‘Business’ and ‘Sustainability’ - these are 2 words that have conventionally been seen as separate, conflicting notions.
Business - the perceivably callous, vicious pursuits of profit and revenue maximisation at the detriment of the environment.
Sustainability - the renegade movement seeking to overturn the socio-environmental exploitation endemic in business processes.
However, with earth warming at unprecedented rates - with temperatures set to increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, there is an increasing need and call for the marriage of ‘business’ and ‘sustainability’. There is a recognition that global warming cannot be tackled alone, in silos. Rather, it requires the involvement and consistent effort from all segments of society.
In light of our environmental crises, some businesses have stepped up to the mettle, introducing reforms to previously unsustainable practises, offering new solutions to the world’s greatest environmental crises - plastic generation and pollution, deforestation, to name a few.
However, do such businesses actually create more impact than harm? To what extent can socio-environmental sustainability be advanced without compromising on other business goals? Are these business models scalable and replicable in all contexts?
These are all pertinent questions which can be answered with the help of the Sustainable Business Breakdowns.
Over the past few months, we have conducted Sustainable Business Breakdowns on companies in the fields of food and agriculture, circular economy and clean energy, ranging from small startups like Who Gives A Crap, to large corporates such as Patagonia.
This is what we have learnt so far:
1️. There is no such thing as ‘100% sustainable’
Attaining sustainability is a tall order. After all, sustainability, by definition, is intergenerational, relating to the pursuit of ‘development that meets the needs of the current generation without compromising on future generations to meet their needs’. It is also all-encompassing, relating to the advancement of not only environmental, but also social and economic goals.
Therefore, businesses claiming to be 100% sustainable would more often than not, be making an overly optimistic projection about their products and services
There are ALWAYS eco-social costs to be addressed, gaps to be closed, processes to be improved upon.
For companies such as Solar Sisters, there remains issues of how the panels could be upcycled at the end of their life-cycle. For companies manufacturing sustainable clothing such as Patagonia, there are still underlying questions of whether social exploitation is fully stamped out at the factories of their subsidiaries.
In a more optimistic light, this means that there will always be business opportunities available, for individuals or companies to offer solutions addressing prevailing environmental and social issues.
2️. Technology is not always the solution
In this age of technological advancement, we may be tempted to hail technology as the silver bullet to our problems, as the magical solution around which we can endeavour to build our sustainable businesses.
However, technology does not always provide the solution. Sometimes, the success factor of a sustainable business approach lies not in the technological solution itself. Rather, the success factor lies in the extent to which (technological) solutions can meet the needs of the target audience, and are suitable and scalable in their social contexts.
For instance, Solar Sisters is different from other companies seeking to advance clean energy transitions. This is because of their strong involvement with and connection to locals on the ground, which allows them to curate programs allowing locals to generate passive income through the sale of unused energy generated. Solar panels are no longer just devices to advance clean energy goals; rather they are harnessed to become sources of income with the potential to help empower women in impoverished communities.
Evidently, technology is not the be all and end all. Only when technology is embedded as part of a solution that considers the needs and social contexts of the target audience, can there be potential for transformative advancements in socio-environmental sustainability.
3️. Solutions should be more accessible for ALL, and not just a privileged select few
More often than not, due to higher material costs, coupled with the fact that some technologies are still not in a stage of maturity, sustainable business offerings may be more expensive than their less sustainable counterparts. For instance, apparel by Patagonia can cost up to 2 times more than a similar apparel mass-manufactured and sold on e-commerce websites such as Shoppee. Toilet paper produced by Who Gives A Crap can also be 2-3 times more expensive than conventional supermarket toilet paper brands.
As sustainable business solutions mature, it is imperative to explore how they can be made more affordable for all, and not just a select few from the upper echelons of society, in more developed countries. There are grounds for optimism - companies such as Apeel proves that sustainability can be cost-effective, not only for consumers but also businesses. Their organic layer coating, which increases shelf life of food products by reducing oxidation rates, helps businesses save on costs associated with food spoilage or bruising incurred during the transportation process. For consumers, cost savings can also be enjoyed as their food products now have a longer shelf life.
Moving forward, there is a need to make sure that sustainability can provide a compelling narrative on cost-savings, for both businesses and consumers, so as to further garner traction towards the pursuit of sustainability.
"We don’t want these things done by 2050,2030 or even 2021. We want this done now"
- Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist who advocated for sustainable reforms at the 2019 World Economic Forum.
In light of our endemic socio-environmental crises, it is now all the more important for businesses, individuals and the government to rally together in the pursuit of sustainability.
The Sustainable Business Breakdowns have highlighted several key issues and gaps in current sustainable businesses or organizations. This can and should be a starting point of inspiration for the development of more sustainable business models and solutions.
After all, sustainable development can only be advanced through the collaborative, collective efforts of our society.