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Food for Thought

Integrating Sustainability into the Design Process

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – Gro Harlem Brundtland


Changes in the food market landscape are happening due to evolving consumer desires. Manufacturers and producers, and incumbents in particular, are now feeling the march of many new disruptor brands, who are stealing market share.

For companies in the food industry it is imperative that steps are taken to ensure that their brands remain relevant. No sector can afford not to adapt to the changing business environment. There is opportunity in this changing landscape, which should have the attention on industry leaders.

While the term ‘sustainable development’ is widely used today, ambiguity surrounding its interpretation remains. Individual approaches to sustainable development will be accompanied by merits and challenges, depending on their drivers’ ideological standpoint and their understanding of the concept.

In this article we’ve examined the way successful food businesses can best understand and incorporate sustainability into their products, from inception through the new product development process, in order to remain relevant to changing consumer demands.


In addressing sustainable development, the adoption of a new set of principles to challenge standard methods of production and consumption and promote a shift from a linear, extractive economy, to a circular, regenerative economy are necessary. Barilla is one such brand pushing for sustainable innovation. It has announced the launch of an accelerator programme, to work alongside entrepreneurs to bring more sustainable food products to market. With this, Barilla will help start-ups to develop solutions to challenges in their area of focus over the course of an eight week programme to bring innovation to the circular economy, as well as promoting public health. 

In order for a shift to a new modus operandi to occur, new innovations, ways of thinking and ideas must be shared and embraced. A synergy of innovation and sustainability are the key forces in devising solutions to the challenges of sustainable development. Danone’s Regional VP for the UK, Belgium, Netherlands and Ireland, Adam Grant, recently called for more collaboration across the industry. “We’re not moving quick enough in this direction. We do not act collectively”, he said. “In a sense we are too focused on out-competing one another rather than actually thinking about what the areas are where we can work together.”


Innovation Process

The innovation process itself involves many stages, and one of the most commonly used is the Stage Gate Process. This five stage process is a linear method where each stage is marked by goals, each of which must be met before continuing onto the next phase, or gate. Due to the shortening lifecycle of trends and consumer demands in the food industry, the stage gate process is an ideal tool, as it has a strong customer focus.

The process starts with an ideation phase, through the discovery and generation of new ideas. The term of this phase is known as the Fuzzy Front End of innovation (FFE). This has come to be defined as the activities that come before the structured New Product Development (NPD) or stage gate process. The activities in the FFE stage are often unstructured, unpredictable and chaotic. Therefore, the FFE can be seen as the prerequisite for any innovation and generation of ideas to occur. Historically, sustainability was not addressed in the NPD process across the food industry, however it is now clear that it needs to be addressed throughout the ideation phase of the innovation process to ensure its principles and requirements are met at all stages. The majority of a product’s environmental impact is determined in its development, so addressing it at this stage is easier in the long run than trying to engineer sustainability back into a product.

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Bridging the Gap

Every innovation process starts with an observation of the current state, and how it differs from our expectations. This is known as the observation gap. The innovation process aims to close this gap by defining a problem, and then generating possible solutions. The FFE process is then completed by analysing and selecting the most suitable solution idea. A different set of skills are required along the innovation process to ensure the best problem-solving approach is adopted. In the early stages, creativity and patience are necessary, by leadership setting a vision, creating a suitable, safe environment, and leaving the detail to the creative workforce. In the later stages of the process, more direct leadership is required, where the needs shift from creativity to implementation. Bridging the gap.png

Taking the process as a whole, there are three distinct elements of the model for the development of sustainable solution ideas:

  1. The first element is the presence of the innovation drivers. These include creativity, motivation and knowledge. A successful FFE process may only be successfully executed if each of the three drivers are incorporated. The more these drivers are examined and exhausted, the more efficiently the FFE process can be run, and in turn lead to higher quality solutions.
  2. The second element of the model are the sustainability drivers. These flank the other two elements. The drivers are characterised by sustainability principles, and sustainability goals.
  3. The third element is the FFE process, where a sustainability need is established. Fed by the innovation drivers, a four-stage process follows: the problem is detected, it is analysed, solutions are suggested, and a solution is chosen. The output of this is a concrete solution idea.

The FFE Process.png

Diagram credit: Tim Stock, Michael Obenaus, Amara Slaymaker, Günther Seliger, 2017.

New Sustainable Innovation

This model allows for the handling of the so-called fuzzy environment of the ideation phase for a new sustainable innovation. The output of this model, the concrete solution idea, must then be transformed into a competitive innovation, where it is supported by a business model and case. Tools such as the Diamond Model, allow for a highly iterative approach, where the basis of the solution is customer focused. This customer-based solution outlines a validated business model with a fully designed and tested product. 

Sustainability as a Differentiator

Increasingly, we are seeing companies, such as those that have chosen to become Certified B Corporations (B Corps) selecting innovation models like this. Some well-known B Corps making great strides in the area include Danone, Innocent Drinks and Propercorn. Sustainability has become a non-negotiable for these brands and is an integral determinant of the customer loyalty that they enjoy. The increased importance of sustainability to consumers and businesses alike has ushered in an era where it has become a key driver in attracting new talent to companies. The successful Origin Green programme run by Bord Bia has highlighted the willingness of many brands to shift to this way of operating.

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The Future

Incorporating sustainability into the innovation process will allow companies to better position themselves to meet changing consumer demands. By having an awareness of the elements that feed into this innovation process, leaders can make informed decisions on their new product development pipeline. This will leave them able to defend and grow market share while laggard competitors try to retrofit sustainability back into their products.


For more information, contact:

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Neil Brady -