The idea that companies and (other kinds of organisation) should strive for “sustainable business models” in order to contribute to a sustainable development of the natural environment, society, and economy is becoming increasingly popular. But it is misleading. A business model per se cannot be sustainable. It is a model. And as such it integrates a variety of socially constructed, interrelated and context-dependent concepts (e.g. value, target groups, resources). It is a tool, i.e. a means, and not an end. Business models, if developed and managed properly, can support sustainable business processes, products, services, and environmentally and socially beneficial forms of consumption. But in all these cases, the attribute “sustainable” rather refers to the respective processes, products, etc. Therefore, to be precise, we should speak of “business models for sustainable products” and so forth, or, in general, “business models for sustainability” or “BMfS”. Separating the business model (the means) from the sustainability issue to be solved (the end) is an important first step before we can systematically and effectively think about how business models can support sustainable business.

Following this line of thought, this contribution to the EcoSD Annual Workshop 2015 distinguishes and then brings together two issues: the eco-design question and the business model question. The first asks: How to create useful artefacts that generate as much utility and joy as possible, using the smallest possible amount of natural resources, including footprints, for the longest possible period of time? The second is about a different but related issue: How to market eco-designs and innovations to unfold their full sustainability potential, in ways that allow users to easily adopt them and that allow eco-entrepreneurs to make a business?

While eco-design, or more broadly speaking eco and sustainability innovation, is a dynamic topic in academic research and business practice, we are only beginning to explore the relationships between eco-design and business models. There is no doubt that moving to the business model level, as a step beyond processes, products and services, is a worthwhile endeavour. It holds the promise of multiplying the positive effects of eco-design through a deliberate focus on how businesses create value under market conditions. Practitioners such as Riversimple founder Hugo Spowers, who is an eco-design and business pioneer in the field of e-cars, increasingly call for this move to the business model level: “Disruptive technology can only work if it comes with a new business model.” (Hugo Spowers, founder of Riversimple)

This paper offers some general thoughts about BMfS and their relation to eco-design, the barriers that inhibit their emergence and how business model innovation can overcome these barriers. The case of Welsh e-car designer Riversimple is used as an example of eco-design and business model innovation in practice.


Business model innovation, eco-design, e-mobility, Riversimple, case study


Lüdeke-Freund, F. (2016): Sustainable Business Models for Eco-Design and Innovation – The Case of Riversimple, in: Cluzel, F.; Tyl, B. & Vallet, F. (Eds.): The Challenges of Eco-innovation ‑ From Eco-ideation Toward Sustainable Business Models. EcoSD Annual Workshop 2015. Paris: Presse des mines, 57-67.


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