We can design a better future for Earth and humanity if we put in the work, sustainability strategist Justin Bean says
You can’t rightly call Justin Bean a pessimist about the way businesses are addressing sustainability and their role in the climate future. But he’s no Pollyanna, either. He knows there are bad actors and greenwashers out there, but he also believes their strategies won’t bring them success. Rather, they’ll be the new Kodaks and Blockbusters, as he puts it, cast aside in the business landscape because they failed to adapt to changing times. In his book “What Could Go Right: Designing Our Ideal Future to Emerge from Continual Crises to a Thriving World,” Bean tries to provide a vision of success that we might use to reverse-engineer the steps required to create a brighter tomorrow.
“That gives us something to build a roadmap toward and gives us work to do to build it,” he told BOSS. “That’s just a much more effective path to build the future that we want. That’s what we need to do in this decade and this century.”
Sustainability = Success
A major harbinger of this ideal future that Bean sees is that even in the short and medium terms, sustainable products and services are growing faster than traditional markets and that companies that incorporate social and environmental impact into their core business outperform their competitors. They have higher revenues, higher margins, lower cost of capital and they attract and retain talent more easily.
“Even if you’re thinking about it strictly from a growth and performance standpoint, there are plenty of reasons to go into sustainable products, services, and solution offerings.”
Venture capital investments in sustainable technology were down 3% last year, which might seem like a bad thing until you consider that overall VC investing was down 35%. Because of the growth potential, sustainable investing serves as a great hedge in times of recession or fears of one. Even as overall car sales were down 8% last year, EV sales went up 68%.
“Areas where it’s clear that we’re investing in more sustainable technologies and startups and solutions, they consistently perform better than the market and they continue to do better as time goes on and we get more transparency into them,” he said.
On the flip side, consumers are now quick to punish companies with unethical or unsustainable practices. The transparency of the digital age makes it easier for consumers to peer into a company’s dealings and boycott them if they don’t like what they see.
“The companies that don’t get on board with this and think that they can continue to operate in a way that is completely unsustainable and or unethical, I think are in for a very rude awakening and will become the Blockbusters and Kodaks of the future that consumers will not want to be a part of. That’s just the way that consumers are expecting things to go.”
The biggest reason consumers expect things to trend toward sustainability is that Millennials and Gen Z, who highly prioritize it, will soon make up the largest markets.
“They know that they will begin to see some of the worst impacts of climate change,” Bean said. “… They know that this is a real thing. They can’t shy away from it, and they want to vote with their dollars to make an impact.”
We’re already seeing corporations adapt to that in their marketing and in their supply chains, he said. And it can’t just be a matter of a new marketing strategy without real change.
“Greenwashing is a big problem. Companies realize that if they put out material that’s strictly marketing without doing anything about their actual operations, these generations are very tech-savvy and very social media-savvy, and they are also not very brand loyal. They can turn around and dump a brand overnight.”
This does have some drawbacks, as some companies have resorted to “greenhushing,” not publicizing their sustainability efforts either until the results are completely in or at all. This does prevent some amount of greenwashing, but it also deprives the market of best practices that others might adopt.
Still, the green transition, like previous industrial revolutions, can provide a proliferation of abundance where costs go down and innovation goes up, Bean said. This time, without the disastrous environmental and social consequences.
“By transforming a lot of our core assets like our power plants, like our transportation into sustainable ways of carrying ourselves around, powering our cities, fueling our cars and everything we do, we can continue that trend toward abundance. I think it’s actually going to increase exponentially because the amount of effort, the amount of money, and the amount of innovation that’s going into this transition is fueling so much entrepreneurship, so much R&D, and so many new discoveries.”
The digital age is also serving to better democratize the economy. Crowdfunding, remote work tools, and the like will ensure the wealth is shared much more evenly than in prior industrial revolutions. More people in more places from more socioeconomic backgrounds will have the opportunity to build wealth.
“It’s not just that there is more capital and more markets available for entrepreneurs to get out there and grow businesses, there are more avenues to invest in those markets,” Bean said.
Crowdfunding and the JOBS Act allow more people to invest in startups at early stages. There can be high risk, of course, but high rewards.
“It’s not that someone who’s a billionaire has worked a million times harder than anyone else. It’s that they know how to invest, and they’ve invested their capital into businesses and growth vehicles that have helped them get to where they are,” he said.
We can create more abundance for everyone on Earth. Because more than 80% of human activity comes through business, business has to provide the solution. Governments can help support developing technologies and get them through the J curve to get them to a place where they’re competitive in the market. What scales, Bean said, is economics and business performance. When businesses see others succeeding through sustainable practices, they’ll adopt them.
That could unleash an enormous amount of human potential.
“We’ll distribute that growth among more people and allow more people to reach their full potential,” Bean said. “Imagine how many Einsteins or Elon Musks or LeBron James are living in less connected areas in the outskirts of Delhi or Nairobi, name your city. It could be anywhere here in America too.”
There’s a lot that could go right. It’s up to us to make it happen.