The effects of climate change and biodiversity declines are already clearly visible. Unsustainable consumption patterns, fuelled by unsustainable business models are at the heart of the problem. Sufficiency as an approach to make do with less has become more prominent in the sustainability discussions. Some companies are rising to the challenge and are even promoting less consumption or “sufficiency”, enabled by offering products with long product lifetimes and warrantees, repair services or rental offers. In this 2023 study, we investigated whether sufficiency is a trend or a tradition: What can be learned from companies that currently promote sufficiency in their communications? Have they always advocated sufficient consumption, or have they changed recently?
We investigated the historical pathways of advertisements by looking at the advertisements since the 1950s of three longstanding companies that currently promote sufficiency. In these pathways we did observe that some companies had promoted sufficiency values for a long time, while in others there were inconsistencies in the timeline, where more (unsustainable)n consumption was being promoted. While durability of product has been a strong distinguishing factors for the companies being investigated, we did observe inconsistencies by the companies promoting unsustainable behaviour on the way.
We also found that the companies adopt more premium pricing similar to what was found in earlier studies. This shows that while cheaper alternatives are currently still available, it may be difficult to mainstream sufficiency if longer product lifetimes and warrantees are not mandated by law.
To conclude, this study shows that companies can promote sufficiency by offering long-life products and services that support longevity, such as maintenance, repair, reuse or rental. Sufficiency has not hampered business success, but on the contrary, led to long-established successful enterprises. The study also shows the need for consistency in communications and values and the ability of companies to use their cultural reach to enable sustainable consumption patterns.
The circular economy is now widely used as a concept to advance the sustainability transition in business, but is it enough? The circular economy has been criticised for over-emphasizing “easy” strategies such as recycling, and business progress towards the circular economy is still slow (Allwood, 2014; Ritala et al., 2018). At the same time, the impacts of climate change are already clearly visible, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that we have until 2030 to halve global carbon emissions and mitigate global warming and the further damaging effects of climate change. On average there is a nearly 70% decline in population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. One of the key reasons is our growing global level of consumption: a growing, more affluent world population is consuming more and more and all these products and services have a footprint.
We found that there are leading business for sufficiency examples in diverse sectors, from food, to clothing and mobility. However, policy and individual action need to supplement business practice to be more effective, because the number of businesses focusing on consumption reduction is still limited (perhaps unsurprisingly). In terms of policies, there could be new policies that focus on the product, business model, and (perhaps more controversially) individual consumption level. The EU Circular Economy Action Plan could be a useful starting point, focusing on issues such as right to repair, spare parts, and warrantees. At the individual level, we could learn more from practices and research in the areas of voluntary simplicity, downshifting and minimalism. You can find more detailed ideas on where to go next here.
As part of the project Circular X research agenda focused on experimentation with circular service business models, we are putting more emphasis on topics of sufficiency, but also regeneration as a way to mitigate and adapt to climate change. You can follow the project here.
Business model innovation (BMI) research typically focuses on measuring “the wrong thing”: mainly economic performance of business
Sustainable business model innovation (SBMI) research is often quite action-oriented and does describe potential positive impact of innovations on society and the planet, but is highly qualitative with few studies focusing on actual measurement of positive impacts.
This was based on an analysis of the most cited empirical BMI and SBMI papers. In the paper, we suggest a focus on understanding how new business models impact ecosystems, society and the natural environment.
We suggest the following research directions (and more!):
Value destruction impact of (S)BMI
What types of social or environmental value might be destroyed because of BMI and how can this be measured or mitigated?
How can the positive societal and ecosystemimpact of SBMI be retainedwhen scaling and how can the negative impacts or rebound effects be avoided?
Dynamics of (S)BMI
How can unsustainable vicious cycles of BMI (e.g., volume over value, addictive consumption, environmental or human resource exploitation) be broken down in favour of sustainable alternatives?
Who or what are the catalysers of virtuous cycles of SBMI impacts on business ecosystems, society, and planet?
How can businesses map their position in an ecosystem to better understand how to make an environmental or social impact?
Luckily we see that recent studies have picked up measurement of societal and environmental impacts of (sustainable) business models, so hopefully we can shift the focus to researching and measuring what matters. You can find some recent examples of papers assessing the environmental impacts of new circular business models in the Introduction section of this paper.
From the great and constructive feedback we got on the archetypes since, we found out that many people used these archetypes to develop sustainable innovations, whether it is in their own venture or business, a large corporation, NGOs, or in their research.
While it is also clear that a lot of companies started innovating their business models for sustainability and the circular economy since (and we report on emerging business examples in ERC project Circular X) we found that greater awareness of unsustainable business models could help people recognise common flaws and solutions for their sectors. Such flaws are often so ingrained – sometimes even commonly accepted – that more awareness is needed of these flaws to break through them.
We were inspired by the great focus on lineareconomy vs circulareconomy, but considered there were many other institutionalised unsustainable business models and possible sustainable business responses. Awareness of these institutionalised unsustainable business models could create more traction to break them down. See below our list of Unsustainable Business Models (UBMs) developed in this recent article:
Environmental resource exploitation and waste UBM
Human resource exploitation and waste UBM
Economic exploitation UBM
Unhealthy or unsustainable offering UBM
Quantity over quality and value UBM
Addictive consumption pattern UBM
Complex opaque global value chain UBM
Short-term shareholder – not stakeholder value UBM
Financing and supporting unsustainable practices UBM
Please find the full open access study on unsustainable business models as well as possible positive pathways forward for different industries such as energy, transportation, construction, food, clothing, and finance, co-authored with Dr Sam Shorthere.
“Today’s economy is highly destructive of natural and social capital, and is characterized by large and growing gaps between rich and poor” (Elkington, 2013, pp. 10).
Vallue creation and appropriation are much-studied processes in business and management, but research and practice has focused mainly on how economic value is created and appropriated by businesses. This over-emphasis on the economic logic has created institutionalised asymmetries in the relationship between business, society and the natural environment.
In this paper, co-authored with Prof. Paavo Ritala and Dr Laura Albareda, we ask ourselves the following question: what are the main asymmetries involved in the economic, environmental and social domains for specific types of goods, and what are the most promising solutions to those asymmetries from the viewpoint of business?
We answer this question by addressing:
(1) the type of economic goods used to create value (private and club goods, public goods and common goods)
(2) value creation and appropriation domains (economic, social, and environmental)
Based on Samuelson (1954) we define the types of goods as follows:
Private and club goodssuch as cars (private) and cinemas (club goods) are those that are excludable from others and are therefore subject to rivalry by private consumption. While private goods are privately owned, club goods include private but shared systems, such as cinemas and sport clubs.
Public goods such as public defence and education, are those of which the use of them does not exclude others; in other words, they cause no rivalry as their individual use does not typically reduce the availability to others
Common goods like forests and the ocean are those typically available to everyone and are defined as non-excludable because while it is impossible to exclude a person from their consumption, they do involve rivalry as their (mis)use precludes their future use by others.
The main domains are:
Economic domain: market-based activities, such as production, distribution and consumption of goods and services.
Social domain: human activities, including issues around social equity and justice, health, education, culture etc.
Environmental domain: the natural environment and its longterm sustainability.
Building on the framework that brings the types of goods and domains together, we argue that there are several institutionalised asymmetries, between the goods used to create value and the domains in which the value is eventually appropriated. The table below shows an overview of the problems or assymetries and potential solutions.
Table. Overview of problems or asymmetries across the domains and examples of solutions
Private & club goods
Problems: Overproduction, planned obsolescence, overconsumption, bargaining power and information asymmetry Solutions: Business creating private goods that individuals desire or need and capturing financial value by sales Example: long-lasting functional products, classic design
Problems: Business fostering the regeneration and maintenance of common goods, improving the environmental outcomes Solutions: Business creating private goods that contribute positively to society Example: business providing language services
Problems: Negative environmental externalities promoted by the production of private goods or services Solutions: Business creating private goods that do not contribute negatively, or contribute positively, to natural environment Example: frugal innovations
Problems: Abuse and overexploitation of a public good for private self-interest; Teamwork and free-riding problem Solutions: Business contributing their knowledge and capabilities to the generation of improved public goods Example: companies supporting health, former initiative Google Health
Problems: Corruption; Privatisation of public goods Solutions: Business contributing and partnering and using their knowledge and capabilities to build improved public goods and social welfare Example: public-private partnerships; B corporations in education and health systems
Problems: Negative environmental externalities promoted by the production of public goods Solutions: Business contributing to the positive environmental impacts of public goods Example: Net positive initiatives
Problems: Tragedy of the commons Solutions: Business participating in the management of common goods, improving collective economic outcomes Example: soil remediation services, sustainable forestry initiatives
Problems: Collective action and policy failures Solutions: Business adopting collective action to manage common goods, improving social outcomes Example: businesses involving underprivileged members ofsociety in value chain
Problems: The (mostly hypothetical) case of overprotection of natural resources Solutions: Business fostering the regeneration and maintenance of common goods, improving the environmental outcomes Example: Sustainable agriculture; regenerative agriculture
Intellectual property (IP) may be seen as a barrier to sustainability transitions, but can it also be used to an advantage to accelerate sustainability transitions in a business context? To date, this idea has received insufficient attention in research. The IPACST project (Intellectual Property Models for Accelerating Sustainability Transitions) investigates the potential positive role of companies and their business models in sustainability transitions. A joint paper with colleagues from University of Cambridge, Lund University and HTW Berlin suggests that IP, when aligned with sustainable business model strategy, can be used to create not only commercial, but also societal and environmental impact. To this end, the study develops a an SBM-IP (sustainable business model-intellectual property) canvas that integrates IP considerations into each of the sustainable business model canvas building blocks. The study uses case examples to illustrate different IP considerations that are relevant for the different types of SBM-IP building blocks. The case examples show that different IP types (e.g., trademarks, patents) and ways to use them (e.g., applying more or less restrictive licensing) are used by companies in relation to the different building blocks. More about this topic can be read in the article.
Track 2.6: Business model experimentation for sustainability Track chairs: Nancy Bocken, Lars Jacob Tynes Pedersen, Sveinung Jørgensen, Jan Konietzko, Marc Dijk, Ilka Weissbrod, Maria Antikainen
The conference track aims to explore the topic of “Business model experimentation for sustainability”. The aim of experimentation is to put forward and accelerate novel and impactful solutions (Bocken & Snihur, 2020). This special track investigates different contexts in which experimentation could take place, such as new ventures, established business, social businesses, but also local governments such as cities, and collaborations between these actors.
What is business model experimentation for sustainability? How might it be conducted in different contexts? Who are the main actors?
Business model experimentation for sustainability comprises several interrelated stages of experimentation (Antikainen & Bocken 2019) from idea generation to the development of testable ideas and experiments building on hypotheses about the future business (Bland & Osterwalder 2019; Ries, 2011), and the design and execution of such experiments using various tools and methods (Bocken et al. 2019; Bashir et al. 2020; Døskeland & Pedersen 2015). It involves deliberate learning and decision-making about follow up actions (e.g., more experiments, pivot, scalability of results). Moreover, effectual logic (Sarasvathy, 2001; Baldassarre et al., 2020) suggests that companies experiment, using available knowledge, means, and resources and iterative processes through stakeholder interaction.
With business experimentation as a popular topic in business research and practice, broader questions arise. These relate to the ethics of experimentation in the field, the outcomes of experimentation, how to stimulate a culture for experimentation, and how to organize and govern experimentation practices into business development units or other organization units. These are relevant for the understanding of business model experimentation for sustainability (e.g. Weissbrod & Bocken, 2017).
Research questions and themes proposed for this track on Business model experimentation for sustainability” include, but are not limited to:
How to formulate testable hypotheses in business model experimentation?
What kind of tools and methods are needed for experimentation?
To what extent can randomized and controlled experiments be developed in a businesscontext?
What are the possibilities for collaboration and/or action research in business modelexperimentation for sustainability?
How to co-create a business model experimentation process with stakeholders?
How does ecosystem experimentation work, e.g. in cities or regions?
How to measure the circularity/sustainability of the outcomes during business model experimentation?
What are success and failure cases of experimentation, with reported sustainability impacts?
What are the unintended consequences and rebound effects associated with the outcomes of business model experiments?
How does sustainable business model experimentation differ from conventional businessmodel experimentation?
What are the challenges when scaling-up of findings from experiments in practice?
How to shift from qualitative and exploratory experimentation to more quantitative,hypothesis-driven experimentation?
Ethics and biases
How can ethically justifiable experiments be developed in the field?
What are the design challenges in experimentation, including sampling of customer segments and possible biases?
What is a business model? A business model describes how a company does business and what its value proposition (benefits or offering to customer), value creation (resources, suppliers and other partners who help create value) and value capture mechanisms (cost structures and revenue streams) are.
What are sustainable business models? Sustainable business models consider a much wider group of stakeholders than just customers, and explicitly consider society and environment as stakeholders. They go beyond creating value for a customer and include concerns about the benefits and harms to society and the environment by the way business is done. This is a much more systemic view on doing business than making money by delivering benefits and value to customers.
I am interested how current business models can become more sustainable and how start-ups can develop sustainable business models from the outset.
Together with my colleagues Sam Short, Padmakshi Rana, and Steve Evans, I developed the Value Mapping Tool, to assist in ‘sustainable business modelling’ – the process of inventing new sustainable business model ideas.
Value mapping tool. Source. Bocken, Short, Rana, Evans (2013)
This tool can help users to:
Understand the positive and negative aspects of value in a network of stakeholders
Identify conflicting values (i.e. where one stakeholder benefit creates a negative for another stakeholder)
Identify opportunities for business model redesign – especially to improve societal and environmental impact
Here is a simplified process of using the value mapping tool to use for your business:
Each ring in the diagram represents a different brainstorm. During each of these brainstorms, all of the following “stakeholders” need to be considered:
Customers – perceived and actual benefits and negative impacts. You may want to break this down into different customer segments.
Network actors – in short, the firm and its supply chain responsible for creating value. This may be broken down into particular key suppliers or partners as can be seen above.
Environment – benefits (afforestation) and negative impacts (e.g. emissions to air).
Society – benefits (e.g. health) and negative impacts (e.g. working conditions)
Brainstorm 1: the purpose of the business is discussed. Why is the business here in the first place? What is the product or service offered by the company or business unit? What is the primary reason for the existence of the business (this should not be primarily financial)?
Brainstorm 2: what value is created for the different types of stakeholders? What positive value is created and what negative value do all the stakeholders mitigate?
Brainstorm 3: what is the value destroyed or missed or negative outcomes for any of the stakeholders? Consider for example, waste to landfill or loss of local employment caused by offshoring. Are there contradicting impacts at a global and local level? Is the business missing an opportunity to capture value, or squandering value in its existing operations? For example, are assets, capacity and capabilities under-utilised? Are potentially useful materials going to landfill?
Brainstorm 4: This brainstorm is intentionally put at the end and is about blue-sky thinking. The focus is on turning the negatives into positives. What new positive value might the network create for its stakeholders through introduction of activities and collaborations? What can you learn from competitors, suppliers, customers or even other industries?
To move from ideas to implementation the brainstorm may be followed up by roadmapping the activities and business model elements to be changed. A great way of doing this is using the Business Model Generation work by Osterwalder and Peigneur (see www.businessmodelgeneration.com for more details). We have adapted their “strategy canvas” here:
Overview of business model elements in ‘sustainable business model canvas’. www.businessmodelgeneration.com, adapted by Bocken, Schuit, Kraaijenhagen (2018)
For a more detailed discussion of the value mapping tool and sustainable business model canvas, the full research articles can be found here:
Bocken, N., Short, S., Rana, S., Evans, S. (2013) A value mapping tool for sustainable business modelling”, Corporate Governance, 13(5) .482 – 497. DOI link: 10.1108/CG-06-2013-0078
Bocken, N. M., Schuit, C. S., & Kraaijenhagen, C. (2018). Experimenting with a circular business model: Lessons from eight cases. Environmental innovation and societal transitions, 28, 79-95. DOI link: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2018.02.001
The guide for facilitators and more info can be found here
With increasing pressures on resources and the climate it is clear that a new way of doing business is needed. The Circular Economy is a potential key driver for sustainability and competitiveness. In contrast to the current ‘linear economy’, in a Circular Economy, materials are kept at their highest utility at all times. Despite great policy, business and academic interest, knowledge on how to ‘implement’ the Circular Economy in business is lacking.
Project Circular X addresses a new and urgent issue in sustainability research: experimentation with circular service business models (CSBMs). Examples of such new business models include companies shifting from selling products to selling services and introducing lifelong warrantees and maintenance and repair services to extend product lifetimes. However, CSBMs are far from mainstream and experimentation focused on experimentation with new CSBMs is little understood.
Project Circular X aims to bridge and expand knowledge on experimentation approaches across disciplines such as sustainability, design, business and entrepreneurship research. It seeks to develop novel concepts, tools and labs by bridging these diverse research fields and advance understandings on how CSBMs manifest themselves in business and how these can be experimented with, which will ultimately advance business activities towards a circular economy transition.
Timing and funding
Circular X is run between 2020-2025 by Maastricht University, Maastricht Sustainability Institute (MSI) and is funded by the European Union. This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement No. 850159. Principal Investigator of the Circular X is research programme is Professor Nancy Bocken, based at Maastricht University, Maastricht Sustainability Institute (MSI). For any information and potential collaboration, feel free to contact me via LinkedIn or email.
Lean Startup has been impacting how companies – small and large – innovate their business models. However, academic understanding of Lean Startup and the related experimentation process is only emerging. Recent academic critique on Lean Startup highlights the inadequate guidance provided for hypotheses generation; limits related to experiential learning that can be generated from customer feedback; and the potential incremental nature of experimentation outcomes.
In this article, we aim to contribute a more positive perspective on the opportunities of Lean Startup. We highlight how it can enable continuous innovation and stakeholder engagement for novelty and impact. First, we argue that Lean Startup has not been conceived for ideation, but rather for iterative experimentation to reduce uncertainty, engage stakeholders, and promote collective learning. The figure below shows our interpretation based on Ries (2011) of where and how the Lean Start-up is positioned – after entrepreneurs have formed their vision and initial business model idea(s). Second, taking a process perspective on experimentation, we suggest that novel business models can emerge during experimentation.