Sustainable Innovation

Social impacts of products

Underpinning company mission


An important reason to start measuring social impact is to underpin a company mission. More and more companies define company aspirations in terms of social impact. Take for instance Danone, that has a dual mission of business success and social impact. Philips aims to improve the lives of 3 billion people. And L’Oréal strives with its ‘Sharing Beaty for All’ program for all its products to have a social or environmental beneift. It is  important to substantiate these goals with tangible examples and report on progress based on solid metrics. How to do so?

Learning from NGOs and philantropy

Social progress is the ‘raison d’etre’ for Non-Gouvernemental Organisations (NGOs) and philantropic organisationsFor NGOs it would be unthinkable not to track the number of people lifted out of poverty, the income generated for small holder farmers or the number of girls educated. A number of tools and guidelines have become available to forecast and track progress , for instance those ‘Global Impact Investing Network’. The reporting guidelines of the Global Reporting Initiative provide inspiration as well for companies that wish to steer on social impact. However, these type of guidances do not always provide the level of granularity needed to steer the social impact of products.

Social impact through products

Companies can create the largest positive impact with their products and services. Through products companies have the ability to create the most significant impact in society: billions of end-users are reached, manufacturing processes can be changed in own organisation and supplier organisations. The choices companies make for their products have a direct effect on the impacts the products have on the planet and people. These impacts are created in all stages of the product life cycle from extraction of raw materials – all the way to the producten, use phase and the end of life of a product.

Life cycle approach

The impacts created by products can be related to all stages of the product life cycle, .’Life Cycle Analyses’ have become a common methodology to assess the environmental impact of a product. Take for instance the standard defined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) for life cycle assessments in the chemical sector. It is also possible to assess the social impacts along the life cycle. If you wish to integrate ‘people perspectives’ a good source is the Handbook for Product Social Impact Assessments developed by a group of industry peers.

Better for people and planet

DSM strives for products and innovations to be measurably better for the planet (Eco+) and people (People+)  based on a life cycle approach. By 2020 65% of DSMs products should be ‘Brighter Living Solutions’, measurably better for planet or people. Some examples:

  1. Alpaflor® Edelweiss is a personal care ingredient. It contributes to better skin health and comfort, and is sourced in a very socially sustainable way, contributing to good working circumstances and prosperity of farmers in the Swiss Valais region.
  2. Synthetic chains made of Dyneema® used for marine structure mooring are 8 times lighter and 70 times less noisy than steel chains. Users experience a safer and more comfortable use, shipping companies report improved operational efficiency.
  3. Medical gowns reinforced with breathable Arnitel VT® contribute to the protection of surgeons against virus and bacteria in high risk hospital environments, and allow surgeons to work in a comfortable way.
  4. Decovery® is a plant based and waterborne paint ingrediënt for paints. It is a solvent free and low odor product, and reduces health risks of the people involved in production and the users of the product.

Benefits of social impact measuring

Social impact measuring is useful to underpin company missions. Life cycle assessments can be instrumental to spot new innovation opportunities and business differentiators. They also help to train product developers and sourcing managers to choose the most sustainable alternatives, and marketeers to communicate the differentiators in a balanced way. More about business benefits here.

– based on the earlier published article by Karen Maas (Academic Director Impact Center Erasmus) and Jacobine Das Gupta (DSM Corporate Sustainability) in Dutch for NRC Live Impact Day



Join the conversation at Sustainable Brands London on benefits of Products Social Metrics

What is the interest of Product Social Metrics for companies ? What are the benefits of branding and innovation? Do you want to learn more about the methodology described in the Handbook for Product Social Impact Assessment?

SB London Nov

Join the conversation at the Sustainable Brands Conference in London on November 5th. Joao Fontes (PRé Sustainability), Hazel Culley (Marks & Spencer), Markus Laubscher (Philips) and Jacobine Das Gupta (DSM) will share their experiences with assessing the social footprint of products, and how this supports branding and innovation.

You may also be interested to look and listen back to the registered webinar. During this 45′ webinar, Marzia Traverso (BMW Group), Joao Fontes (PRé Sustainability) and Jacobine Das Gupta (DSM) provide more information on the methodology described in the handbook, share pilot results and exchange on the business benefits of product social metrics.

Wishing you an inspirational 2013


2012 was a great year.
2013 can only get better.

From Conversation to Co-creation.
From Buying Less to Sharing More.
From Diversity to Inclusion.
From Minimizing Impact to Circular Thinking.
From Contacting to Connecting.
From GDP to Well-Being.
From Treehuggers to Aspirationalists.
From Responsibility to Innovation.
From Doing Less Harm to Doing Good.
From Transparency to Trust.

I wish you a healthy and inspirational 2013.

Jacobine Das Gupta.
twitter: @thegreentake

Your customers want your products to be green

I am proud to announce my new book:

‘Your customers want your products to be green’

During the last few years I have had the chance to interact with senior managers of European sustainability frontrunners.

‘Your customers want your products to be green’ contains Best Practices of Sustainability Frontrunners such as Ericsson, Shell, Rabobank, DSM, Philips, Danone and Veolia Environnement completed with freshly printed business recommendations.

Create societal impact and develop new business opportunities. More information on The Green Take website here. Enjoy and be inspired!

I wish you a happy and healthy 2012!

Factors that contribute to Sustainable Innovation within SMEs

Not only the large companies, but also Small and Medium Sized Companies (SMEs) may very well profit from sustainably innovation. It increases competative advantage, reduces (production) costs and improves social and environmental impact.

Hilke Bos-Brouwers, of the ‘Vrije Universiteit’ in Amsterdam in The Netherlands, recently presented theses conclusions of her PHD research.

Based on her extensive research among 1056 Dutch SME companies (< 250 employees), Mrs Bos-Brouwers concluded that SMEs innovate in a sustainably way, but slightly different as compared to larger entreprises. Innovations are often incremental, very pragmatic and type of innovation can vary per industry sector.

Hilke Bos-Brouwer has identified seven critical factors that, significantly contribute to the success of sustainable innovation in SMEs : (1) Obligations, (2) Trained employees (3) Suppliers (4) Industry groups (5) Degree of formalisation (6) Customer (needs) (7) Government.

Bos-Brouwer also brings up a list of (partly new) and definitions that may be helpful. Some of them translated in English :

  • Sustainable Development :  development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (definition Commission Brundtland, 1987).
  • Sustainable Entrepreneurship : integrating environmental, social and economical aspects in the core business of the company, on a volontairy basis, whereby stakeholders needs and supply chain cooperation is regarded key to improve the company results on the short and middle term.
  • Innovation :  renewing or improving products, services, technical and organisational processes or marketing strategy ; the novelty of the innovation can be related to the industry sector or market.
  • Sustainable Innovation : renewing products, services, technical, organisational processes or marketing strategy in such a way that the economical performance as well as the environmental impact and the social impact, on the short and the long term, are taken into consideration, .
  • Sustainable Innovation Processes : decision making, design and implementation processes that guide sustainable innovation projets

Sources : (1) and (2) press release [PWC-MEDIA] ‘Persbericht VU – Duurzaam innoveren winstgevend voor MKB’, 3 september 2010, Free university of Amsterdam

French media to provide more information on Sustainable Development

The French market research agency ‘Opinionway’ concludes that a majority of French people considers that ‘there is not enough information in the media on Sustainable Development’ . 

Opinionway survey unveils French public opinion about role of media

Opinionway recently presented its study ‘Média et développement durable’ on the 26th of May. The study has been conducted end of May 2010 and was based on computer assisted web interviews with 1055 participants of 18 years and older in France.

57 % of the French people consider the current information in French media on Sustainable Development as ‘insufficient. As well, the quality of the information is being disputed : only 33 % believes the quality of the information is ‘good’ or ‘quite good’.

Who is responsible for Sustainable Development ?

In 2010, French people are less convinced about who carries the main responsibility for Sustainable Development.  Whereas in 2009 70% of the people agreed that ‘Sustainable Development is everybody’s responsibility’, this year only half of the people agreed with the statement. The responsability enterprises if confirmed by only 51`% (down from 61%), the role of the media to provide complete and correct information was confirmed by only 43% (down from 51%). In 2009 50% of the French people believed the public authorities should drive the a sustainable policies, where as in 2010 only 36% agrees with this statement. 

Assumed roles and reponsibilities of ‘everyone’, ‘entreprises’, ‘media’ and ‘public authorities’. 

Preferred information sources are online sites and specialised magazines

Being asked about the preferred media for finding adequate information, a large majority (82%) responds that they search for specialised magazines (82) and online information (70%) , over information via the radio (66%), in the daily press (65%) or on the television (49%).


Preferred media channels to find information on Sustainable Development

All age groups prefer the Internet (76%) for finding information on Sustainable Development and just 38% look or listen in the daily press,  the radio or the television. The people with 50+ years look for books (20% and 23% in age groups 50-59 and 60+,and only13 to 16% in the younger age groups). As of the age of 35 the role of personal relations increases to find adequate information.


Differences in first choice media channel by age group

No unanymous expectations about the role of the media

The supposed role of the media remains divided. 31% believes the media should report factually (down from 34%). 30% underlines the obligation of the media to alert catastrophes (down from 37%). 30% believes the media should launch the debate and controversies (almost the same as in 2009). 26% believes the media have an pedagogical role.


No unanymous declared role for the media (factual information, information on catastrophes, launching the debate, educational role)


The study of Opinionway offers a snapshot of sentiments. It does not provide answers why people seem to be less satisfied with the levels and quality of media information. Neither it comes up with suggestions of actions to be taken.

Following the public debate in France however, we could find however some traces and developments that support Opinionway’s Conclusions, as well define recommendations for actions to be taken.

Why has the initial enthousiasm been tempered ?

The optimistic tone of voice in 2007 and 2008 has changed into a more and more sceptical one. I wonder : Why do people  feel ‘saturated’ on the topic ? Why are they dissatisfied about the level or quality of information ? Could there be an ‘information overkill’  ? Has Sustainable Development been ‘overhyped’ ? Probably. Does it has to do with the economical crises ? Maybe. Is it an exemple of the maximum lifecycle of a ‘consumer hype’, which just fades away.. ? Hereby some reasons why public opinion seems to have changed :

  • Saturation of Information : In the last year, information on Sustainable Development is presented everywhere. IFOP concluded early 2010 that French people experienced a sense of ‘saturation’ of Sustainable Development Information in the media. There may be much information out there, but it is not regarded as sufficiently adequate nor sufficiently targeted.
  • Disappointment about Copenhaguen : As the high expectations for the Copenhague summit in December 2009 were not met, the conference was immediately regarded as a failure in the press. Hardly any attention was paid to the fact that for the first time in history world leaders start to discuss first steps to attack the world economical, social environmental issues.
  • Eco-sceptic people get attention : The eco-sceptical book of Claude Allègre ‘l’Imposture climatique ou la fausse ecologique’ has drawn much attention in France. Mr Allegre disputes the statements of climate change due to human intervention. Apart from the fact his book is disputed all over, it leaves some people with the feeling that ‘all ecologists are liars’.
  • The French government  has started in a tremendous way in 2007 ‘Grenelle d’Environnement’, with round tables and representatives of all civilian, employers, employees and NGOs resulting in a new series of laws like the Grenelle 2 laws and more specificly extended CSR reporting requirements and Eco-labels on products. The process has been tougher than expected. Some groups believe the Grenelle 2 is by far not ambitious enough. Unfortunately putspeaking NGO’s like the Nicolas Hulot Foundation have left the round table discussions.

Which actions to be taken ?

Fortunately,  numerous entreprises and public organisations have started their Sustainable Development and CSR programs, new green product development schemes and mobilisation of employees. They are all taking responsibility as their partners, the government and their customers (entreprises ánd consumers) ask for it.

I firmly believe that companies and governmental institutions should continue to show positive exemples. Positive examples are key to keep employees motivated. New achievements should be actively promoted as a counter-poison to the negative stories that turn around. Exemplary municipalities, successful green and social businesses, intentive civilians : they all should be highlighted and promoted. Exemples should be realistic, specific and ambitious.

I hope the Best Practices presented in this blog, and my consultancy activities,  give a positive impulse to this change : Look at these companies and public organisations : they are all successful, serve their customers in an excellent way ánd take responsibility for a greener, social and healthy world !

Source : 1.

Best Practices : Conclusions II

French Industry Testing the Waters with Sustainable Innovation.

What is the role of Corporate Responsability in French entreprises ?

Corporate Philanthrophy is wide-spread Many French enterprises have their ‘Mécanat’ or Foundations. They contribute to the  international community with projects in culture, research, sports. Projects of choice seem not always to have a relation with the Company Strategy. Foundations tend to perform at an arm-lengths distance of the mother company.

Risk Management becomes common : Most large French companies have now implemented practices to comply to environmental and social norms set by international organisations, national government or industry sector organisations. Many companies participate in environmental audits. Main reasons are of a defensive kind: Avoiding negative publicity and keeping a positive corporate image. Examples are the UN Global Compact , ten United Nations principles for human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption, the UN Global Reporting Initiative or ‘GR3’a s guidelines for transparent, accessible and comparable socio-environmental reports.

Corporate Responsibility increasingly seen as an opportunity. The Risk Management activities help companies to become aware of environmental, social and economic impact. This creates a starting point for developing concepts of improvement. However, innovation flourishes only then, when there is an Emphasis on Opportunity. The 3rd level of CR. Here, Sustainable Development becomes embedded in Corporate Strategy.

3 layers model with emphasis on opportunity

Innovation flourishes when CR is seen as an ’Opportunity’,  inspirered by the model of Porter and Kramer, 2006 (1).

Innovation on Customers Request. The interviewed Directors Sustainable Development recognize that customers ask for sustainable solutions. Sustainable solutions are now labelled as part of the competitive advantage. Soon, however, customers will no longer accept any products of which the origin can not be traced, the carbon footprint is not known, the energy use can not be measured, etcetera..

Evolution or Revolution ? Incremental innovation can change the business.  Products become more efficient and performing.  At the very same time complete new businesses are being created, within corporate companies as well as through start ups. Both developments should be encouraged. Question is : Do we need a Revolution ?


Eugène Delacroix (1830) (2)

Sources : 1. ‘Strategy & Society : The link between competative advantage and corporate social responsability’, by M. Porter and M. Kramer in Harvard Business Review, 12/06 and 2. Peinture of Eugene Delacroix (1830), ‘La liberté guidant le peuple‘,  Louvre Paris.