How to get your startup on the sustainability path?
Remember that time when your blender died shortly after its guarantee expired? You may have tried to fix it, only to discover that the parts inside are no longer produced. Even worse, the mechanism inside might have been designed in a way that makes the appliance hard to repair. So, the cost of fixing it is kind of the same as the cost of getting a new appliance. Unhappy with that, you start looking for a replacement, and probably wonder - why are things this way? How did we get to this, and what can we do about it?
Planned obsolescence is a concept that came to life with the increase in industrial production. Companies used it as a way to encourage customers to buy new items more quickly. If you look up the definition of planned obsolescence, you get the following:
“Planned obsolescence is a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of non-durable materials.”
Sounds familiar? I don’t know about you, but this hits too close to home for me as a consumer. As I recently replaced my old microwave oven with a new one, I remembered a quote from a book that had a huge impact on me - “Design for the Real World” by Victor Papanek.
“That which we throw away, we fail to value. When we design and plan things to be discarded, we exercise insufficient care in design, in considering safety factors, or thinking about worker/user alienation from ephemeral trivia.”
By the way, it’s a great book, and I recommend it to anyone doing product management or design.
Almost fifty years have passed since this book got published, but these lines seem more relevant than ever. Throughout the book, Papanek criticizes consumerism and the role of the designer as “a mere stylist” in creating products. He also lays out the principles for socially and ecologically responsible design.
So what does that mean?
Sustainable design is the “philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment, and services to follow the principles of ecological sustainability”. Its intention is to reduce or cut negative environmental impacts. The principles of sustainable design include:
Lowering energy used throughout the product life-cycle
Reducing, preventing, or eliminating waste
Lowering the impact on climate change
Using design and materials for better product quality and durability
Getting energy from renewable sources
Preferring non-toxic materials
How we got to sustainable and impact startups
Sustainable design got into the spotlight in the 1970s. Concerns about climate change began to grow. Consumers became more interested in ecology after several global environmental crises (remember Chernobyl?). Renewable energy got cheaper while environmental and safety regulations became stricter.
Today, it’s become common to choose fair trade coffee, support local businesses, and shy away from fast fashion. We’re also increasingly seeing startups following new trends to cater to new consumer needs, including eco-labelled products, locally sourced food, and companies committing to net-zero emissions.
More and more companies align their strategic and operational objectives with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Some experts help startups and corporates use the SDGs to enable innovation and enhance their overall impact. Instead of taking a VC path, some founders decide to go on the impact startup route to drive positive change.
The business model for sustainability
Studies show that companies embracing sustainability tend to outperform their counterparts in the long-term. Sustainable practices enable companies to come up with unique solutions that give them a competitive edge and create greater employee satisfaction and productivity.
You may know the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations index. Published every year, it lists top companies that are transforming themselves with sustainable business practices. Cisco and Autodesk rank high on the list. but what does it look like for smaller and younger companies?
How do we make sure the tools we are creating are environmentally friendly? How do we save energy and keep carbon emissions in check? Let’s look at some examples.
Too Good To Go
The Danish startup Too Good To Go aims to reduce food waste and CO2 production. It lets everyone do their bit to reduce waste, while also getting delicious food and supporting local businesses. It does so by providing a free mobile app that connects users to restaurants that offer surplus food at a discount price. The company has rapidly grown since its start in 2015.
The value they create is by connecting users to bakeries, restaurants, and other places that the users might not discover on their own. The food is usually sold at a very discounted price, which makes the meals more accessible. By partnering with Too Good To Go, businesses get to improve their social responsibility image as well.
The German startup Tier has the vision to transform the quality of life in cities. It does so by providing sustainable shared mobility solutions to its customers through its mobile app. Tier aims to reduce carbon emissions linked to charging, production as well as operational and transportation emissions.
Tier developed a system where users can easily swap batteries for their vehicles around the city. By doing that, the users get rewarded with free minutes for their next ride, which makes the system socially sustainable for people who can’t afford it. In return, Tier gets less maintenance and operational costs. Although the ride-sharing market is volatile, Tier is thriving and has secured big investments at the end of 2020.
Ecosia is a free, eco-friendly search engine that launched in 2009. It displays advertisements next to the search results, which generates revenue when any of these ads is clicked on. Ecosia then uses this revenue to plant trees. It does that by donating around 80% of its profits to non-profit organizations that deal with reforestation around the world.
What’s interesting is that, unlike bigger search engines, Ecosia does not create user profiles based on their search history, and it doesn’t track users. Its search results are actually provided by partnering with Bing.
Ecosia puts great emphasis on financial transparency, privacy, and runs its servers on renewable energy. It has built its own solar plants, which enables it to run all searches on 100% renewable energy.
Tier and Ecosia encourage users to use their products as a way to contribute to changes that might have a global impact on sustainability.
How can your startup become sustainable?
The startup scene is vibrant and companies often face challenges when scaling. Adopting sustainable practices and focusing on the long-term instead of just aiming to sell the company can lead to better success. Here are some things you can do to get your company on the path to sustainability.
1. Understand that this is for the long-term
Introducing sustainability practices in day to day operations takes time and dedication. Integrating sustainability into your business model takes even more effort. The key is to stay committed and have endurance - it’s a marathon.
2. Find investors that care about sustainability
If your startup addresses social or environmental issues, you might want to look into impact investing. Impact investing aims to fund companies or non-profits that can create a positive social or environmental impact alongside a financial return. Organizations like Global Impact Investing Network can be a good place to start looking for your investors.
3. Consider the technologies you use
When choosing the technology for your startup, have an open discussion with your team around where the servers are located and how they’re powered. Granted, you don’t have to build your own solar plant like Ecosia, but at least aim to choose services that work towards reducing their carbon footprint.
4. Design products in a sustainable way
Choose the materials for your physical products from verified sources and aim to design them for durability and ergonomics. Make your digital products accessible for people with physical or situational disabilities, and the ones with a slow network connection.
Remember, good design is functional and solves real problems for people. When this guiding principle is not taken into account, we start dealing with fabricated user needs that result in wasteful products. Remember Juicero? This company offered a pricey, wifi connected home juicer with proprietary fruit packets. It shut down shortly, as it turned out that you could manually squeeze the juice from the packets.
5. Think about your product ecosystem
Try to think about the whole product ecosystem instead of just the product, when you’re introducing some changes. I know this sounds hard, especially because the technology is rapidly evolving, but you should avoid introducing breaking changes to your product ecosystem. Otherwise, the users might not be able to enjoy your product.
Remember Sonos pushing app updates that made older hardware incompatible with it? Or Apple being shady about iPhone’s battery life? Do better and aim to provide support across an end-to-end product lifecycle.
6. Reduce-Reuse-Recycle within your own company
Make recycling the norm in your office by installing waste sorting bins and educating people on what goes where. Go paperless. Finally, ditch those pesky single-use-plastic coffee pods, and invest in a coffee maker with a grinder instead. You can even compost the coffee leftovers later.
7. Foster a healthy company culture
Promote diversity and inclusion in your company, and build hiring practices that foster them. Encourage employees to participate in volunteering activities. This can also positively impact your employer branding. Also, aim to improve your hiring process and remove biases from it.
Take the leap and build a sustainable startup
Getting started with sustainable practices inside a company is by no means an easy task. It requires determination and not cutting corners. Yet, for those who choose to pursue this path, the long-term benefits are great. They can even have a positive impact on society in general!
If you’re looking for new ways to differentiate yourself from your competitors, give sustainability a try.
 Papanek, V. (1985), Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Societal Change
 McLennan, J. F. (2004), The Philosophy of Sustainable Design
 Eccles, R. G.; Ioannou, I.; Serafeim, G. (2014) The Impact of Corporate Sustainability on Organizational Processes and Performance. Management Science, Volume 60
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