Everyone is talking about sustainability. We are hearing so much on the harm of fast fashion, single use plastics, and the devastating damage of climate change.
In January, Biden returned the US to the Paris Agreement. Just last week, the EU announced new proposals to make the EU climate neutral by 2050. The recent extreme heat and floods in the Western North America, Germany and just last night in central China may push us to take more actions, faster. Even the last oil & gas holdouts are giving in.
We all want to live more sustainably. At the same time, we can’t live without our bubble tea (served in plastic with straws), and we are ordering take out more often than ever (to stay safe from Covid-19).
Singaporeans queuing up for bubble tea in a heartland mall
As consumers, as much as we want to choose sustainable consumer goods, our limited budget steers us to cheaper alternatives. The governments encourage us to spend – it is good for the economy and creates more jobs.
We all look to the government and big corporations and the governments to make the change. Big corporations have taken up the mantle – we hear daily of ESG initiatives, sustainability agenda for boards to go beyond Covid, and investing with an ESG discipline has become mainstream.
But then, we hear of Danone’s CEO and Chairman, Emmanuel Faber being ousted as he “did not manage to strike the right balance between shareholder value creation and sustainability.” – One tagline in the media was “Blame society, not activist shareholders.”
We hear about investors pushing for green financing initiatives. But it’s difficult to distinguish real green projects from greenwashing- especially when this whole sustainable industry is new. Investors are naturally more cautious, they need to answer to their shareholders.
Sustainability companies’ business models, costs, revenue and investment horizon are eventually compared to traditional/ fintech/ecommerce companies. What option provides better ROI for the shareholders in the shortest possible time? It seems the more noise a company makes (which costs money), the more attention it gets from the investors.
Herein lies the big dis-joint on what we need to do to live/work sustainable vs what we need to do to keep our standard of living. The open secret is that most people do not relate to sustainability initiatives – it is new, takes a lot of work, a lot of push backs and the results are not so clear cut.
Most of the time, people feel jaded, frustrated, guilty – and more often than not, treat sustainability initiatives at work as tick-box exercise.
That should not be the case.
How to make sustainability relatable?
Interestingly, we have been working with some corporations on identifying sustainability startups to work with for the last couple of years. Even during the Covid-19 period, we’ve had the pleasure to work with a number of sustainability startups tackling different issues from recycling to sustainable cosmetics, from reducing palm oil’s environmental footprint to improving the efficiency of the agricultural supply chain.
We have learnt a tonne. While a lot of that is very similar to what we have been experiencing building our own ventures, much is about specific problems they try to tackle, and the real challenges they face. This includes the tribulations to scale business, acquire customers, and manage setbacks.
Sustainable companies go through the same, but need to tackle 2 additional elements – building a truly sustainable business model and products, and convincing cynical investors/customers that they have many other more attractive non-sustainable alternatives.
For example, how do you do marketing when you don’t have money? How do you build up partnerships with partners, conglomerates and MNC that are suspicious of you (and vice versa), how do you manage costs whilst sticking to sustainability principles?
And when one of the worst floods/Covid-19 hit your operations in 2020 – what is the impact, and what do you do to survive? Would you choose sustainability over survival – or can the two co-exist even as you keep yourself afloat?
These were the real challenges that our founder friends in the sustainability industry went through in 2020. Through our interaction with them, we got a glimpse of what they did, and how they did it. Saying that it wasn’t easy is an understatement.
But what we have seen in hindsight – is that our founder friends had similar traits. They spent time to map out the ecosystem, understood how their customers needs, wants (and budget), and designed products to suit these needs. They didn’t create a perfect product and tried to educate the customers to use it. They made the customer journey appealing and fun – no guilt. They built up alliances with governments, corporates and even competitors. And most importantly, they stayed agile, hustled, and found innovative ways to solve the problems that came about.
Just one of the many faces of a sustainability visionary
Their journey is powerful, and can be relatable. New industries are changing incumbents and our daily way of living. No matter where we work, or what we do – we need to make decisions every day to keep our companies and ourselves relevant. We wanted to bring that out to a wider audience.
So when our friends in banks approached us with the challenge above – we thought, why don’t we get them to experience something as real as possible?
That’s why we designed and implemented our Momentum Works Simulation Immersion programme in June.
We created a fictional sustainable startup (inspired by real examples) that embarked on a series of activities to scale and get buy in from investors.
We gave real scenarios where participants, playing the role of management team, had to build and scale a sustainability business – make difficult decisions, navigate outside their comfort zone and deal with ambiguity and the lack of resources. We bought in real entrepreneurs and sustainable founders who the participants heard from and roleplayed with. And in our debriefs, we related this back to the participants real life and work experience.
Participants loved this as the combination and debriefs gave even more context to the participants on what is the world like outside banking. Feedback from the participants has been phenomenal. One participants said “I have been blown away by the realism and extent of the interaction that this training has managed to capture, especially given the constraints of it being done entirely virtually.”
We have also been blown away! Every immersion experience is unique – because everyone will have a different reaction, opinion and interaction. Our role is not to train, but to give enough context for the participants to discover the immersion world themselves. And we ourselves always get more insights – that we then give back to our community and our participants.
For example, Yeeli Lee from B-Human, a sustainable skincare company, joined us in our last immersion programme. She gave hope and shared real low downs on how individuals can do – from supporting the circular economy, to differentiating consumer hype from reality, and how each of our purchase impacts the future.
And she reminded us “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly. For every decision we make, we are casting a vote for the future we want to live in. So cast it mindfully and wisely.”
This is what sustainability founders, corporates, and each of our immersion participants are doing – we are all taking steps to cast a vote for our sustainable future – be it creating a product, providing financing and widening our individual perspectives.
And Momentum Works wants to be the bridge that connects us all. Our individual knowledge and expertise is limited. But with the right people, in the right context and at the the right time – we form insights that help us make better decisions, and remain relevant.