Sustainability, for profit

Since the industrial revolution, two influential groups have been at the heart of driving global social change & sustainability. In one corner we have governments who whilst driving a multitude of agendas, have also contributed immensely towards social uplift over the decades. On the other side, much of the responsibility of changing the world has been shouldered by social innovators – dedicating their work and lives to the improvement of our collective future.

Barring these two influencer groups, there hasn’t been much else in terms of firepower for social betterment – at least, not until now. In the past few years we have been seeing the winds of change starting to blow in a different direction. They are gradually picking up speed and bring with them a promise of change – one with immense potential and firepower to catalyse social and sustainable progress. This new promise is the private sector (‘for profit’ organisations).

I say ‘new’ not due to the historical timeline of their existence, but because of the attitudinal shift in the way these organisations are beginning to view success. Their previously singular focus on financial yardsticks, is now being complemented by a growing hunger to integrate sustainable outcomes as a measure of overall progress.

But should we care? Should we bother with the fact that the private sector is waking up to ground realities of a finite world with finite resources? Yes, without a doubt. Without the help of the private sector, we are destined to fail as a global collective.

Here’s why – In today’s world, the money and resource dedicated to social uplift through donations, charities, grants & non-profits is approximately $500 billion a year. It is a lot of money in absolute terms, but not quite, when you put it into perspective.

Think about this – the total output of products & services created on our planet equate to ~ $85 trillion (GDP), of which ~70% is attributable to the private sector, reflecting nearly ~$60 trillion of economic value created every year through private organisations. In other words, the total impact that these organisations have on the global landscape including job creation, product development, value chains, industrial output, services, solutions etc. reach every corner of the earth and touch every person on our planet.

In parallel, we see an uphill struggle by social entrepreneurs, innovators & change makers to access funds & resources to deliver impact from a bucket that is 1/130th the size of that which private organisations have access to globally. It is literally a drop in the bucket.

Put another way, when you consider sharing $500 billion across ~7 billion people, the ‘Impact per person’ is less than 20 cents per day.

That simply isn’t enough to drive change of any magnitude.

There is a way though – thread sustainability into the DNA of every private organisation. From product development to packaging, from sourcing to manufacturing, from supply chains to distribution, from hiring to customer engagements, from source to disposal, from clean waster to food waste. Immersing these values into the bloodstream of organisations starts to deliver incremental change.

Incremental change? Not transformational change? When done correctly and with the precise delivery of small packets of impact, the outcome is in itself, transformational.

It’s simply the output of consistently good input.

At EARTH 51, our goal is to move the needle on sustainable impact by ~5%. We want to help the private sector inject sustainability into their ecosystems, encouraging them to deliver a small percentage of their revenue towards sustainable outcomes. When you extrapolate this, an incremental 5% would equate to the redirection of $3.2 trillion of value creation towards sustainable and social progress.

In summary, a 5% change in sustainability-led initiatives of the private sector would be 600% greater than the sum of all resources & money currently delivering social progress & sustainable impact.

The future depends on what we do today with private sector organisations. The more sustainability becomes an intrinsic part of their growth and strategic future, the more our world will benefit. They have the potential to give us the much-needed wind in our sails as we journey to a sustainable future.

Akhil Handa is the CEO and Founder of EARTH 51.

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