“Sustainability is like teen sex. Everybody talks about it. Nobody does it very much. And when they do it, they don’t do it very well.”, GreenBiz founder Joel Markower hits the nail on the head. And I probably could not agree more with him. Because it is undoubtedly the case that although the topic of sustainability is being discussed more and more frequently, it is not necessarily being implemented more or even better. One year of #FridaysforFuture demonstrations, countless talk show discussions, a series of large and prominent corporate announcements and a modest political climate package in Germany later, one wonders when the great transformation will finally take off.
Spoiler: In the 2020s, it is finally time. Simply because it has to. The megatrend neo-ecology will rearrange the coordinates of our economic and social system and turn sustainability from an individual lifestyle to a social movement and from a consumer trend to an economic factor. The climate crisis and its ecological and social challenges will shake the very foundations of entrepreneurial thinking and action, but will also allow them to be reinvented. Companies will thus become players in an enabling economy!
“If a system is destructive, one should not attempt to make it more efficient. Instead, one should find ways to turn it completely upside down.”
With regard to possible future strategies, this – above all – means one thing: moving away from efficiency thinking towards consistency and above all towards sufficiency. Because, as Cradle to Cradle pioneer Prof. Braungart once said: “If a system is destructive, one should not attempt to make it more efficient. Instead, one should find ways to turn it completely upside down.” In other words: If something is less bad, it is still far from good.
One example: Unfortunately, it is of little use if, our cars and electrical appliances have become more economical, but at the same time bigger and we use them more often. What is already known as the “rebound effect” simply means that, despite efficiency gains in many areas, we are not consuming fewer resources and are therefore living more sustainably than before.
In view of the fact that in many areas the ecological limits of planetary sustainability have already been reached and in some cases even exceeded, we need consistent or eco-effective products and business models. This means that existing products and technologies have to be substituted by radical innovations and made more environmentally compatible. In this circular economy there is no waste, only new raw materials.
When, for example, the company adidas produces sports shoes from collected ocean plastic, it may go in exactly that direction. But compared to the production of meat-looking, tasting and bleeding burger patties from purely plant-based ingredients, it is more like an advertising stunt targeting only symptoms. But hey, in the meantime the Futurecraft has been launched, a running shoe that promises to be recyclable for years with the same quality. There you go.
For companies, however, the rebound effect means that in future it will not be possible to rely solely on technical solutions.
For companies and politicians, however, the rebound effect means that in future it will not be possible to rely solely on technical solutions. A sustainable transformation of our society therefore also requires strategies that bring about an absolute reduction in our consumption of energy and resources.
The topic of consistency will open up completely new markets here. After recycling comes upcycling and finally precycling, i.e. the complete avoidance of waste. Whether as a restaraunt that converts food leftovers into substrate using a composting machine; as an electronics manufacturer that builds its smartphones on a modular basis for better repairability and durability; or as a furniture manufacturer that shifts its core business from production to maintenance and servicing – the topic of zero waste is much bigger than the years of almost exclusive discussion about plastic bags and disposable tableware would suggest. Any manufacturing company that does not think circular and beyond the mere sale and consumption of its products will sooner rather than later lose its competitiveness on the market.
And this is where a fundamental shift in corporate value creation takes place: the focus that used to be solely on the production side now shifts towards the consumer side. Because one thing is clear: true sustainability can only be achieved when nature-compatible, technical innovations meet changing production and consumption patterns. And this is where sufficiency comes into play, which is above all also a cultural question, a question of the right balance: How much consumption does our society actually need?
In addition to measures to extend product life cycles and increase reparability and reusability, the megatrend connectivity also opens up a lot of potential for new, more sustainable business models. Dematerialization and tertiarization can contribute to an absolute reduction in resource consumption, since the focus is no longer on selling a product, but on providing a benefit. The “XaaS” (“Anything as a service”) market is not without reason predicted to have annual growth rates of up to 40 percent. By now and in addition to cars, tools, clothing and sports equipment, even children’s toys can be rented on a monthly subscription basis without any problems.
Our current economic system is still keeping itself alive with mass markets that produce short-lived products that serve artificially created needs and thus are certainly not able to make consumers permanently happy.
Our current economic system is still keeping itself alive with mass markets that produce short-lived products that serve artificially created needs and thus are certainly not able to make consumers permanently happy. But now there is not only urgency that has been known for decades, but also visions for a change towards more sustainability – a future-oriented interplay of changed production and consumption patterns, political framework conditions and more sustainable technical innovations.
It is still quite possible that we can manage this transformation “by design” and thus in a creative, democratic and needs-oriented way. Although we seem to like to talk about disasters and the end of the world, we should avoid a change “by desaster” at all costs. This, however, requires a corporate mindset of possibilism that emphasizes what is possible in our world in view of the great challenges posed by climate change and other ecological and social challenges.
Because sustainability does not want to limit options, but to create scope for possibilities. And when it comes to sustainability, we have only seriously exhausted a fraction of the conceivable possibilities.
So, dear corporate leaders, entrepreneurs and enablers, let’s get to work!