Sustainability and Business for Young Enterprise

Posted on February 18, 2015


(I five minutes today to talk with a couple of hundred high school students about to embark on their year-long Young Enterprise programmes.  Here’s the text).

I’m here to very briefly talk about sustainability and business. 

This badge says Professor Samuel Mann, College of Enterprise and Development, Otago Polytechnic, Enterprise as in Young Enterprise, as in Starship Enterprise. 

On the subject of starships (see what I did there?) Adlai Stevenson described the earth as a spaceship: “We travel together, passengers on a little space ship dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft”.   Later, Marshall McLuhan, added “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew”.  

We are then, in our lives, and in our businesses all crew – looking after each other and our ship. 

Five minutes, and I’ve used 30 seconds so I’ve got one word for you to remember: LIVE. L.I.V.E.

Leverage.   Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world” .

Your job in life is to find that lever, put the fulcrum in the right place, pull with all your might, and you will make an enormous difference to the world. 

How to find that lever? You want to do the most good for the least bad.  That is the leverage point.    What is the smallest possible thing you can do – with the least harm that makes the most possible positive difference. 

Our service – our potential to do good –  is vastly greater than our negative impact.  In other words and with popular sustainability words, our handprint is massively greater than our footprint.  

So yes, you do need to think about reducing you impact – making sure your product can be recycled is a good start.  Using somebody else’s waste  is even better (ask your teachers about circular economics) .

But also do good.  What can you business do in terms of its handprint?  This could be the profit you make say, a partnership with a charity, but even more importantly, in terms of your actual business – the core of what you are doing. 

L is for Leverage. LIVE, I. 

I is for integration (and not the kind you do in calculus).
You sometimes see a diagram of sustainability that has three intersecting circles – a Venn diagram with economic, social and environmental sustainability labelled.  This diagram is wrong.  The sustainable bit is the bit in the middle.  Where all those things work together, sustainability is defined by the relationships between those things.   You are better to think of a bulls-eye diagram, still a Venn diagram but where economics is surrounded by society which is surrounded by the environment.  So in business terms, economics  is a wholly owned subsidiary of social, which is a wholly subsidiary of the environment. 

So don’t try and separate out social, economic, social and environmental – instead think about how they work together. 

Leverage, Integration. V.  V is for Values

In a few minutes you’ll be set the task of thinking up a product.  It’s really hard – how do you come up the next facebook?  Or do we just do a race to revenue and bake muffins?  My suggestion is to turn that on it’s head. Find what you value.   Work out what is the smallest thing you can do that will make the biggest possible difference in things you value.  Work backwards from there to figure out a business case…how to turn value into value.   If you are doing good – adding value – then it is usually not too hard to work out a business model.  (and this doesn’t have to be selling stuff, don’t forget virtual stuff and services).

Leverage, Integration. Values.  E.  So many possible e-words on eDay.  Energy, Ethics, Emissions, Environment, Ecology.  All great E words.  But’m going with empathy. 

E is for Empathy

If you are making a product or service, one of the key words my colleagues from marketing will tell you is empathy. “The psychological identification with of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another”.  This is useful to identify the detailed needs of that person: what is the itch you are going to scratch for them. My take is a bit wider, it is empathy on a personal level.  Even in business you are allowed to care.  Stuff matters.  Care and concern for each other, people close to you at home and in your business, but also the people and things at the far reaches of the supply chain, your consumers, and the eventual destination of your product. 

So I’m talking about businesses that are beyond a compliance mindset of what can we get away with, or what boxes do we have to tick? (see Willard’s five stages)   Instead, how can your business actively do good as its core business?    It is worth noting that the modern version of the medical Hippocratic Oath doesn’t start with “first do no harm” but rather with the more affirming and action focused pledge to “the service of humanity”.

  • Leverage: most good for the least bad. 
  • Integration: sustainability works best when considered as a whole. 
  • Values become value: work backwards from things you value, you want to change, that change is something that can be valued and you can build a business upon. 
  • Empathy: It is OK to care in business.  In fact you’ll have a stronger business if you do.  You don’t have to check in your caring hat at the door. 


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