Holistic sustainability

How to maximise the benefits and minimise unintended consequences when doing sustainable innovation


January 2023

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Our societies and ecosystems are complex systems. Hence, every innovation that changes current practices likely has consequences in other parts of the system, either positive or negative. Environmental assessments can help shed light on those, but additional expert knowledge and systemic understanding is required to grasp the whole picture.

When we are hit by crises and major challenges, such as climate change or extreme inequality, it has always sparked motivation to solve problems and become innovative – an admirable tendency which has allowed humans to persist and thrive.

Sometimes we get lucky and tackling one issue also solves a host of other issues. This is the case with providing education to young girls, which boosts not just economic growth but also communal health, safety and more stable families1.

Unintended consequences

Finding a solution to one environmental or social issue, we often end up creating a new problem somewhere in the system. The problems occurring may be known and thus expected and factored in, or unknown and so unexpected or unintended. Also, they are often small in magnitude compared to the improvement caused by the solution.

We could look at wind turbines as an example. They produce almost carbon-free electricity, but they might also accidentally kill large birds that are important for ecosystem resilience. Nevertheless, the number of associated bird deaths is small compared to the decline in bird population caused by increased global warming that would persist without renewable electricity.

Sometimes, however well-intended, innovations or new approaches to one specific issue cause considerable detrimental impacts in other areas or even make the whole system worse off.

Below, we shed light on such systemic consequences in two examples.

Example 1

Biofuels: Not land-efficient and low carbon savings

Many countries promoted biofuels to reduce GHG emissions from transport by mixing the biofuels with petrol. Here, we mainly talk about the so-called first generation biofuels, which is bioethanol produced from field crops such as maize and sugar.

When using biofuels for transport, the carbon that is burned in the process comes from biomass. This biomass previously extracted CO2 from the air and so the combustion itself is considered carbon neutral.

Nevertheless, it creates new problems when we use scarce land area to grow biofuel crops.

A first problem occurs if we cut down forests to make way for biofuel crops. This change in land use releases substantial amounts of previously stored carbon from soils.

Secondly, using any arable and fertile land for biofuel production results in a reduction of land available for other societal needs. In the case of food production, this means that remaining areas must be more intensively farmed, which currently equates to high-input agriculture (fertilizers, pesticides etc.). This form of intensive farming is known to have plenty of side effects such as eutrophication, soil degradation and biodiversity destruction while also reducing the carbon storage capacity of soils. These effects of land conversion and other value chain emissions (e.g. transportation) may almost completely negate the climate benefits of using biofuels3.

A last, and maybe most important, issue is that there might be way more efficient uses of the land for providing fuel for mobility purposes. For example, we could install solar panels able to produce vastly more energy than biofuels2. The solar energy could be used in electric cars but also converted to e-fuels usable in combustion engines.

In sum, the systemic consequences show that biofuels are the least efficient use of land for mobility and at the same time not delivering on the promise to significantly reduce carbon emissions.

Example 2

Vertical indoor farming: Hidden carbon footprint, little land savings

Currently, there is a buzz around vertical indoor farming start-ups with billions of venture capital flowing into the industry.

Vertical indoor farming is the practice of growing food in a controlled indoor environment using LED lights to provide the energy for photosynthesis. The controlled indoor environment comes with multiple benefits: high CO2 levels for increased productivity, reduced or zero use of pesticides due to a sterile environment, reduced use of fertilizer due to recirculation of nutrient-rich water, year-round stable production and adjustable temperature levels for optimum plant growth.

In the indoor farms, productivity is higher, and plants grow on multiple levels, and so a lot less land is needed to produce the same amount of food. Therefore, farm operators are often expressive about how their food reduces the use of land, pesticides and water and has fewer food miles (that is the distance food travels before it reaches the plate).

The crux of vertical indoor farming is that we often tend to neglect the high energy use and its sourcing in the considerations. Worst case, the energy comes from fossil fuels, meaning that the carbon footprint of food may be 10 to 100 times higher than the conventional supply. Best case, the indoor farm is supplied with energy from the existing renewable energy infrastructure such as hydropower plants.

However, for most locations today, the renewable energy supply is limited and already serves the existing electricity demand. In order to not slow the greatly needed decarbonisation efforts in other sectors, new solar photovoltaic plants and wind farms would need to be build4. The erection does not only require vast amounts of metals and concrete, resulting in yet a higher carbon footprint for the indoor farm than the conventional food supply, even when considering food miles5, but it also requires land. Studies show that except for in extreme climates, the indirect land use of renewably powered vertical indoor farms is similar to the land required to grow the same quantity of food outdoors6.

In sum, vertical indoor farming does reduce the use of water and other inputs. However, this reduction rarely makes up for the large amount of material needed and the higher carbon footprint7.

Why should you care about suboptimal innovations?

In an isolated and small setup, we could just consider the suboptimal uses of resources in the two examples as one more experiment in human history providing useful learnings for related fields. However, on a global scale, such apparent solutions – if promoted by government policy and large amounts of investor capital – take up scarce resources (money, land, workforce) and thus potentially delay effective action on other fronts or even make society worse off in the long run.

In a business context, however, we are less often faced with decisions having global ramifications.

Nevertheless, any investment decision or new R&D venture in the sustainability space comes with a similar dynamic of affecting systems and thus the risk of unintended negative consequences.

Consider investing in an environmentally or socially suboptimal solution; although we might generate some profits for a few years, eventually people will develop a comprehensive understanding of the systemic consequences and actors within society will start doubting the environmental or social credibility of our business activity. This does not only lead to brand damage and painful lock-ins, but it also comes at an opportunity cost (foregone R&D and revenues in other activities). So, businesses making money from innovations promising to improve the planet and society can clearly benefit from applying a holistic approach.

But how do we find solutions that maximise the co-benefits and minimise the burden shifting?

Sustainability assessments and their limitations

When assessing a sustainability initiative, researchers and companies often rely on life cycle analysis (LCA). The LCA is an ISO standardised method to assess the environmental impacts along the life cycle of a product or service all the way from the extraction of raw materials to the final waste disposal. The environmental impacts are evaluated along multiple dimensions, also called environmental impact categories; global warming potential in relation to climate change being one example.

There are many LCA software tools to carry out the analysis, and both free and license-based databases provide details about thousands of industrial activities related to products and energy flows.

Conducting an LCA provides useful insights to compare options and identify environmental hotspots in products and supply chains. However, current LCA methods might lack some aspects completely, such as plastic waste flows into rivers and oceans. Moreover, LCA methods and tools currently lack the power to holistically map and evaluate systemic effects. In example 1, biofuels, an LCA would capture transport and cultivation impacts but not necessarily the displacement affecting food production and the inefficient land use for mobility. In example 2, vertical indoor farming, an LCA would reveal the higher carbon footprint but not provide a holistic picture on land use.

A full representation of systemic effects is unlikely to ever be feasible due to the complexity and the dynamics of the economy and the planet’s ecology.

Thus, we should not use LCAs as the only tool or approach to assess an innovation or practice. We need expert knowledge too to contextualise results and provide a holistic assessment.

Obtaining a holistic perspective to steer innovation

When we make any comparisons between technologies or practices that have larger implications for society, it requires an informed and holistic perspective of the complex dynamic system that our world is.

There is no simple way to tackle this. It is not a one-person job to obtain a holistic perspective. It requires expertise and insights from many individuals experienced in different disciplines and from different backgrounds. The more diverse voices we can allow to be heard, the better. It further requires a sobering honesty about potential side effects, careful diligence to envision consequences and constant alertness when something sounds too good to be true.

Practical advice for businesses and innovators

To reduce the likelihood of overlooking unintended negative systemic effects, we can conduct a thorough LCA to locate environmental hotspots along the value chain. But besides that, innovators and policymakers can also follow these four steps:

  1. Map inputs and outputs.
  2. Consider current uses of inputs.
  3. Consider functionality of current approach.
  4. Contemplate improper end of life.

The questions in each of the four steps will help us start thinking about potential issues. Further, it is advisable to dig deep and speak to people working in relevant sectors or that have an otherwise relevant perspective. If the stake is large, we should evaluate the questions and answers with the help of subject matter experts with local knowledge.

Most unintended negative consequences of innovations can be prevented or reduced before they become serious issues. If we keep in mind that our societies and ecosystems are complex and that unknown and unintended consequences therefore might occur, we can pause and consider. Ultimately, this allows us to steer our energy and creativity to endeavours that ensure that everything and everyone is better off in the long run.



2 Own calculations based on photosynthetic efficiency: ( and biomass-to-wheel efficiency (

3 Liu, J., Mooney, H., Hull, V., Davis, S. J., Gaskell, J., Hertel, T., ... & Li, S. (2015). Systems integration for global sustainability. Science, 347(6225), 1258832.

4 Indoor farms could also be supplied by nuclear energy. However, the high cost of construction and waste treatment together with the increased danger due to geopolitical and extreme weather events make it less appealing.

5 Blom, T., Jenkins, A., Pulselli, R. M., & van den Dobbelsteen, A. A. J. F. (2022). The embodied carbon emissions of lettuce production in vertical farming, greenhouse horticulture and open-field farming in the Netherlands. Journal of Cleaner Production, 134443.

6 Weidner, T., Yang, A., Forster, F., & Hamm, M. W. (2022). Regional conditions shape the land-water-food nexus of low-carbon indoor farming. Nature Food, 3(3), 206-216.

7 AAdvances in genetic engineering might lead to highly productive and nutrient-rich staple crops tailored to indoor conditions, potentially tipping the carbon footprint balance in favour of vertical farming. However, this is likely far in the future and would require considerable resources. The competition for renewable energy, which depends on scarce resources (especially land and metals), remains.