A million-dollar business idea in sustainability

July 31, 2020 by Joshua
in Education, Entrepreneurship, Nature


An attendee at my webinar on Initiative to Booth, the University of Chicago Business School, Eric Zoerb, followed up that he wanted to start a business on sustainability. Like many, he was looking for efficiency.

Joshua Spodek's Initiative: A Proven Method to Bring Your Passions to Life (and Work), 3d cover

Most of my life I considered efficiency the top strategy. It felt right. Nature doesn’t react to feelings, though, so no amount of feeling it will work will make something work. If you make a polluting system more efficient, you will pollute more efficiently, which we’ve been doing since before the industrial revolution. Changing elements of a system rarely change the system.

Efficiency is an important tactic under a strategy of reduction, but you need that strategy first, which means changing the system. I speak in more detail on the folly of making chasing efficiency as a strategy on my podcast. Here are a couple episodes:

I doubt any venture capitalist or founder in search of a big exit will realize that their growth strategies accelerate the problems they want to solve, but history bears it out. We’ve been making our economic systems more efficient than ever and we’re producing more total waste than ever as a direct result. Our problem is total waste, not inefficiency. Actually, increasing efficiency in a finite system leads to scarcity. Decreasing growth in a finite system leads to abundance per person, which is my goal.

Eric’s Question

Eric asked:

I’m trying to think around a Start-Up project in the Environmental space.
Thinking about B2B and low CapX service style business. Any thoughts?

My idea

I responded

Yes, what I would do if my TV pilot project weren’t taking off: sustainable leadership executive training.

That is, to consult and train executives on leadership, cultural change, and turnaround on sustainability. Nearly all services around sustainability focus on engineering and management, pursuing efficiency. Meanwhile, leadership training rarely touches on sustainability.

But most companies are pursuing non-sustainable goals they haven’t thought through. Take Lululemon, for example. I spoke with one of the managers at their flagship Fifth Avenue store. He’s a former surfer and joined the company because he loved the culture and ethos. Then it dawned on him that every product they sell is plastic. Their core mission pollutes, conflicting with their ethos.

This is a leadership issue. No amount of efficiency gains will make plastic biodegrade. In the meantime, they’re pumping more plastic ultimately into landfills and the ocean, leaving them open to a new entrant taking the market from them. I get contacted by food companies using organic ingredients and regenerative farming but still packaging in plastic.

Another way I put it is that there are more Chief Sustainability Officers than ever, but still very few. Thus there is no set route to this c-suite position. The best path I see is to take responsibility for sustainability initiatives and make them happen so executives who care about sustainability and want to reach the c-suite have a personal stake in getting such services. There are also examples of success like Yvon Chouinard, Eileen Fisher, etc.

The challenge and opportunity is that however great the need for sustainable leadership executive training, that need is mostly latent, which would require a lot of education and building the market. Once built, however, I expect it could take off, maybe becoming acquired by firms like Korn Ferry or its peers, McKinsey or its peers, or just to keep growing.

I don’t know if the above sounds appealing. If so, I’m available to help. I believe it would require of the founder experience and integrity around sustainability and leadership.

Sorry so long an email, but I see a huge unmet need nobody is serving.

Anyone interested in pursuing the idea, either to start a firm or to create a c-suite position for yourself, contact me if also interested in help.

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