The diffusion of innovation follows a typical S-curve, with a small group of innovating customers (innovators) leading the way, followed by early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. As with acceptance of incremental innovation versus radical innovation, the focus in this section is on the challenges of the diffusion of sustainable products.

Sustainability challenge calls for more than incremental changes to existing patterns of production and consumption. Features of innovative products that accelerate diffusion are relative advantage over existing products and compatibility with existing products. Successful adoption of sustainable products strongly depends on the maturity of the field and the power of established firms and their interest in maintaining the status quo. Firms who want to successfully commercialize sustainable innovation need to convince customers that the product they are offering is not just good for society, but also good for them. This is a barrier to customer adoption.

To mobilize sustainable innovation collaboration between like-minded organizations is needed; this could be between established firms and start-ups. Government policy also plays an important role because governments can promote sustainable innovation through taxation or other economic policies. Established firms are in a better position to influence regulators than entrepreneurial start-ups. The following factors, identified in literature, influence the diffusion of sustainable innovation. 

  • Product-related factors, incentive to buy. The price development is important in this factor. Price and cost-effectiveness (economic viability).
  • Adopter-related factors, comprehensibility of the innovation or complexity of the innovation (adoption of innovation). Compatibility with routines (need for behavior modification).
  • Supplier-related factors, size and market power of established suppliers.
  • Sector-related factors, small influence of pioneers, like innovators and green pioneers.
  • Government-related factors, Governmental/Political push and pull activities.
  • Path-related factors, diffusion path of innovation.

These factors give different diffusion dynamics and influence in the diffusion speed of sustainable innovation. This is also related to the type of innovation, incremental versus radical. This means that different paths are applicable to different types of innovation and their diffusion speed in the market, as described below.

  • Path type 1: Efficiency-enhancing investment goods by established providers. Mostly incremental innovation.
  • Path type 2: Transparent consumer products with improved characteristics. Improved in terms of efficiency or other properties.
  • Path type 3: Subsidized investment goods by ‘green pioneer’ providers. Basic innovations in the area of environmental technology.
  • Path type 4: Radical innovations involving a high level of behavior change. High degree of innovation and the difficulty in making them routine.
  • Path type 5: Complex products with uncertain or long-term use. Innovations of this path type are the great complexity of the respective technology or solution.

Source: Fichter, 2013, “Diffusion paths of sustainability innovations”. and Fichter, 2016, “Diffusion Dynamics of Sustainable Innovation – Insights on Diffusion Patterns Based on the Analysis of 100 Sus- tainable Product and Service Innovations”.

Source: Hockerts, 2010, “Greening Goliaths versus emerging Davids — Theorizing about the role of incumbents and new entrants in sustainable entrepreneurship”.

Source: Rogers, 1995, “Diffusion of Innovations”.

Source: Lettl, 2007, “User involvement competence for radical innovation”.

Source: Wüstenhagen, 2008, “Sustainable Innovation and Entrepreneurship”.

Categories: content