Sustainable Business Opportunities postcorona

Doing what is right

I want to start with a confession. 20 years ago, I graduated with a masters in English Literature and wrote my thesis on Harry Potter as the modern hero myth.

That probably means that you (whoever you are) have a better and more solid educational foundation in business, innovation and/or sustainability, than I do.

What I do have is 15 years of practical experience in strategy development and execution with both large, international corporate organizations and medium-sized, owner-led companies from middle-Jutland.

In the last three and half years, I have specifically focused on helping companies and startups develop sustainable business models. I have even co-written a book about sustainable entrepreneurship.

I know, you are probably thinking — what on earth could I possibly have learned from Harry Potter that is relevant to you today?

Bare with me and let me tell you.

In my first job, I worked at an engineering company producing large scale air conditioning systems. One of my first assignments was to develop a new onboarding program. In order to do that I interviewed my colleagues, who were mostly engineers, about what would be important for new hires to know, as they joined the company. Almost every person I spoke to, told me that the most important tool to know, was the Project Management Quality Triangle.

The triangle states that there is always a tradeoff between time, cost and quality.

Time is the available time to deliver the project.

Cost represents the amount of money or resources available,

and quality represents the fit-to-purpose that the project must achieve to be a success.

The three factors are related in a defined and predictable way. If you cut the amount of money for the project, it will either take longer or reduce the quality of the output. If you move the deadline up, it will either cost you more, or again, reduce the quality of the output.

You may already know this, but I did not — so I just want to make sure we are all on the same page here. 😊

The triangle has been used since the 1950’ies and no one knows its exact origin. Nevertheless, most of the engineers that I’ve met throughout my career have sworn by it as a tool for project management.

In 2007 for the first time, I was part of a team in charge of project managing the development and execution of a new strategy for the company, we worked for. We were going to expand our operations and build a new production site in China.

The business model had a single bottom line. Profit.

The linear economy business model focus on growth and ROI for shareholders.

It has a box indicating key resources needed to deliver on the value proposition. Here you put whatever natural resources and virgin materials you need in order to create your product or service.

There is also a box for key activities, where you input the talents and skills your operation will need to develop or produce your proposition to the world.

There seems to be no limits to how much or how many people and resources you can pour into your model, and of course that makes sense when you look at the other end of the equation, which usually is expected to look something like: Growth = X => ∞.

Years went by, and I moved from company to company facilitating strategy processes and drawing up business models. The models all looked the same. The purpose was wealth, growth and conquering the world through globalization. I learned to build business models on as much information and data as possible. I was to make assumptions about the future based on the past. “In God we trust, and everybody else brings data” was a favorite quote with quite a few of my engineering colleagues.

At one company we were planning to make the world’s largest offshore turbine. The strategy had more excel spreadsheets than you can imagine, calculating how many engineers we would need in each professional area, where we would source these people, what we expected to pay them, how many hours they’d work, how many weeks from onboarding to become effective data processors, software developers or hardware designers — and so on and so on.

We calculated prices of raw materials, where we could find them, how we could ship them and how fast we expected the process to take until the first prototype could roll out of the factory on its way to the testing site.

Quietly, I started wondering.

What are the real costs of pouring people and resources into the models we build? What are the gains for people and nature — what are the losses? Some of you may think that what I am about to say is a bit harsh — but please bare with me — after all — I was there and very much part of it.

What I finally realized was — we are building businesses for infinite growth in a finite world (!).

I am not saying this to blame anyone — I am saying this to share with you — that we didn’t know any better. Or, maybe we did know some of it… like:

everyone doesn’t win in a profit-driven, linear economic growth model.

In order for the model to work, we need people to perform more and better year over year. That puts a lot of pressure on them, and they get stressed out.

But we tell ourselves that they just couldn’t ‘handle the pressure’, they were not ‘cut out for this’ because leaders are not incentivized to keep people healthy — leaders are incentivized to keep them working and performing.

Forests are burned down for us to get the materials and resources we need to build our products, which leads to animals being chased out of their natural habitats.

CO2 emissions are through the roof, but we tell ourselves that business is business and we have to get to that meeting in China and sometimes we have to rush things trough and use air freight, because ships are simply too slow.

We kind of knew all that — but none us truly connected the dots — that we — our businesses — us as individuals — are part of and actually causing the problem.

In 2015, when UN published the Global Goals, seen from a global business perspective — they sent out a purchasing order. The 17 goals and 169 targets is a list of problems and needs to be met all looking for organizations and companies to start developing solutions. And luckily many companies quickly picked up on that. Each solution developed towards solving a problem or need specified by any one of the global goals, is born with an innate export potential. Because the problems and the needs are global.

But, its not all rainbows🌈 and unicorns🦄 from here.

As we started hearing companies talk about the global goals, some of us felt a bit unsure about the authenticity of the sudden outburst of climate awareness and profound caring for their local communities.

Like, when clothing stores put out cardboard boxes to return our used clothes for discounts on new clothes, or when we realized that the labels on our clothes, which said that it was made from 100% recycled materials, only meant the label and not the actual item it was attached to.

In the more serious department, a British airlineclaimed that its plane emitted 22% less carbon dioxide than other planes on the same route, but the claim was debunked, because the figure was related to emissions per passenger and the airline was able to reduce the emission simply because of the fact that their planes could carry more passengers than traditional airlines.

Or the German auto mobile company who put out an ad claiming that their diesel cars were fitted with technology that emitted fewer pollutants, only to later admit that they had really just rigged 11 million diesel cars with technology designed to cheat emissions tests and that the vehicles emitted pollutants at levels up to 40 times the limit.

It makes sense why companies would lie to sound and appear more sustainable. 66% of global consumers say they’re willing to pay more for sustainable brands. In a highly competitive world, every company is fighting for their lives, their growth and their profits every day.

Why wouldn’t they join the party and paint their businesses a little greener?

The thing is, it’s not just about changing WHAT we do — it’s about changing HOW we do it. To be more specific — we cannot just take out the value proposition in our business model and insert a new one — now available in bamboo! — or bottled water in a cardboard box.

I have been in companies where the value proposition would qualify as a product or service promoting renewable energy, sustainable cities, connectivity, infrastructure and industrial innovation. But the overall goals of the business models were all the same. Accumulating short term wealth for the owners and the shareholders. Profit was the prioritized factor of the triangle guiding every decision, process and guideline. People and planet came second.

To transform HOW we do business, we have to change the business model itself.

Our mindset needs to transition from seeing the world as linear — to seeing that it is circular. It is not a theory. It is a fact that everything in the natural world is circular. WE — humans and our business world — is the only unnatural, linear thing that exists on the entire planet.

The system we have built today is based on this constant growth, producing more and more, and consuming more and more. Because our current system only focuses on profit, it has led to a massive imbalance in the ‘planetary project’. The lopsided, narrow focus on profits has led to inequality, disproportionate distribution of wealth, exploitation of natural resources, and climate change.

Basically, every one of the 17 goals are directly related to and caused by our linear, singular bottom line business models.

If we slow things down, or even put them on pause, the economy will deep dive instantly. We know that for a fact now, because Covid-19 just did exactly that. Recent reports say that global economy fell by 3 percent during the corona crisis. In 2009, during the financial crisis the global economy fell by 0.1 percent. What the impact will be for each country is still uncertain, as we are all dependent on what will happen in the countries around us.

Which is another lesson, we’ve learned during Covid-19.

We are all far more connected on this planet than we ever thought we were. People all over the world started singing and clapping through their open windows.

As borders closed and planes were grounded, everyone went online and created music, films, conferences and creative workshops to lift each other’s spirits and help each other get through the crisis.

Global economy we understood, but very few people truly understood
how a virus in Wuhan China could be relevant to people in a small suburb of Southern Denmark. Hopefully — this new understanding of our global connectedness will transfer to how we view the climate crisis.

We also learned that one person can make a difference. We learned that we can all make a choice and change in an instant — if we want to. We all chose to stay home — keep our distance — stopped hugging and shaking hands. Cancelled things that we did not want to cancel.

We learned that we can stand together — and collectively turn the world upside down — when we want to. Companies and schools sent their employees and students home to work and study and take exams online. Even the ones who would have previously sworn that it could not be done.

So as we look at the 17 Global Goals with our new and improved IMPACT mindset post covid-19, I expect to see that all future business models are based on circular economy.

That they have three bottom lines.

That they factor in the costs and benefits to people and planet and aim to minimize harm to earth and humans.

Just like the Quality Triangle, the three bottom lines are related in a defined and predictable way. If you only focus on profits, people and or planet will suffer.

I hope that all future business models accept the fact that we live in an uncertain world.

We cannot predict the future from looking at the past. We cannot solve problems of the future with the solutions from the past. To be resilient, we must allow for trying out new things, working in new ways, establishing collaborations outside our industry, country, market or product segment.

The overall goal of all future business models should not be short term accumulation of wealth — but long-term benefits such as equality, natural balance and health. Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

I don’t know what will happen when this thing finally blows over.

No one does.

But I know this. The future doesn’t exist. It will exist only after we have made it. We have no reason to ask what will happen in the future. We should only ask what we want to have happen. And ask how we will make it happen. The choices we make today will impact the future of all of us tomorrow.

Covid-19 has shown us how hard it will be to decarbonize the planet. CO2 emissions dropped 17 percent in April, but even though many of us have seen more wildlife and heard more birds in our gardens in the past weeks than we have in a long time, it will hardly make a difference in the long run, if we go back to normal, when this has blown over.

But even as things seem tremendously dark right now with growing unemployment and businesses struggling to get back on track after this slow down by disaster, there also seems to be hope and optimism for a ‘new normal’, where we slow down by design. My family and I have slowed down on purpose — we sold our cars and built a sustainable BambooHouse. We take the train to go on vacation. Things have slowed down, but we are healthier and happier than we ever were in the ‘old normal’.

Businesses should take a cue from the sense of community and collective, cross-industry initiatives that happened during the crisis and start thinking about how they might collaborate and co-create with their local communities and ecosystem to build the products and services of the future.

If you are truly trying to solve the SDG’s — you should be looking for partners and collaborators — instead of viewing everyone in and around your field as competitors. If you are a truly sustainable company, your goal is to make a difference in the world in the long run — not being the biggest, fastest, richest player in the field.

85% of workers say they don’t want to go ‘back to normal’ after having worked from home with more flexibility and more time with their families.

That is an interesting business opportunity for companies offering freelance solutions, shared workspaces, collaboration platforms, communication channels and other services that helps companies meet these new (and now also socially accepted and recognized) expectations from their employees.

So what did I learn from studying Harry Potter that is relevant today, as we look past this pandemic?

Quote from Dumbledore

First, we most understand & accept the problems we are facing — and only then can we fully comprehend what solutions we will need to develop to save us from this mess we have created.

When we start to SEE the world differently, we will start to ACT differently. The world is unsustainable. In order to become sustainable, we will have to make a complete transformation of our society.

Whether you are running a business, working for a company, planning to work for a company or thinking about starting your own business:

Please take responsibility not just for what you are selling or putting into the world, but how you are doing it. We have a chance now to make a real difference — to make an impact, as we restart, reboot the world after Corona.

The key is to have an impact mindset:

I will leave you with this quote from Dumbledore, because in my opinion we all have the choice every day to choose between doing what is easy …
or what we know to be right.

Xenia Duffy Obel, Sustainability Advisory, zeal

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