Managing Director & Senior Partner, Chairman of the BCG Henderson Institute
San Francisco - Bay Area
Since the industrial revolution, we’ve lived in an economic system predicated on high growth. For the past 20 years, that growth has relied on an abundance of capital and other external resources and has benefited from tailwinds like global economic integration. Today, however, that model is at risk — we can see the limits of resource abundance encroaching on multiple timescales. The acute constraints we’ve experienced since the COVID pandemic began, including supply chain disruption, declining workforce availability, and energy shortages, are slowing the rebound to normal rates of growth. Furthermore, slower rebound can be an early warning indicator of deeper systemic change, in this case signaling an era of protracted scarcity of labor, capital, and natural resources that will make growth harder and require new strategies.
This new scarcity could threaten the successful business models of today’s large companies, which are built on virtually unlimited access to resources such as labor, raw materials, and energy.
But threats to current business models need not threaten business itself, so long as firms embrace new constraints, leverage them to advantage, and perhaps, in the process, uncover new sources of abundance. Recall Michael Porter’s “The Competitive Advantage of Nations” in Harvard Business Review, which argues that a nation’s competitive advantages sometimes stem precisely from those areas with the tightest bounds. Japan, for example, pioneered lean production techniques in part because it was a mountainous island nation with very little excess land. Singapore is another example of a prosperous but highly resource-constrained economy.
These constraint-related advantages may include more integrated approaches to sustainability, new types of resource efficiency, and innovation around new inputs. They may also include more radical approaches such as de-materialization or an emphasis on well-being over physical production and consumption. Ultimately, the ability to navigate this environment can be a significant competitive differentiator, giving rise to a new set of models for thriving in a new context.
Three major global trends are driving resource scarcity for businesses:
For businesses, it will become harder and harder to find easy growth by relying on traditional notions of abundance. Instead, businesses will need to innovate to create new types of abundance, whether that comprises novel sources of talent or new types of input to create offerings with fewer harmful externalities.
Farsighted leaders will counter the global boundary-tightening trends by rethinking business models to navigate and even exploit scarcity in the short term and to find new abundance in the long. This will require leaders to take various strategic actions on different time horizons.
Today, adapt your market positioning and your stance on innovation to mitigate and exploit scarcity to your advantage. These actions will be familiar to most companies from other contexts. The challenge will be to take sufficient action, with sufficient speed.
Expand talent access. Adapt your talent strategy for advantage today and tomorrow. Create a “bionic organization” by focusing human talent where it is needed most, in areas requiring imagination, empathy, or ethics, and leveraging AI where it is especially adept. Further, broaden your talent search, in order to find the best talent and the freshest perspectives. Expand the search at home by developing upskilling or reskilling capabilities to support evolving talent needs and reach underrepresented populations. For example, Amazon must rely on nontraditional IT and tech workers to staff its rural data centers, so they train talent by partnering with local community colleges to create purpose-built vocational programs.
Expand supply by making your talent search global, and by creating a culture and a structure that support borderless collaboration. Africa and South America will have the most population growth in the next century and will therefore be potential sources of labor. Start building an international culture in your company now. Rakuten, a Japan-based e-commerce firm, made the transition early and mandated in 2010 that the company become English-first, in order to become globally relevant. The transition took two years, but the company reaped the rewards, growing revenues from $3.9 billion in 2010 to $15.3 billion in 2021.
Build resilient supply systems. We know from physics that there are often early warning signs of critical phase transitions (such as collapses) in complex systems. The signs include increased variance and a slowing down of the return to normal after disturbance. We have seen both occur in supply systems during the COVID pandemic, requiring a more holistic approach to enterprise resilience. For example, Totino’s faced a rotating list of ingredient shortages for its frozen snack, so the company developed a modular set of 25 recipes that allowed it to continue producing despite such shortages. Diversity (in this case of recipes) is one of the six principles that form the pillars of system resilience.
Adaptability, another pillar of resilience, can be very valuable in adjusting production capacity in volatile markets. This is relevant in all businesses—even in aluminum smelting, with its notoriously inflexible manufacturing systems. For example, TRIMET, a German aluminum producer, invested in new technology to allow its smelters to vary energy consumption and aluminum production by up to 25% in either direction (compared with the usual range of 5%). This allows TRIMET to adjust consumption to produce at off-peak hours, saving money and energy. In the new volatile and resource-constrained context, companies will have even more reason to tap into each of the six biological principles for creating resilient systems: diversity and adaptability, discussed above, as well as redundancy, modularity, prudence, and embeddedness.
In the medium term, find new abundance through innovation and by making environmental sustainability a durable competitive advantage. It’s a challenging task—currently, only 20% of businesses even claim to be able to accomplish it—but it has the power to create true differentiation.
Build sustainable business models. Business leaders must reinvent business models so that companies can thrive even as consumers and governments become more concerned with preventing degradation to the planetary systems that support life. We find that the most successful sustainable business model innovators have reimagined their core business models around new environmental, societal, and financial priorities, rather than simply adding sustainability as a separate consideration. There are many archetypal strategic moves that businesses can make to transform current business models into sustainable ones, including owning the origins, owning the whole cycle, expanding societal value, expanding value chains, innovating in ecosystems, relocalizing or regionalizing, energizing the brand, and building bridges across sectors.
For example, Cotopaxi made a name for itself in the outdoor gear market with its colorful bags and clothing by expanding societal value, energizing the brand, and expanding value chains. The zany, mismatched fabric combinations come from the company philosophy of using fabric scraps from other, bigger bags. The company made sustainability and waste reduction synonymous with its brand, and in doing so found market success with a model that minimizes the raw inputs required.
In the long term, prepare for a world where material growth may be severely constrained in aggregate. The growth hockey stick, which began with the industrial revolution and created modern business and society, cannot continue indefinitely for reasons of both simple arithmetic and ecological sustainability. We currently have few answers as to how continued prosperity can be reconciled with these escalating constraints. But we can reasonably suppose that the path forward will involve both reducing the material intensity of production and consumption and realigning economic value with what we as humans will value in a resource-constrained future.
Stop relying on material growth. Dematerialize your product offering by taking “reduce, reuse, recycle” to the next level; embracing the service and experience underpinning product offerings; or innovating in the digital realm. Selfridges, the British department store, set a goal of having half of its customer transactions based on resale, repair, rentals, or reuse by 2030. This benefits customers, who will have more options for engagement with the brand, and Selfridges, which will create durable business lines with lower material intensity. Importantly, it will also benefit the earth.
When it comes to experience, luxury clothing brands are also pioneers. The luxury sneaker brand Golden Goose differentiates itself in a crowded space by promising the highest level of shoe repair. It fits the company’s brand of quality shoes that are built to last and creates an immaterial business arm and differentiator. Another tack that luxury fashion brands could lead is expansion into the metaverse; Morgan Stanley projected in 2021 that luxury fashion in the metaverse could be a $50 billion industry by 2030. Whatever method a business takes to dematerialize, the result is both lower cost and a decoupling of revenue from scarcity-induced instability.
Ultimately, it will be the companies that use these new cascading constraints to their advantage that will succeed by creating new abundance.
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