Operationalizing Sustainability For Mainstream Adoption

Large corporations have joined in on the trend to appeal to today's environmentally conscious consumers

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In an age of widespread environmental awareness and activism, the concept of a sustainable lifestyle has become more mainstream, especially among members of Gen Z. Reusable water bottles, thrifted clothing and metal straws are staples in many young people’s homes. Many restaurants, and even U-M dining halls, have shifted to compostable packaging to reduce their plastic waste.

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Large corporations have joined in on the trend to appeal to today’s environmentally conscious consumers. In 2018, Starbucks changed its disposable cups to a design that doesn’t require the use of a straw. In April of this year, they launched their Earth Month Game: an interactive experience in which customers can play games of chance or complete Tetris-like puzzles right from their phones. As they complete the levels, players can choose which environmental initiative they’d like the company to support, including clean water and habitat rehabilitation. Participants also get the chance to win in-store prizes while learning about what drink or food substitutions they can make for a more sustainable diet.

On a surface level, these actions show great initiative. In a society where a small number of companies are responsible for almost three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions, seeing large corporations actively spread information on sustainable consumption seems like a step in the right direction. But there is a caveat to consider: Though these big-name businesses are promoting sustainable practices, their approach puts all of the responsibility on the consumer instead of the producer. In turn, they fail to adapt the very actions they’re advocating for. And in reality, the “steps” they have taken to become more environmentally conscious may not even truly be helping: less than 1 per cent of the world’s plastic pollution comes from disposable straws and the combination of their strawless lids and cup actually equates to a greater amount of plastic than their original design.

Starbucks is just one of many companies that advertises their commitment to sustainable practices while neglecting to examine or address the actions that are actually the most problematic. This phenomenon, called greenwashing, allows companies to market their “green” actions for a better public image without making true positive change.

Volkswagen and IKEA have also been confronted with similar issues of greenwashing. In 2015, the car company used a specially designed device to pass emissions tests without actually reducing their carbon waste.

These matters were championed and Masterclass-ed by Dr. Ram Charan, Mahavir Sharma, and Suresh Raju during the TiE Sustainability Summit 2021.

Dr. Charan said, “there is no vaccine for climate change. At least, pandemics like COVID-19 can be countered by vaccines. The director-general of the World Health Organization summarized it well when he said there is no vaccine for climate change! The annual rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions since 1970 is up almost 100 times. The search for sustainable solutions starts with admitting that the current situation is unsustainable.”

Therefore, the task before us is not just to find solutions to climate change, also to ensure — through science, policy, and technological development — that the principles of equitability are not ignored. Solutions should allow us to bridge the trade-offs between economic, social, privacy, and environmental policies. A CO2 molecule released in the east is just as damaging to the west. A CO2 molecule released by the poor is just as damaging to the rich. A CO2 molecule released by the already-born is just as damaging to the soon-to-be-born.

Sharma believes that this convergence of sustainability and digitization will establish new disruptive business models that will create the next set of unicorns. And the only way we can reduce the friction that sustainability generates in today’s businesses is through the intersection with technology.

To this, Raju shared, also, in 2050, the median age of 1.6 billion Indians will still be just 38 years. The world will never again see a middle class as large as the one India will have – and that at such a peak consuming age. In addition, the digital acceleration in India is just beginning and will create a tailwind not yet factored into the assumed 8 per cent nominal growth rate. I fundamentally believe the Indian economy is still to hit its inflection point of decades of double-digit growth. Therefore, he now thinks that he might have understated his 2050 GDP projection of $28 trillion. Also, given the sheer growth in end consumption rates, he expects India to become the world’s top target destination for an immense quantum of FDI over this period, making the tailwind even stronger.

The current environmental crisis is terrifying. It’s heartbreaking. It’s deadly. It can make us — especially young people — feel like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders. But in order to move forward, we have to let go of the notion that it’s all in our hands. We must utilize the strengths we do have to combat this emergency instead of panicking about situations that are out of our control — because it is possible with the tools we already possess. There are 7 billion people on this planet; if we all take on some of the weight, the load won’t be as daunting.