Innovations That Matter

21 Sustainable Business Ideas for 2021

Innovation Snapshot

Our favourite sustainable innovations from the past year that we hope will inspire businesses around the globe to do more to help protect our planet in 2021.

We are firm believers of the idea that addressing the climate crisis and pursuing other sustainable initiatives is a win-win situation for businesses. Aside from the increased brand loyalty that accrues from aligning with activist values, climate change is poised to cost businesses an estimated €85 billion in the next five years.

Also, consider the B Corporation movement. This rigorous certification process ensures that organisations meet rigorous social and environmental standards that represent a genuine commitment to goals outside shareholder profit. But reaching such goals has numerous benefits as well, even adding much-needed resiliency for businesses weathering tumultuous times like the ones we’re in now. 

According to one study, B Corps were 63 per cent more likely than other businesses of a similar size to make it through the last financial crisis. PWC also found that UK B Corps have reported average revenue growth of 14 per cent year-on-year since 2015.

With all of this in mind, we’re sharing 21 of our favourite sustainable innovations from the past year that we hope will inspire businesses around the globe to do more to help protect our planet in 2021 — and, in turn, help themselves.

1. TRULY COMPOSTABLE TAKEAWAY BOWLS 

Due to consumer awareness of the problem of plastic waste, many restaurants have started to move towards more sustainable options, such as compostable fibre packaging. However, it was recently discovered that the moulded fibre food packages contain poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) which, when used to coat the paper-like surface, remain persistent in compost and can potentially end up in the soil, water or food. As a solution to the problem, restaurant chain Sweetgreen has partnered with Footprint, a company aimed at eliminating single-use plastic packaging, to launch new compostable to-go bowls. Sweetgreen explored other options for PFAS-free packaging but eventually decided to work with Footprint, making them the first restaurant chain to use the company’s packaging.

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2. AN APPLIANCE RENTAL SERVICE MODEL

A product design student at London’s Southbank University has developed a model for an online platform, called Upkeep, that allows users to rent large household appliances. Of course, renting appliances has a long history, and is available almost everywhere, but the Upkeep rental service would operate on a subscription model, which is more unique. The designer, Dominika Ptach, proposes three levels of subscription – “Neo” for new appliances; “Denovo” for certified refurbished appliances; and “Care” to allow repair or safe disposal of users’ existing appliances.

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3. A FULLY CIRCULAR RUNNING SHOE

French company Salomon has designed a pair of running shoes that are 100 per cent recyclable. The thread used to sew the shoes is the same material as the rest of the upper. The shoe’s upper, itself made from recycled polyester, can be recycled again into new thread for fabric, and the foam sole can be ground up and used in the brand’s ski boots. Thus, nothing ends in the landfill. In the future, it may even be possible to make soles out of recycled PET, so that the whole shoe would be made of a single material and would be even easier to recycle.

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 Photo source Clovis Gomis

4. DESIGNER MANUFACTURES CLOTHING AS IT SELLS

Nigerian-born designer Lola Faturoti is known for her colourful, African-inspired designs. She had long wanted to produce denim clothing but was put off by the large order sizes needed, and the huge amounts of waste involved in printing on denim. Now, she is partnering with Resonance, a garment manufacturing company that is working to eliminate inventory in fashion, creating only the pieces that will be purchased. Faturoti uses Resonance’s cloud-based platform to print her designs on organic and biodegradable denim, using 40 per cent less ink and 50 per cent less water than conventional methods. Savings are made from the item being produced only after a customer has placed an order, eliminating the manufacturing of items that never sell.

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5. ZERO WASTE GROCERY DELIVERY

US-based Zero Grocery has committed to only providing plastic-free groceries – the company buys in bulk and packs the food and other products into glass jars, boxes and reusable containers. Zero charges a delivery fee or a monthly membership. The company collects any empty containers from previous deliveries, which are sanitised and reused — a bit like a milkman for groceries. 

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6. NET-ZERO LIQUOR

The sustainable liquor company Mermaid is supporting carbon positive projects to offset its emissions. The first project actively promotes Blue Carbon initiatives, which are ocean-based projects to mitigate climate change by preserving carbon-capturing ecosystems. Mermaid gins and Mermaid Salt Vodka are already presented in plastic-free bottles which are 100 per cent recyclable: the stopper is made from sustainably sourced cork and wood and even the seal is plant-based and biodegradable.

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7. A PAPER BOTTLE FOR ADULT BEVERAGES

Diageo, the company behind drinks brands such as Smirnoff, Guinness, Tanqueray and Captain Morgan, has joined with Unilever and PepsiCo to make a major investment in sustainable packaging technology. The rival companies have joined with venture management company Pilot Lite to launch sustainable packaging technology company Pulpex Limited, which has designed and developed a scalable and fully-recyclable paper-based drinks bottle. It is made from food-safe and sustainably sourced pulp. To prevent leaks, the contents are protected by a liner made from resin, which disintegrates once the bottle is empty. The cap will be made of aluminium, which can be recycled.

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Photo source Dyson Award

8. FOOD LABEL CHANGES PRICE AS EXPIRATION NEARS

As groceries reach their expiration date, supermarkets often relabel them with discount stickers – 20 per cent off, 40 per cent off, etc. But this relabelling can be time-consuming for staff and often leads to mistakes. To prevent this, three grad students at the National Taipei University of Technology have designed a better system. The Barcodiscount concept consists of colour-changing stickers, which display different discounts based on the timing of the expiration date. For example, when a packet of meat is 48 hours from expiration, the words 20 per cent off appear on the label, and when the meat is 24 hours from expiration, this is automatically replaced with the words 40 per cent off.

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9. ENHANCED SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING TECH FOR RETAILERS

Finland-based MetsäBoard specializes in producing packaging solutions with the least possible environmental impact. The company’s paperboards, folding boxboards and white kraft liners, are all plastic-free, lightweight and easily recyclable — and said to consume less raw materials, reduce transport weight and produce less waste. The products are made of pure fresh fibres sourced from sustainably managed Northern European forests. 

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10. BREWERY BUYS A FOREST TO OFFSET CARBON

Scottish craft brewer BrewDog took a bold step towards becoming not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative. The company purchased 2,500 acres of forest in the Scottish Highlands. The land is currently used for grazing livestock, but BrewDog hopes to restore the area to native forest, allowing it to sequester around 300,000 tons of CO2.

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11. BLOCKCHAIN MARKETPLACE RESCUES FABRIC FROM LANDFILL

Sales platform Queen of Raw uses blockchain and artificial intelligence to divert tonnes of those usable materials to other individuals and brands. Businesses wanting to work more sustainably use the company’s material exchange programme, MateriaMX, to identify areas of waste within supply chains. That stock is then automatically added to the Queen of Raw marketplace, ensuring that not only do businesses waste less, but they earn more.

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Photo source Vollebak

12. COMPOSTABLE PLANT-BASED HOODIE

London-based clothing startup Vollebak has designed a hoodie from eucalyptus trees that is fully biodegradable and compostable within eight weeks. Made from pulped eucalyptus and beech wood that has been sourced from sustainably managed forests, the plant-based jumper achieves a mossy hue from being dyed with pomegranate peel. 

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13. BOOKING PLATFORM OFFSETS ALL CARBON FROM HOTEL STAYS

The Denmark-based, hotel booking platform Goodwings offers subscription-based access to more than one million hotels worldwide at wholesale rates. However, Goodwings is more than the average booking site, the company is a B Corp–certified member aiming to turn the hotel industry into a catalyst for sustainable change. With Goodwings, all hotel stays are 100 per cent carbon compensated, supporting people and the planet for free.

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14. HANDBAGS THAT CONSUMERS ASSEMBLE AT HOME

Japanese studio, Nendo, has designed a collection of handbags for the startup Italian online platform, Up To You Anthology, which customers can self-assemble at home. Each bag in the Mai collection is made from single sheets of laser-cut leather, in a net-style format. Its name comes from the Japanese word “ichi-mai”, which translates to “one-sheet”. This straightforward design has simplified the manufacturing process and minimised the inventory and shipping costs.

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15. RECYCLING COMPLIANCE PLATFORM FOR E-COMMERCE

Ecosistant, a Berlin-based consulting agency for recycling compliance, has launched a platform enabling online retailers to perform EU-wide packaging licensing digitally. An algorithm-based process makes it swift and simple to fulfil packaging compliance obligations, with greater financial appeal compared to conventional CSR consultants. The development is led by company founders Andreas Landes and Johannes Kohlmann.

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Photo source Justin Sablich/Springwise

16. TRAINERS MADE FROM RECYCLED TIRE SOLES

The French startup, Off the Hook (OTH), is a unisex, sustainable, trainer brand. These unique shoes have soles made from recycled, world-travelled tires. Moreover, each pair is tattooed with GPS coordinates referring to an unusual place. One tire is recycled for every three pairs of shoes produced by OTH.

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17. PLATFORM HELPS MERCHANTS CUT FOOD WASTE

Phenix has created a real-time, reliable connection between supermarkets and organisations in need of food donations. While originally a purely digital platform, Phenix has grown in line with the increasing demand of their partnered stores and charities. There are benefits for both too — shops using the platform not only reduce their waste disposal costs but also gain a tax deduction on the food they donate – from which Phenix collects a commission.

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18. BREWERY BURNS IRON AS A GREEN FUEL ALTERNATIVE

A new green fuel alternative has emerged that involves burning metal powder. When iron powder is ground very fine, it burns readily at high temperatures and releases energy as it oxidises. No carbon is emitted in this process — only iron oxide, which is regenerated back into iron powder when electricity is applied. Netherlands-based Swinkels Family Brewers have recently become the first business in the world to put this process to work at an industrial scale.

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19. CARBON OFFSETTING PLATFORM PROVIDES FULLY TRACEABLE CONTRIBUTIONS

New Zealand technology company CarbonClick recently introduced its e-commerce platform for businesses. Rather than require every business to research, build and track its own carbon offsetting programme, CarbonClick provides high-quality, internationally-vetted and fully traceable projects that support the work to reverse climate change. Businesses add a CarbonClick option to their checkout processes, allowing customers to decide how much of their purchases to offset. Individuals can set up a monthly subscription to cover the cost of the carbon emissions of their regular activities.

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 Photo source THE BOX

20. SMART PACKAGING BOX HANDLES 1,000 SHIPMENTS ON SINGLE CHARGE

Smart, sustainable packaging company, LivingPackets, has partnered with ePaper technology business, E Ink, to provide E Ink displays for their invention: THE BOX — a connected delivery box made of an incredibly rigid material and that is designed to be used over and over again. THE BOX can run for up to a 1,000 shipments on a single charge before it gets refurbished and sent out for another 1,000 shipments. The paperless label makes addressing shipments quick and easy and allows businesses to accommodate last-minute amendments to delivery locations.

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21. PLATFORM ESTIMATES CARBON EMISSIONS OF PLANNED BUILDINGS

Architecture and design studio Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) is working to make this easier with their development of a free tool called FCBS Carbon, which helps architects to estimate the whole-life carbon emissions of a planned building. Whole-life carbon emissions refer to the CO2 emitted during the entire lifespan of a building. Knowing the whole-life emissions can allow architects to fine-tune their designs in order to produce fewer emissions. The FCBS Carbon tool helps architects to quickly and easily produce a spreadsheet of a building’s potential environmental impact.  Architects can then see how changes to plans and materials affect the carbon footprint.

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