development enterprise has taken the roadblocks out of the way for small scale property leases or licences, and areas using the scheme have seen vacancy rates drop by as much as 90 per cent. Hence, creativity is delivering solid returns.

Sustainability practitioners are also creating interesting ways of connecting. Look at the “Design Friday” events being run by Westpac’s head of sustainability Siobhan Toohill. Small intimate gatherings with clever sustainability types to share ideas and problem solve.

Yet despite these examples of creative sustainability solutions, we still lack innovations in Australian businesses. “Show me the business plan, revenue rates and opportunities for growth” are the first questions asked of any sustainability worker that has a new idea.

Open the doors – to academics, artists, community organisations

We need to open the doors of corporate headquarters to unusual partners – speak to academics, involve community organisations, partner with artistic enterprises. By blurring these boundaries we will discover new possibilities.

As someone who has worked in sustainability for almost two decades I automatically consider unconventional solutions when I look at a problem. When I look out of my window I don’t see rooftops, I see blank space for urban forests. When I hear that online retail is challenging bricks and mortar, I think about how we can activate shopping centre carparks outside of shopping centre hours, such as food retailers providing refreshments.

Sustainability is a discipline that requires creativity. Stifling that by pushing it into compliance is a wasted resource. And if there’s one thing we hate in sustainability it’s wasting useful resources.

Amanda Steele is head of sustainability, Pacific at CBRE