Sustainability: who hasn’t heard about this word with multiple meanings in 2021? More than ever companies, including start-ups and scale-ups, need to show their impact on society and on the environment. There are different sustainability trends gaining traction in the last few years, but one big chunk is assigned to the circular economy. The aim is to build economic systems that reduce waste, regenerate and use resources to their maximum. Even if many ventures are saying goodbye to the usual and old linear economy, the transformation is still in its early stages.
But circularity is only one of the current and upcoming focuses that will – hopefully – permanently add “sustainability” as a priority for every business leader. We had a conversation about circular economy and new trends in relation to scale-ups (but not only) with the ScaleUpNation researcher Florent Maccario. After studying environment and sustainability in business, Florent worked as a sustainability consultant and rapidly decided to expand his knowledge on circular economy. At ScaleUpNation he is responsible for conducting research on circularity in construction as part of the Circular@Scale program.
Let’s dive into circular economy and other topics around sustainability with Florent.
We can start from the definition. What is sustainability to you?
Sustainability means keeping business as we did it before, but taking people and the environment into account. It’s not about revolutionizing the system. For me it’s about providing a better way of living and making sure that our children and grandchildren can live the same way as our parents. In the seventies they started to integrate solutions for a more sustainable economy. The concept of sustainability will therefore not drastically change our businesses and lives. However, it will hopefully be the first step towards a bigger change.
What made you decide to work on sustainability? In which sustainability areas did you specialize during your career?
The word sustainability suits the meaning of “doing better”. I decided to work on sustainability because, naively, I wanted to save the world when I was 17. I traveled to South America, where I saw plastic everywhere, there was no waste management at all. We all know that it takes many years for plastic to disintegrate. I was shocked about it, and I wanted to do my part to solve this. My career began with having an impact on private companies, where I started consulting. Then I specialized in circular economy, which is what I am researching with ScaleUpNation. For me, circular economy is about consuming less and better, and to achieve it you need to produce in a different way with a certain design.
Right now, your focus is on circularity . What is the most interesting example you can give us of a circular economy scale-up?
One that really intrigues me is Fairphone. It’s a Dutch company, they started around 15 years ago. Over the years they have improved their product a lot, now it works very well. The core idea is to source the raw material in an ethical way. They started to trace all the supply chain, and don’t buy from unknown producers. Plus, they only work with companies that have good working conditions. Fairphone’s second approach is to have a design where all internal parts of the phone are replaceable. The third thing is to build smartphones with as much recycled plastic as possible, the new version is made with more than 70% recycled plastic. Now they have more than 100 employees, so they managed to scale!
Circular economy is only one part of making industries more sustainable. What are the biggest sustainability trends in 2021?
The biggest one is to implement a climate strategy based on the IPCC (special report on the impacts of global warming), a document where the science community showed on paper what should be done in the next decades. It had an impact on many companies’ internal climate strategy since they are trying to reduce their footprint.
Then there is sustainable finance, investing in a better way. Most of the time, private companies do not know how their money is invested. They often finance activities that are not ethical and sustainable while there is a lot of potential to bring traceability into these investments and build a strong market for investing only in good products.
Sustainable agriculture is another trend. We are aware of the impact of bad nutrition and animal welfare. The old fashion way of harvesting and feeding animals is not sustainable.
My wish for this year is to accelerate the procurement and traceability in the way we make products, especially in the fashion industry. There are hundreds of suppliers sourcing raw materials from the earth, and we need more traceability. Big brands should also be taken as responsible for the horrible things that happen along the chain. We need to make them act better.
During your career, what product/service made you think “they are really doing something great for the planet”?
If we really want to do something great for the planet, then we shouldn’t extract anything from the ground. This, of course, is not possible in our society. But brands like MUD Jeans, Loom or Asphalt are doing great things. Their CEOs say that the best way to reduce our impact is to buy when we really need their products. There is a difference if we buy them every week or every year. These CEOs are also ambassadors, they explain how we should reduce our consumption. They want to attract people that are in the sustainable mindset (it’s not necessary to regularly buy some products). Of course, it’s good to make profit, but they don’t need to make billions. And they are proud of it.
What do you know about greenwashing? Do you think that it affects sustainability/ecology?
There is a lot of greenwashing everywhere. First, inside banks. When I was a teenager, the first ads about ecology were done by bank institutions, but it was all about their image. Throughout the years, I saw what was behind their strategy of greenwashing. They promise to invest in green energy, but when we look closely they do it only for a very small amount while they could do way more. Greenwashing can be also seen in the cosmetic industry, where they falsely say to use natural and eco ingredients. Food as well, some companies try to listen to the consumer, so for example they change the packaging saying that the product doesn’t contain GMO, but they don’t change the core value. Again , it’s only about image. The change in some food products is so small that it doesn’t really help the planet or our health. Somehow lots of consumers are fine with that, they don’t dig too deep to see if the products are really healthy.
Finally, what advice would you give to scale-ups which don’t yet see sustainability as something they could integrate in their company?
They’re still in time to catch the train. But don’t wait too long. If you don’t integrate this mindset in the company now that you are in the early stages, you might be left behind by the younger generation. If you are not mindful of your impact in the world, it looks like you are not aware of the world you are living in. The new generations are sensitive to sustainability, so as a scale-up you really need to take it into account.
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