On 16 September 2021, the Sustainability University hosted the workshop “The utility and necessity of a sustainable sector strategy”. The workshop was part of the 6th edition of the State of the Sustainability Profession, the event especially made for professionals working in sustainability. After the plenary session, during which we shared the results of the State of the Sustainability Survey 2021, all participants were invited to join the different workshops on several sustainability topics.
The workshop hosted by Carola Wijdoogen and Laura Termeer, both directors of the Sustainabillty University, focused on Change Theory. They discussed the different phases of market transition of your circular – or sustainable – idea, based on the model of Lucas Simons & Andre Nijhof (Changing the Game, Sustainable Market Transformation Strategies to Understand and Tackle the Big and Complex Sustainability Challenges of Our Generation, 2020). The Sustainability University – supported by the Goldschmeding Foundation – is currently researching 51 cases to answer the following questions: what interventions of sustainability professionals are necessary in these different phases and which specific roles and competences are needed?
The transition model in short
The model of Simons and Nijhof describes 4 phases of market transition. In the first phase of the model (inception), organizations are working on different sustainability pilots to find out the technology, process or idea that works. This phase focuses on measuring and finding out what action you want to take to make your organization more sustainable. The next phase is about creating a strategy as an organization and distinguishing yourself from your peers. In this phase, sustainability Is used as a competitive advantage. While these two phases are still mainly focusing on the organization itself, the next phases are externally focused. In the pre-competitive collaboration phase the organization no longer aims at being a frontrunner in the sector, but wants to develop a sector-wide strategy and create a sustainability model or strategy together. Only when the sector has agreed upon this strategy and model, you can proceed to phase four. In this phase, the process, technology or strategy you’ve come up with becomes the standard (institutionalization).
Takeaways from the workshop: a sustainable sector strategy
- Each phase asks for certain behavior of the different market segments, the companies and also from the government. The transition model can help you, as a sustainability professional working in a company or organisation, breaking up the big question into smaller parts. This allows you to see in which phase of the market your organization is and what you need to do to move to the next phase.
- Many companies remain in phase 1: starting up different pilots and not moving forward. Also, many sustainability professionals know how to use the market/competitive advantage (phase 2) as part of their business model/case. However, moving to phase 3 is very challenging. As a sustainability professional, you will have to tell a different story internally, as explained by Carola Wijdoogen: “We will no longer use sustainability to differentiate ourselves from other companies, but we will have to work together with our competitors in order to make the world a better place.”
- It is important to see that phase 1 and phase 4 are related to each other. When you’re working on your pilots, you should also look into related guidelines and rules that are being created by the government. “How can you adjust the guidelines in such a way that they do not hinder the speed of innovations, and on the other hand, how can you as a product designer already start a conversation with the person that is making the policy so the innovation can be implemented?” explained Laura Termeer.
- To move to phase 3, it is important to embrace your network role and collaborate with all stakeholders, both internally and externally. First identify your stakeholders within your organization: look at functions, experts, passion and personal commitment to sustainability. Then start conversations with external stakeholders, first locally and then also globally.
- As stated by one of the workshop members: “The challenge is that, to ensure sustainability we should work together more and more, while at the same time keeping businesses feasible.” This is complex and there is no step-to-step approach. However, knowing which intervention to take in which phase can help you create a roadmap.