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Why Running a Sustainable Business Isn’t Just a Nice Idea — It’s Necessary

Matt Daigle December 10, 2019

I honestly don’t care what type of product you sell or what service you offer; there is no reason to be starting a business today if you’re not insistent on making more than just money, and actually having an impact. I so firmly believe this that I would go as far as saying that starting a business today without the triple bottom line in mind is a complete disservice to the world.

Where we’re at

We’re at a pivotal time in Earth’s history — there hasn’t been a threat this great to our planet’s existence in a long time or maybe ever. If you don’t know why Earth is threatened: it’s business, it all comes down to business.

Since the industrial revolution and the worldwide adoption of capitalism, our planet has suffered greatly. Okay,  I’m going to stop right there. I’m really not getting on my soapbox; I’m just trying to tell you that business in the last 100+ years has not given a single f*ck about the planet and its people.

But things are changing, people are waking up and businesses are starting to change, and many have even started with that premise. There are even great organizations that promote and encourage this type of business. The corporation of yesterday is slowly moving towards the B Corporation of today and tomorrow.

There’s this great concept that a modern corporation should exist for reasons beyond just generating money. Don’t get me wrong, making money, and lots of it, is fantastic.

But what I think we’ve learned over the years is that by its very nature, a business has an obligation to do much more than simply offering a product/service and make returns for its shareholders. We’ve learned that this basic model is really good for making money, but then there’s this tradeoff that often sees people and the environment suffer in return. If you want proof, just look at the state of most major industries today… or just read a few pages from “The Ecology of Commerce” by Paul Hawken, both are equally as revealing.

It’s funny and a bit ironic when you think about wealth in your personal life. Most of us strive for wealth in all areas of our lives; financially yes, but also in our relationships, and our relationship with the planet. But when it comes to business life, for some reason, our economy just chose to put financial wealth first, to the detriment of everything else.

A Page from Patagonia

There’s this great anecdote in Yvon Chouinard’s book “Let My People Go Surfing” — the story behind the B Corp poster child, Patagonia.

In the book, Chouinard describes how they first got into the rock-climbing business by offering reusable steel pitons, which are placed into rock when rock-climbing (previously pitons were just left behind). This seemed like a great step forward, having pitons that weren’t littering the face of a mountain. What the company realized though, was that steel pitons, by their very use were defacing the front of mountains and causing irreversible damage.

Despite having pitons as a profitable product, the company decided to pull out of the piton business altogether — decision that would foreshadow many more to come.

That kind of decision-making would have many shaking their heads, but what this anecdote does is perfectly exemplify the commitment to the triple bottom line and what it means to a company’s decision-making process. In this case, the sale of pitons were directly impacting the state of our mountain faces, and for that, it just made sense to stop promoting that practice through the sale of pitons.

Above all, what this story taught me and made me realize is that there are companies out there doing much worse than defacing mountains with their products, yet many still deny wrongdoings, or make no tangible effort to resolve their activities and settle for just lining their shareholders’ pockets.

Triple Bottom Line

I was recently in California filming inspirational and sustainable homes, and couldn’t help but notice the ample use of gas-powered blowers by yard maintenance companies. Can I just say what a painstakingly hilarious product that is — a device that allows you to blow dirt, leaves, and lawn clippings to “clean up’’ a yard. The price to pay for this seemingly amazing device is the loudest possible engine noise and exhaust pollution much worse than most vehicles. When you really think about it, how can something like that exist, and even be legal — a product that solves one problem, while creating two more significant problems? Am I missing something?

Sure, the gas-powered blower has been around for a while, and does help clean up yards, but do you think people and the planet were considered in its conception? Surely there must be a solution out there without the air and noise pollution.

People-planet-profit, or social-environmental-economic bottomline, are the three tenets of what seems should have been the basis for decision-making since the dawn of corporations. B Corporations are the answer to that — and as of August 2018, there are over 2,600 B Corps in existence across 150 industries and 60 countries. Bam!

And it’s also never too late to get started — even giants like Danone, Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), and New Chapter (Procter & Gamble) have become B Corps.

It comes back to stakeholders versus shareholders, and being accountable to the former rather than the latter. Becoming a B Corp ensures that your company stays accountable to the triple bottom line, and that decisions are made based on these three measures. Quite honestly, that is sometimes the toughest thing to measure: impact on social equity and the environment. And that’s where organizations like B-Lab can help.

All that to say: there is good to be made, change to be had — and this is all possible while making money hand over fist. So the next time you’re in a position to choose between making an impact or making a profit, why not consider doing both? Not only will your wallet thank you, but so will the planet and the generations to come.

Stakeholder Capitalism
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