Eco-innovation: going beyond creating technology for technology’s sake

Eco-innovation: going beyond creating technology for technology’s sake

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Sustainable innovations often arise from combining and understanding existing technologies.

Slowly but surely, sustainable technologies are challenging business and transforming our outdated industrial model which is no longer fit for purpose. As examples from the agri-food, chemicals and metals sectors have shown, removing barriers to the sharing of existing technologies is just as important as coming up with new and better tools. So how does this work in practice?

When working with sustainable technologies, companies must decide whether to collaborate or go it alone. This decision should be based on an assessment of a company’s in-house competencies, technical readiness and capacity.

BeniSweif is a small engineering company in Egypt that produces coloured pigments for the metals industry. With the support of the Egyptian National Cleaner Production Centre (NCPC), the company invented a new yellow iron oxide-derived pigment in a process that allowed them to recover hydrochloric acid with a concentration of 25%, which can be used again.

The new product sells for almost five times the production cost. This development has created a new business model, with clear financial and environmental benefits.

Similarly, Jiangsu Redbud Textile Technology entered into a technology transfer agreement with the governments of Benin, Mali and others to promote jute fibre-green technology. The Chinese company developed and tested new varieties of jute, which are 100% recyclable and well adapted to wastelands, saline ground, low-lying wetlands and drought conditions. Now a collaborative platform, SS-GATE, is introducing this technology into Africa. The product was created to fit environmental conditions, and the institution created a collaborative space for innovation.

Another example is the series of XPRIZE awards, which help teams from across the world to compete for funding by solving a specific social, technical or environmental challenge. The $2m Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE promises to improve our understanding of how CO2 emissions are affecting ocean acidification, encouraging teams to design sensors that can help us begin the process of healing our oceans. Similarly, a Carbon XPRIZE has been proposed with the goal to develop radical new technologies and products that make capturing CO2 from power plants a source of profit rather than a liability. This is typical of open innovation for sustainability.

These are the kinds of cases being studied in a European Commission-funded research programme on eco-innovation. The programme is looking at methods for the identification, development, transfer and adaptation of technologies to further sustainable development. The aim is to develop local capacity and resources for eco-innovation in developing and emerging economies, especially through supporting intermediaries such as the National Cleaner Production Centres.

The Unep (United Nations Environment Programme) report on the business case for eco-innovation is an example of the results of the programme. Eco-innovation – as distinct from eco-efficiency – has emerged from the realisation that without innovation we are unlikely to solve many of our global social and environmental challenges, from poverty to climate change.

According to the Philips Meaningful Innovation Index, “There is an appetite for future innovations to go beyond creating technology for technology’s sake, instead aiming to make a difference in people’s everyday lives.” Hence technology is an enabler for eco-innovation, not only in terms of physical equipment and tools but also in the knowledge, techniques and skills that surround its deployment and use.

Technology can enable different aspects of the eco-innovation process, as well as being a marketable product or outcome of eco-innovation itself.

Eco-innovators push the boundaries of their companies. By modifying products, processes and organisational structures, eco-innovation improves sustainability performance and competitiveness.

Eco-innovation is the next evolution beyond eco-efficiency. Whereas eco-efficiency tends to be focused on productivity and the impact of single technologies or individual steps in the business process, eco-innovation looks to strategically transform the whole business model. When it comes to reinventing capitalism, eco-innovation is one of the next waves business will want to surf if it is to survive and thrive.

 

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Visser, W. (2014) Eco-innovation: going beyond creating technology for technology’s sake. The Guardian, 4 December 2014.

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Iron ore and rare earth metals mining: an industry under siege?

Iron ore and rare earth metals mining: an industry under siege?

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Resource scarcity and human rights issues surrounding metals extraction, coupled with unrelenting global demand mean the industry is facing some tough realities.

The good news: the number of people living in extreme poverty could drop from 1.2 billion in 2010 to under 100 million by 2050, according to UN projections. The bad news is that the flotilla of hope currently rising on the tide of economic growth in emerging countries is at serious risk of being dragged down under the waves. The reason is growing resource scarcity and the environmental disasters that could ensue.

As always, the poorest will be worst affected. The UNDP projects that, under an environmental disaster scenario, instead of reducing the population living in extreme poverty in south Asia from over half a billion to less than 100m by 2050, it could rise to 1.2bn. In sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers may rise from under 400m to over a billion. For the world as a whole, an environmental disaster scenario could mean 3.1 billion more people living in extreme poverty in 2050, as compared with an accelerated development scenario.

The message is simple: unless these booming economies – and the high-income countries they churn out ‘widgets’ for – can lighten the weighty anchor of resource consumption, we will all, sooner or later, get that sinking feeling. To illustrate the point, demand for steel – driven in no small part by a global car fleet doubling to 1.7bn by 2030 – is expected to increase by about 80% from 1.3bn tonnes in 2010 to 2.3bn tonnes in 2030. These trends raise red flags about material shortages of many metals in the future.

Besides steel, rare earth metals are cause for concern, as they comprise 17 chemical elements that are critical in the automotive, electronics and renewables sectors. Not only is demand for these metals rising, China is responsible for about 97% of global production. The United States, Japan and Germany are making big investments to secure their own supplies, but these new mining projects may take a decade to come on stream. As a result, supply shortages are predicted. Yet rare earth metal recycling rates remain very low – only 1% in Germany, for example.

Add the challenge of ‘conflict minerals’ – and the metals sector starts to look like the Titanic. The metals of most concern right now are tantalum (or coltan), tin, tungsten and gold – collectively known as 3TG – which are used extensively in the electronics industry. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and adjoining countries have been the hot spots – and the target of legislation like the Frank Dodd Act in the US – but other conflict minerals can (and probably will) arise for other metals in other parts of the world in future.

Besides resource scarcity and human rights issues, the mining and metals industry has significant environmental impacts, especially on land, energy and water. Trucost estimated that the largest metals and mining companies of the world have environmental external costs of around $220bn, 77% of which relate to greenhouse gases.

For iron ore, if carbon prices would rise to a level of $30 per tonne, iron ore costs would increase by 3.3% across the industry. An adequate incorporation of the water costs of iron ore mining would result in a 2.5% cost increase. Combining carbon and water costs, this could mean increased costs of up to 16% for some operators in water-scarce regions. These land, energy and water impacts also appear to be increasing, as about three times as much material needs to be moved for the same ore extraction as a century ago.

The picture that emerges is of a metals sector under siege, an industry that is soon to be the victim of its own success. And yet it is also one of the sectors that has the most potential for innovation and technological solutions. McKinsey and Co estimate that iron and steel energy efficiency and end-use steel efficiency could deliver $278bn in resource savings by 2030 and go some way towards addressing the metals scarcity crisis. The metals sector may still be in danger, but sustainable technologies could make the situation better.

 

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

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Visser, W. (2014) Iron ore and rare earth metals mining: an industry under siege? The Guardian, 24 October 2014.

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Tackling the food waste challenge with technology

Tackling the food waste challenge with technology

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Innovation in packaging and refrigeration can reduce waste – as can changes in behaviour.

The challenges of the 21st century will stretch our collective capacity for innovation like never before.

Take food security. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is first to find 175-220m hectares of additional cropland by 2030; second, to increase total food production by about 70% by 2050, mostly through improving crop yields; and third, to achieve all this without damaging the land, poisoning ourselves or impairing the health of our finite and already fragile ecosystems.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that meeting this challenge will require investment in developing countries’ agriculture of $9.2tn (£5.4tn) over the next 44 years – about $210bn (£123bn) a year (PDF) – from both private and public sources. Just under half of this amount will need to go into primary agriculture, and the rest into food processing, transportation, storage and other downstream activities. A priority will be finding ways to close the gaps between crop yields in developed and developing countries, which are around 40%, 75%, and 30-200% less in developing countries for wheat, rice and maize, respectively (PDF) – all while using fewer resources and less harmful substances.

This challenge is hard enough, but we also have to tackle the problem of 1.3bn tonnes of food wasted every year (PDF) – roughly a third of all food produced for human consumption. Fortunately, this is an area where technology can play a strong role, and where the economic, human and environmental benefits are compelling. An assessment of resource productivity opportunities between now and 2030 suggests that reducing food waste could return $252bn (£148bn) in savings, the third largest of all resource efficiency opportunities identified by a McKinsey study.

Reducing food waste through improved packaging

Although food waste is highest in Europe and North America (PDF), it is also a problem in developing regions like sub-Saharan Africa and south and south-east Asia.

According to the FAO, the total value of lost food is $4bn per year in Africa and $4.5bn a year in India, with up to 50% of fruit and vegetables ending up as waste. In developing countries including China and Vietnam, most food is lost through poor handling, storage and spoilage in distribution. It is estimated that 45% of rice in China and 80% in Vietnam (PDF) never make it to market for these reasons.

One of the most effective ways to reduce food waste is to improve packaging, for example by using Modified Atmosphere Packaging (Map) – a technology that substitutes the atmosphere inside a package with a protective gas mix, typically a combination of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen – to extend freshness.

This is a well-proven solution that calls for technology transfer rather than invention, which has been the approach of the Sustainable Product Innovation Project in Vietnam. Through the project, Map has been applied to over 1,000 small-scale farmers, resulting in reductions in post-harvest food waste from 30-40% to 15-20%.

Another simple packaging solution being promoted in developing countries is the International Rice Research Institute Super Bag. When properly sealed, the bag cuts oxygen levels from 21% to 5%, reducing live insects to fewer than one insect per kg of grain without using insecticides – often within 10 days of sealing. This extends the germination life of seeds from 6 to 12 months and controls insect grain pests (without using chemicals).

Improved storage and transportation

Besides improved packaging, a second way to reduce food loss and waste is through improved storage and transportation. A new report on creating a sustainable “cold chain” in the developing world estimates that about 25-50% of food wastage (PDF) could be eliminated with better, more climate friendly refrigeration. For example, Unilever has committed to using hydrocarbon (HC) refrigerants, which saved 40,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2013.

Waste into energy

Finally, even when food waste cannot be eliminated, its impacts can still be reduced, or even converted into benefits. For instance, animal by-products from slaughterhouses that are usually incinerated or disposed of in landfills can be treated by a new technology called the APRE process (PDF), which can treat 11 tonnes of dead animals every day, producing 4,000 metres cubed of bio-gas (60% of which is methane) and 44 tonnes of liquid fertiliser. The heat generated can be turned into electricity to be used in production or sold on.

As we can see, many technological solutions to agri-food waste already exist and only need to be more effectively shared and affordably adapted to local contexts. However, as always, technology is only part of the answer – something that Paris retailer Intermarché creatively, humorously and profitably demonstrates with its recent Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign, which discounts and celebrates fresh food that does not comply with EU size and colour restrictions and would otherwise have been dumped.

The sustainability revolution is as much about changing perceptions, attitudes and behaviours – the software – as about changing the technology.

 

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Visser, W. (2014) How to use technology to make our planet more sustainable, not less. The Guardian, 29 July 2014.

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How to use technology to make our planet more sustainable, not less

How to use technology to make our planet more sustainable, not less

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Investment is booming in clean and green technologies. But can they be implemented quickly enough to meet current challenges?

The controversial demographer Paul Ehrlich distilled the essence of his somewhat apocalyptic 1968 book, The population bomb, into a simple equation: impact (I) = population (P) x affluence (A) x technology (T). Twenty years later, Ray Anderson, the sustainability pioneer and then-CEO of Interface, asked the question: what if it were possible to move T to the denominator, so that technology reduces, rather than increases, impact on the environment and society?

Anderson’s challenge is the Apollo mission of the 21st century – a near impossible project that, if achieved, will inspire generations to come. The only difference is that achieving a sustainable technology revolution – let’s call it Mission SusTech – is playing for much higher stakes than JF Kennedy’s space race. Failure is an option and it’s called “overshoot and collapse”.

The good news is that Mission SusTech is well underway. This article is the first in a series that will spotlight trends, breakthroughs, cases and lessons on the development and transfer of sustainable technologies around the world. But be warned: it won’t focus on the latest touted miracle technologies but on the challenges of sharing, implementing and bringing to scale existing sustainable technologies.

What are the trends?

Not only is technological innovation booming, but it is rapidly shifting towards sustainable solutions. For example, many of the World Economic Forum’s top 10 most promising technologies have a clear environmental and social focus, such as energy-efficient water purification, enhanced nutrition to drive health at the molecular level, carbon dioxide (CO2) conversion, precise drug delivery through nanoscale engineering, organic electronics and photovoltaics.

The 2012 Global Green R&D Report found that private investments in clean technology and green economic and commercial solutions reached $3.6tn for the period 2007-2012. This included more than $2tn in renewable energy, $700bn in green construction, $241bn in green R&D, $238bn in the smart grid and $231bn in energy efficiency.

For specific clean energy technologies – including wind, solar and biofuels – the market size was estimated at $248bn in 2013 and is projected to grow to $398bn by 2023, according to the 2014 Clean Energy Trends report. Biofuels remain the largest market ($98bn), followed by solar ($91bn) and wind ($58bn). In what Clean Edge hails as a tipping point, in 2013 the world installed more new solar photovoltaic generating capacity (36.5 gigawatts) than wind power (35.5 GW).

This rapid growth is being fuelled by significant investment in research and development and breakthroughs in sustainable technologies, as indicated by a spike in patent applications.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), more patents have been filed in the last five years than in the previous 30 across key climate change mitigation technologies, or CCMTs (biofuels, solar thermal, solar photovoltaics and wind energy). While the average global rate of patent filing grew by 6% between 2006 and 2011, these CCMTs have experienced a combined growth rate of 24% over the same period.

Contrary to what some may think, emerging markets cannot automatically be assumed to lag on sustainable technological innovation. China and the Republic of Korea have filed the most patents in recent years across all four CCMT technology areas, while in solar PV, the top 20 technology owners are based in Asia.

What does the future hold?

The sustainable technology innovation wave is only just building. Research by McKinsey shows that improvements in resource productivity in energy, land, water and materials – based on better deployment of current innovative technologies – could meet up to 30% of total 2030 demand, with 70% to 85% of these opportunities occurring in developing countries. Capturing the total resource productivity opportunity could save $2.9tn in 2030.

We are living through the birth of what David King, director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, calls “another renaissance” in the industrial revolution: “Human ingenuity is the answer”, says King.

“We created the science and engineering technological revolution on which all our wellbeing is based. That same keen intelligence can point to the solutions to the hangover challenges and this requires nothing less than another renaissance.”

 

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

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Visser, W. (2014) How to use technology to make our planet more sustainable, not less. The Guardian, 16 July 2014.

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Nature vs. Nurture

Nature vs. Nurture:

Are Social Entrepreneurs Born or Made?

Blog by Wayne Visser

Part 7 of 13 in the Age of Responsibility Blog Series for 3BL Media.

What do Taddy Blecher, Anurag Gupta, Wang Chuan-Fu and all of the other social entrepreneurs have in common? Is this a special breed of human being? Are social entrepreneurs born or can they be made? In the academic literature, there is an interesting thread of research that is around the concept of ‘champions’ in organisations, especially ‘environmental champions’. The idea draws on prior conceptions of the human resources champion in the 1970s and 1980s, before HR became institutionalised.

Academics define environmental champions as people who can attractively express a personal vision about environmental protection that is in tune with both industry’s needs and wider public concern and who convince and enable organisation members to turn environmental issues into successful corporate programs and innovations. Environmental champions have been showed to imbue a combination of characteristics, including being a catalyst, champion, sponsor, facilitator and demonstrator. Their skills include the ability to identify, package and sell environmental issues within their organisations.  Their effectiveness in engaging others rests heavily on expertise, top management support and a strong appreciation for the problems that every business unit or operations manager faces.

Research on champions is not confined purely to the environmental dimension of sustainability. Others have written about socially responsible change-agents, as well as managers’ individual discretion as a component of corporate social performance. British academic Christine Hemingway, for example, finds that CSR can be the result of championing by a few managers, based on their personal values and beliefs, despite the personal and professional risks this may entail. Individual managers are also often mediators in corporate philanthropy and stakeholder influence. Hence, the notion of CSR champions has emerged as an important concept, which I will return to this in the final blog on individual change agents.

Bill Drayton, who has been involved in selecting and tracking the progress of the 2,700 Ashoka Fellows, believes social entrepreneurs ‘focus everyday on the “how to” questions. How are they going to get from here to their ultimate goal? How are they going to deal with this opportunity or that barrier? How are the pieces going to fit together? They are engineers, not poets. … The entrepreneur’s job is not to take an idea and then implement it. That is what franchisees do. The entrepreneur is building something that is entirely new – by constantly creating and testing and recreating and then testing and recreating again’ …

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Visser, W. (2012) Nature vs. Nurture: Are Social Entrepreneurs Born or Made, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 20 March 2012.

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The Creative Destruction Revolution

The Creative Destruction Revolution

Blog by Wayne Visser

Part 7 of 13 in the Age of Responsibility Blog Series for CSRwire.

One of the key theories on creativity is creative destruction. The concept is most associated with Joseph Schumpeter, following his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, in which he described creative destruction as ‘the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one … [The process] must be seen in its role in the perennial gale of creative destruction; it cannot be understood on the hypothesis that there is a perennial lull.’

The idea, of course, is much older. In Hinduism, the goddess Shiva is simultaneously the creator and destroyer of worlds. In modern times, the German sociologist Werner Sombart described the process in 1913, saying ‘from destruction a new spirit of creation arises; the scarcity of wood and the needs of everyday life … forced the discovery or invention of substitutes for wood, forced the use of coal for heating, forced the invention of coke for the production of iron.’ Even Marx and Engels had a go at describing the process in their Communist Manifesto, stating that ‘constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. … All that is solid melts into air.’

The idea of melting solids is very similar to the metaphor used by sustainability and social enterprise thought-leader, John Elkington, to explain the disruptive changes going on in the world. In an interview with him, he explained: ‘What happens in an earthquake? The land become thixotropic; what was solid suddenly becomes almost semi-liquid. I think we are headed towards a period where the global economy goes into a sort of thixotropic state. Key parts of our economies and societies are on a doomed path really, and I think that’s unavoidable. I think we’re heading into a period of creative destruction on a scale that really we haven’t seen for a very long time, and there are all sorts of factors that feed into it.  The entry of the Chinese and Indians into the global market, quite apart from things like climate change and new technology.

As to what this means for business, Elkington believes that ‘all of these pressures are going to mobilise a set of dynamics which are unpredictable and profoundly disruptive to incumbent companies, so some companies will disappear. I think most companies that we currently know will not be around in fifteen to twenty years, which is almost an inconceivable statement. But periodically this happens and there’s a radical bleeding of the landscape. We’ll find this sort of reassembly going on. Over a period of time we’re going to have some fairly different products, technologies, business models coming back into the West, and I think it’s going to be quite exciting, but quite disruptive.’

We see all kinds of examples of creative destruction in corporate sustainability and responsibility. For virtually the whole of the 20th century, the biggest companies in the world were the oil and motor giants – companies like Exxon, BP, General Motors and Toyota. But the 21st century, with  …

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Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2011) The Creative Destruction Revolution, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 17 November 2011.

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Sustainability Innovation

Sustainability Innovation:

Mapping the Territory

Paper by Michael Blowfield, Wayne Visser & Finbarr Livesey

Abstract

Innovation is a well-studied area of business behaviour, and is increasingly seen as a crucial element in the private sector’s responses to the challenges of sustainability.  However, what exactly is meant by innovation in a sustainability context is not very clear.  This paper makes the case for a more reflexive and structured approach to understanding innovation for sustainability in order to understand what it shares in common with innovation more broadly, where it is unique, what the gaps are in our current knowledge, and what might be the consequence of these gaps.  In building this understanding, we draw on theoretical and empirical studies, normative and non-normative approaches, and descriptive and instrumental analyses.  We employ a framework that distinguishes between the enablers of sustainability innovation (SI), the different types of agent that influence innovation for sustainability and the intra-organisational processes that take place (especially within companies).

Introduction

Increasingly, business is referred to as an essential element in meeting the challenges of sustainability: not only to amend its behaviour so as to reduce negative impacts, but also to use its strengths to overcome barriers more effectively than other sectors of society are able to do.  Innovation is one such area of perceived business strength, and now business and government are encouraged to think in terms of sustainability innovation to meet such demands as green technology, energy efficiency and social enterprise.  It is often claimed that the challenges of sustainability require different approaches to (and perhaps new models of) business.  Yet there has been little rigorous analysis of if and how sustainability requires new ways of thinking about innovation.  The main purpose of this  paper is to examine what we know about sustainability as the determinant of a genuinely different form of innovation, and to set out a framework for a more reflexive and structured approach to sustainability innovation in future.

To understand if sustainability innovation (SI) differs from other models of innovation, let us first consider what innovation means.  When discussing whether innovation (in its broad sense) is qualitatively different from innovation applied for sustainability, it is important to have a clear sense of the boundary of the terms being used. One of the broadest definitions of innovation states that it is “… the successful exploitation of new ideas” (DTI 2003). Unsurprisingly, exploitation in this context has become synonymous with introduction to market and so this definition is one that presupposes a market-based assessment for the outcomes of the innovation process. The bias in most discussions of innovation towards a commercial, for-profit setting with a market mechanism for price signalling and managing distribution should be acknowledged. Equally, this may be where innovation for sustainability distinguishes itself from innovation more broadly.

In terms of market led or company-based innovation there has been an acknowledged shift in recent years towards more dynamic and networked models of innovation (Chesbrough 2003) away from old linear models. This is well described by Rothwell in his five generations of innovation models (Rothwell quoted in Tidd, Bessant et al. 2001).

None of the models of innovation, either descriptive or analytical, presuppose the set of goals which the process is trying to achieve. In that sense, there is no immediate difference between SI and innovation in its broadest sense. However, it is the context for sustainability that implies biases towards different types of innovation …

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/making-a-difference”]Page[/button] Making a Difference (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.cpsl.cam.ac.uk”]Link[/button] Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (website)

Cite this article

Blowfield, M., Visser, W. & Livesey, F. (2007) Sustainability Innovation: Mapping the Territory, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership Paper Series, No. 2.

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