A 1960s Economic Model for Sustainability Value

Innovation can create “extra-normal profits” – profits higher than the normal expected ROI based on the risk. But these extra-normal profits are short-lived and disappear once the innovation has been adopted by competitors, thereby equalizing the playing field. You may know these by the term “first mover advantage” – something intangible. But there is a 50 year old economic model for this, known by a far more difficult-to-pronounce name – Schumpeterian profits,  after German economist Joseph Schumpeter.

In April 2004, Yale Economics Professor William D. Nordhaus penned what has become a widely referenced Working Paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Then in 2015, Xie Fan School of Economics & Management at South China Normal University followed up with a study more specific to sustainability matters (more on that paper later).

To summarize Nordhaus, innovation generally leads to reduction in the cost of production without a concurrent reduction in the price charged for the product, meaning increased profit for the innovator until such time as others “appropriate” the innovation and create more or less equal competition. An example of this is patents – once a patent expires, other companies can sell essentially the same product, driving prices down, along with the “extra-normal” profits of the original patent holder. Very simply, the longer a company can hold on to its innovation on an exclusive basis, the longer it can maintain those higher profits. Nordhaus presents a formula for calculating specific values. Looking at historical data from 1948 – 2001, he estimated the Schumpeterian profits (i.e., the extra-normal profits only) to range from -1.3% (during the major recession of the 1970s) to a high of 6.3% of total corporate profits.

We reached out to Nordhaus to see if his paper has been updated and the applicability to sustainability. He answered that no update has been issued. His response about sustainability reflected a limited (and perhaps erroneous) concept of sustainability as relating primarily to environmental protection. This is important in one respect that we won’t delve into here (it relates to the social value of innovation), but in our view is less of a factor than the direct production cost reductions achieved from business-focused sustainability initiatives.

Xie Fan explored whether innovations related to CO2 emissions regulations in China had an economic development benefit as well as an environmental one. Fan’s summary states that

… first of all, the environmental regulation affects the total factor productivity growth in China’s pollution-intensive industries; in the second place, the environmental regulation does not promote producer’s scientific and technological innovation level in China’s pollution-intensive industries; in the third place, the environmental regulation has reduced Schumpeter profits in China’s pollution-intensive industries.

In the end, we see that both Fan and Nordhaus offer complementary  models for sustainability value. In our view, Fan’s point is that once an environmental issue becomes regulated, compliance innovation may not provide Schumpeterian profits, although this seems to contradict the famous Porter Hypothesis. Yet applying Nordhaus to discretionary sustainability business innovation, short term extra-normal profits are to be expected and can be estimated with his formula.  But doing so may also involve reducing transparency in order to maintain exclusivity of sustainability innovations.

All food for thought.






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