The Sustainability Impact Canvas - A foundation for Sustainable Innovation

In order to develop sustainable products and business models, it is essential to be aware of the various ways (positive and negative) the associated business activities impact the environment and the society, in addition to their impact on profitability. This statement may sound trivial. However, one only needs to bring to mind the various examples of products that have been designed with environmental sustainability in mind and instead achieved the opposite effect. The "being aware" may actually pose a real challenge in certain cases.

Take, for example, car sharing, a prime example of the use of ICT / IoT technologies to reduce vehicle ownership and the environmental impact of transportation. Due to these positive effects, it is obvious for anyone that car-sharing is good for the environment. Or is it? It has in fact been shown that urban car sharing adoption may result in a reduction in the use of public transportation infrastructure and an increase in car miles traveled in cities, generating the opposite of the intended environmental effect [1].

Or take Toms shoes, a company built around the buy-one-give-one (BOGO) model. For every pair of shoes sold in the developed world, Toms initially gave away a pair of shoes to someone "in need" in the developing world. Not only did giving away shoes not address a top-priority local problem, but the freely available footwear actually created a negative local impact, as it damaged local shoe markets.

It is of course easy to find such cases and - with hind sight - point out their suitability as examples for the law of unintended consequences. After all, whether a product or business model generates net positive or net negative impact may often be only found out via a complex and time consuming life cycle analysis.

But it is actually not required to accurately predict the overall environmental impact in order to design more sustainable products and business models, if the right approach to the design process is being taken.

The Sustainability Impact Canvas

The Sustainability Impact Canvas (SIC, download here) is a tool to incentives sustainable product- and business model design by helping designers to identify and optimise positive and negative effects of the respective business activities. The SIC forces designers to look at the positive as well as the negative impacts of their product or business idea, therefore generating the first input for a realistic impact assessment. It is structured along three levels, which take into account all potential impact categories at the technology level, the application level and the systems level.

Major advantages of this tool are that it balances a thorough methodology with an easy to use tool and that it can be used as an input generator for the Sustainable Business Model Canvas.

Most importantly, however, the SIC is an ideal tool to incentivise "honest accounting" by preventing designers form ignoring the potential negative effects of their products and business models, a common tendency and related to the confirmation bias.

How to use the Sustainability Impact Canvas

The SIC is best used by systematically analysing and completing the 6 main fields in the canvas, from first order effects to third order effects. The purpose of this exercise is to first identify, and then maximise and minimise the positive and negative effects, respectively.

Using Cue Cards to complete the Sustainability Impact Canvas
Using Cue Cards to complete the Sustainability Impact Canvas

To help you complete these six sections of the Sustianability Impact Canvas, we compiled a list of guidelines for each section, showing the benefits and the risks of optimising the respective effects and giving you a few examples of related business applications. You can also download the guidelines in form of printable cue cards here.

1- Maximise capture of waste or emissions

(technology / product level)

Main Principles

  • Wherever possible, use materials for your product which are considered „waste“ and are currently polluting the environment

  • If feasible, engage in „industrial symbiosis“ with relevant industrial partners

  • Explore the potential of long-term or permanent capture of greenhouse gasses in your product

Benefits for provider and consumer

  • Potentially lower manufacturing costs

  • Potential eligibility for subsidisation

  • Benefits for brand


  • Unstable future supply of resources

  • Immature technology


  • Glasses (Sea2See), Shoes (Adidas) and Fashion (Ecoalf) made from recycled ocean plastic (Sea2See)

  • Plastic partially made fro