5. Patterns and Case Studies

There will be examples and case studies of business models of organizations which are following the design method by using the tool and applying the design principles understand their current and backcast to create future business models which will be increasingly strongly sustainable.

Patterns of Sustainable Business Models

(Names in brackets are researchers, authors, particularly early / originators of the terms used to describe patterns of business models believed to lead to more sustainable outcomes, or at least less unsustainable ones;  note lack of research of proving these assertions!

  • Co-operatives
  • Collaborative consumption
  • Restorative / enhancing
  • Cradle-to-cradle / circular / loop / waste as resource / return-reuse  (McDonough & Braungart)
    • See work by
      • Ellen McArthur Foundation
      • SSBMG member Michaela Rose on circular business models (part of her Imperial College UK based masters degree)
  • Open Innovation (Chesborough)
  • Lead User Innovation (Erik van Hippel)
  • Servicisation / Product to service / hire and leasing (Stahel)
  • Dematerialized (durable, made to order)
  • Localist / (Hyper) local (Shuman)
  • Business as Community (BALLE)
    • "It takes a community to raise a child; it takes a community to create and sustain a business"
  • Values-based / mission / impact business
  • Social Innovation / Entrepreneurship
  • Bio-centric / symbiosis / balance
  • Biomimicry (Benyus)  / Green Chemistry (Anastas) / BioInspired Design
    • Life's Principles - "Design Lessons from Nature"
    • "The Nature of Business - Redesigning for Resilience" by Giles Hutchins - intro to review here.
  • New Management Toolkit: Reduce Waste, Substitute, Circularity, Optimize, Visualize

The original list was developed from the review of the literature undertaken by Antony Upward during his thesis work; the original notes from this review may well be useful, described in his thesis, pp.258-259.  The list has been added to subsequently

More recently SSBMG member Nancy Bocken mentioned a number of patterns in this blog post about Sustainable Business Model Archetypes and a forthcoming article in the Journal of Cleaner Production:

Bocken, N.M.P., Short, S.W., Rana, P., Evans, S. A literature and practice review to develop Sustainable Business Model Archetypes. Journal of Cleaner Production (forthcoming)

Nancy Bocken presented to the SSBMG in Dec 2013 and her slides, including the diagram below, are posted here.  Subsequently she's written some blog posts here, including this one on a typology for sufficiency based business models

Forum for the Future have some good work in the space of describing and identifying patterns.   SustainAbility have also recently (2013) completed some research on 20 patterns for sustainable business model innovation (see this really great 1 page info graphic summary of the report,  this slideshare, the longer report and this post in our linkedin group). 

In 2016 Forum for the Future released the The Circular Economy Business Model Toolkit: "A toolkit that helps businesses transition from the linear to the circular economy".  This included a Infographic and Card Deck of 5 circular and 5 enabling business model patterns with case studies.

  • Circular Economy
    1. Closed loop recycling
    2. Downcycling
    3. Upcycling
    4. Industrial Symbiosis (Industrial Ecology)
    5. Collection Services
  • Enabling
    1. Product Service System
    2. Lock-in
    3. Local Loop
    4. Modularity
    5. Personalisation

Also see:

Also see Nathan Shedroff's "Design is the Problem" and John Ehrenfeld's "Sustainability by Design" for good information about possible principles behind more sustainable patterns of business model design (mixed in with examples and broader design principles).

For a list of the empirical research connecting business model patterns with business performance see Antony Upward's thesis pp.314-315: for example work by MIT's Malone, Weill et. al that defines patterns based on nature of asset rights sold (creators, distributors, landlords and brokers) and four variations of each based on the type of asset involved (financial, physical, intangible and human).


One critical aspect of sustainability is place / locality.  This suggests our case studies should be (hyper) local and some how connected to the book project (i.e. part of the project's business network).  But which local?  Toronto is home base for many of the team, but not all.   Further while  it is far from clear whether large multi-natitionals (as currently conceived / regulated) can ever be strongly sustainable, many are making honest efforts in this direction (with perhaps Interface Flor and Patagonia being prime examples).

This suggests that the book should try and feature smaller / medium / local enterprises for most of the case studies, with one or two recognized world-leaders in the larger category.  

One idea for the organization of the patterns and case studies is therefore geographical.  One intriguing idea is to apply the ecological idea of a biome.  In this approach we would expand biome to include not only the ecological elements of place (latitude, longitude, altitude - and hence climactic conditions such as tundra, grassland, mountain, coastal, etc.) but also the social (i.e. geographical) elements of place.  These might include: legal, regulatory, social norms, and other aspects of society which enable specific patterns of strongly sustainable business models.

It also suggests that we could have regional / local editions of the book (or on-line complementary content) written by the First Exploroers / collaborators based on small / medium / local firms in their locations and organized by locale and business biome.

Business Model Case Study Sources

There are a number of sources for case studies / examples of business models for better businesses fitter for the future described using the SSBMCanvas (whether or not they were originally designed using the canvas - most of Alex Osterwalder's examples were not original designed using the profit-first canvas - they are just described in a consistent way using the taxonomy provided by the canvas).

Case studies can be of two types - descriptive - i.e. describing an existing firms business model (existing or future), or design - i.e. an example of the methodology for designing a business model (along with the business model created)

Case studies we could consider (i.e. via consulting work or by inviting these organizations to collaborate in the co-creation project) include:

"First-Explorers" Group

We have a small group keen to learn about, try to use and explore the benefits of the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Canvas, in its current form: they are, in practice, the "First Explorers" of the SSBMCanvas (Contact Antony Upward for access to the Google Group in which their work is being discussed). 

It is through this group, and the wider group of collaborators who back us during the crowd-funding,that the case studies for the "book" will be created.  In the short term we hope that the First Explorers will, through their early experiences, be able to:

  • Convey in words to potential funders the value of the SSBMCanvas
  • Provides some limited examples of:
    • Existing businesses described using the SSBMCanvas
    • Strongly Sustainable Business Model Designs for new or improved businesses designed using and documented with the SSBMCanvas (with a variety of planning horizons - from 1-5 year forecasts to 20+ year backcasts)

Each of these brave volunteers has signed a mutual-NDA-sharing agreement and has received a personalized copy of the latest version of the SSBMCanvas, some help files, and a description of the differences between the profit-first Business Model Canvas and the SSBMCanvas.  Some of these volunteers have also asked for a copy of Antony Upward's full thesis.

To support these "First Explorers" an invite only Google group has been created: First-Explorers.SSBMG.com to:

a) Provide some support as you explore the use of the SSBMCanvas in your own contexts.
b) Enable sharing experiences with each other and with the Core Development Team for the "Book" / Toolkit.
c) Enable mutual learning and collaboration amongst everyone.


One reason we wish to collaborate is to dramatically expand the initial first explorers, and to engage this larger group of collaborators (who also financially back us) in using the Toolkit to describe their existing business models using the Canvas, and then use the method to apply the design principles while using the canvas (in various scenarios) to create better business models, describing business fitter for the future.   Hopefully this will provide the majority of the case studies for the book (and website)

Other Sources

(Of course we could also see this list as part of the group of people we wish to become collaborators by joining the project having funded us!)

In Toronto

  • Warrens Waterless Printing (particularly if they are the printer for the book or continue to provide collatoral, via Larry Warren)
  • Flash Reproductions (particularly if they are the printer of the book, via CEO Rich Paupit)
  • Powersmiths International (who provide greener power conditioning equipment for large buildings, via CTO Philip Ling)
  • AutoShare (who provide transportation services to some team members, via CEO Kevin McLaughlin)
  • Alterna Credit Union (who likely will provide the banking services)
  • HiveWire.ca (who may provide the crowd-funding platform, via CEO Ashier Aner)
  • TiffinDay (a food social enterprise, via Seema Prabri, CEO)
  • Companies involved in the York University Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS) via Prof. Kevin McKague)
    • Business Design for Sustainability study
      • (a complete set of the research case studies was downloaded by Antony Upward: C:\Documents and Settings\Antony Upward\My Documents\Publishing\Book - SSBMG\Case Studies of SMEs-Design for Sustainability-IRIS Schulich Case Studies)
    • Sustainable Value Creation speakers series
  • Smaller companies involved in the Partners in Project Green eco-business zero (via Jennifer Taves and Brett Wills)
    • PPG has a solid repository of case studies - many written by Kathryn Cooper, CEO Sustainability Learning Centre)
  • Companies involved in the Think Green Alliance organized and hosted by Zero Footprint and founded in March 2008 by Jean Jerome Baudry of Baudry Cybernomics Corporation
  • Case studies from family business undertaken by Dr. Alan Carsrud in the area of Family Business at Ryerson Universities Ted Rogers School of Management's The Entrepreneurship Research Institute (ERI) and The Institute for the Study of Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Other relevant Family business case studies may be found by Erik Brynjolfsson, Schussel Family Professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management
More generally we might consider leveraging
  • The international benchmark database of several thousand firms who have taken the sustainability assessment maintained by Comparison International as part of PROBE (Promoting Business Excellence) (via SSBMG members Dave Yarrow and Neil Cambridge)
  • (Mostly) U.S. Firms involved in the Small Business | Big Impact survey conducted by Sustainability for SMEs (via Graham Russell and Martha Young)
  • The international benchmark database of several thousand firms who have taken the B Lab B Impact Reporting System survery (BIRS), as stored in the Global Impact and Investment Rating Systems (GIIRS) (via B Lab CEO Bart Houlahan)
  • Members of the (mostly U.S.) ~30,000 strong Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (list of firms and contacts who attended 2013 conference available via Antony Upward)
  • Firms who have worked with The Natural Step and B Lab world-wide (via TNS Canada Executive Director Chad Park), for example 
    • Interface Flor - who have been working with B Lab and others on a large company version of BIRS and are personally well known to a number of the Core Development Team.

Toolkit Use Case Study Sources

Another type of case study that might be helpful is a case study showing how the toolkit is used (not just is most obvious result - a business model).

In addition to single examples of the use of the Toolkit, the encourages (see description of stakeholders in the planning documents) are a likely source of large numbers of such examples, e.g.

  • Business incubators
  • Organizations financing social innovations etc.
  • Here's an interesting model for cataloguing and monetizing the analysis of business models: http://businessmodelgallery.com/models/