“Leaders of business. This is your wake-up call. You’ve been living on borrowed time” … What are the best new ideas to build a sustainable business, to address the climate crisis?

November 6, 2022

“Leaders of business. This is your wake-up call. You’ve been living on borrowed time. Raping the natural world of its resources, and leaving a toxic mess in its place. These weather patterns are not freaks, they are the world you have created. Blinding the man on the street with your superficial innovations and image. What about the sweatshops, the emissions, the packaging, the greed? It doesn’t look good”  

That’s the opening paragraph of my book “People Planet Profit“, arguing that not only is climate change a global emergency, but also the best opportunity for business to drive smarter innovation and profitable growth.

Amidst all the distractions of economic crisis, global tensions, and uncertain futures, its not easy to focus on climate change.

But we all know the challenge. The scale of the emergency. The urgency for action.

  • While Earth’s climate has changed throughout its history, the current warming is happening at a rate not seen in the past 10,000 years.
  • According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Since systematic scientific assessments began in the 1970s, the influence of human activity on the warming of the climate system has evolved from theory to established fact.”1
  • Scientific information taken from natural sources (such as ice cores, rocks, and tree rings) and from modern equipment (like satellites and instruments) all show the signs of a changing climate.
  • From global temperature rise to melting ice sheets, the evidence of a warming planet abounds.

Reducing carbon emissions is essential to help keep temperature rises within 1.5C. Going above this could cause “climate catastrophe”, according to UN scientists.

The UN’s latest assessment of these plans estimates that if all targets are met, global emissions will still increase by 10.6% by 2030 compared to 2010.

But the UN’s climate science body, the IPCC, has said they need to fall by 45% by 2030 to keep global temperature rise below 1.5C.

Mark Maslin in How To Save Our Planet focuses on facts, arguing that it is facts rather than scare stories that will really change people’s minds, drive focused actions, and save our world.

Here are some of his collated facts:

  • In the second half of the 18thcentury the Industrial Revolution occurred in one place – Britain. Within 50 years it had spread to the whole of Europe, North America and Japan. The Industrial Revolution led to the age of pollution – with waste materials being dumped into rivers, lakes, soil, oceans and the atmosphere.
  • In 1950 the global population was 2.5 billion. In 2020 the global population was 7.8 billion. A rise of over 5 billion in 70 years.
  • An average American now uses over 10,000 watts per day to power their cars, homes, offices and the rest of their lives, equivalent to running about 160 old-fashioned lightbulbs – compared to just 6 lightbulbs equivalent use by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
  • We have added 2.2 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. 25% of this extra ‘anthropogenic’ carbon dioxide has come from the USA. 22% from the EU. Less than 5% from Africa.
  • We have made enough concrete to cover the whole surface of the Earth in a layer 2 mm thick.
  • We have created over 170,000 synthetic mineral-like substances, such as all plastics, concrete, steel, ceramics and many artificial drugs. (There are approximately 5,000 ‘natural’ minerals).
  • There are 1.4 billion motor vehicles, 2 billion personal computers and more mobile phones than people on Earth.
  • We make over 300 million tonnes of plastic per year, equivalent in weight to 1 billion African elephants or every single person on Earth.
  • The current weight of all land mammals in the world is made up of 30% humans, 67% livestock and 35% wild animals. 10,000 years ago wild animals made up 99.95% of the weight.
  • We are not all equally liable for the mess we find ourselves in. The richest 10% of the world’s population emit 50% of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. The richest 50% of the world’s population emit 90% of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. The poorest 3.9 billion people have contributed just 10% of the carbon pollution in our atmosphere.
  • Poor people in developing countries can spend up to 80% of their income on food. Americans spend less than 10% of their income on food.
  • We produce enough food to feed 11 billion people. 825 million people do not have access to enough food.
  • The fossil fuel industry, political lobbyists, media moguls and individuals have spent the last 30 years sowing doubt about the reality of climate change – where none such doubt exists.
  • The world’s 5 largest publicly owned oil and gas companies spend approximately $200 million per year on lobbying to control, delay or block binding climate-motivated policy.
  • Currently the fossil fuel industry receives $5.2 trillion in subsidies. The largest subsidizers are China ($1.4 trillion), United States ($649 billion), Russia ($551 billion), European Union ($289 billion) and India ($209 billion).
  • Western countries have produced over half the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, while India has produced just 3%.

So what can business do? Be ambitious (and agile) says Mailin –  be open and transparent, set emission reduction targets, focus on energy, apply the circular economy, encourage employee power, link into supply and value chains, change the whole conversation, influence governments, create a new wave of social and environmental entrepreneurs.

And as individuals? Talk about it. And start with ourselves – switch to a more vegetable-based diet, to a renewable energy supplier, make your home energy efficient, use cars less, stop flying, divest your pension from fossil fuels, divest your investments from fossil fuels, refuse/reject excessive consumption, reduce what you use, refuse as much as you can, recycle as much as you can; Use your consumer choice, protest and vote for a better world.

In his new book Speed & Scale, John Doerr, an engineer and venture capitalist brings together a plan based on how to limit further global warming of no more than 1.5°C. His 6 action areas are:

  • Electrify transportation: switch from gasoline and diesel engines to fleets of plug-in bikes, cars, trucks and buses. 6Gt
  • Decarbonize the grid: replace fossil fuels with solar, wind and other zero-emissions sources. 21 Gt
  • Fix food: restore carbon-rich topsoil, adopt better fertilization practices, motivate people to eat more proteins and less beef, and reduce food waste. 7 Gt
  • Protect nature: interventions for forests, soil and oceans. 7 Gt
  • Clean up industry: all manufacturing, particularly cement and steel, must sharply lower their carbon emissions. 8 Gt
  • Remove carbon: remove CO2 and store it for the long term, using natural and engineered solutions. 10 Gt

Doerr focuses on four areas that can accelerate the transition: Policy & politics, Movements, Innovation, and Investment. His plan is geared to the timelines of two other initiatives: E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth challenge to commit 50% of the planet to nature (50×50) and the Campaign for Nature’s call to protect 30% of the planet by 2030 (30×30).

In Speed & Scale Doerr says what we’re doing is not nearly enough. “We need both the now and the new” he says, “there is a time when panic is the appropriate response, and it is now cheaper to save the earth than to ruin it.”

Big change needs big investment, he argues. Only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled, while 75% of the world’s aluminium remains in use today – proof of the potential of the circular economy. Deforestation funding outpaces forest protection funding by a ratio of forty to one. Indigenous peoples are only 5% of the population while their land contains 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

Emissions by kilogram of food are highest for beef (beef herd – 59.6), lamb & mutton (24.5), cheese (21.2), beef (dairy herd – 21.1), dark chocolate (18.7), coffee (16.5), shrimps (farmed – 11.8), palm oil (7.6) and pig meat (7.2).

Rice has a score of 4 because the cultivation technique of flooding paddies creates an ideal environment for methane-producing microbes. Controlled, shallow flooding can reduce this by 90% – an important development since rice is a cornerstone food for 3 billion people and provides 20% of calories consumed in the world.

The real challenge, as I see it, is to embrace sustainability as our catalyst for innovation – sustainable innovation will become the most important way in which the world can address these huge challenges at scale – solving them in a way that also creates value for consumers, for citizens – but at the same time, the most significant driver of business growth – value for organisations, too. Impossible Foods, led by Pat Brown is one great example, of creating something better for consumers, and better for the world. Here are some more examples:

  • Eco-friendly Biofuel. Through sustainable innovation, companies can invent and offer novel products or services that directly contribute to achieving sustainability. For example, Bio-bean, a British startup, developed an eco-friendly biofuel made from coffee waste to help power London’s double-decker buses. Bio-bean also upcycles spent coffee grounds into eco-friendly products such as coffee logs and coffee pellets—alternatives to carbon-heavy fuels such as coal briquettes and imported wood logs. Bio-bean is using material previously considered waste, contributing to a circular economy while generating approximately $10 million (USD) in annual revenue in 2020.
  • Fairly-sourced Smartphones. Sustainable innovation is not only about inventing novel products or services. Firms can also innovate sustainably while offering existing products or services when they change their processes. Process changes can occur in many areas, e.g. design, production, marketing, and even HR. For example, Fairphone, a Dutch social enterprise, offers consumers fairly-sourced smartphones. Unlike bio-bean, which created novel products (ie logs and pellets made out of coffee waste), Fairphone products do not have any new technical features. Instead, Fairphone dramatically changed the smartphone production process to make it more responsible and sustainable. They use recycled and responsibly mined materials and provide their workers with fair wages and good labor conditions. Because approximately 80% of the emissions of a smartphone come from its production, Fairphone designs its phones to last. They have a modular design which makes repairs and upgrades easier, thereby significantly reducing e-waste.
  • Smog Vacuum Cleaner. Daan Roosegaarde is the mastermind behind the world’s first smog vacuum cleaner. The Smog Free Tower measures almost 23 feet high (7 meters) and sucks in polluted air, cleaning it through a process of ionization before releasing it again. At its peak performance, the tower cleans 30,000 m3 of air per hour.  Thanks to Roosegaarde’s design, you can even wear rings made from the compressed smog particles collected from the tower. By buying and wearing a Smog Free Ring, you’re contributing to over 10,700 square feet (1000 square meters) of clean air. The project has garnered a lot of attention since its inception, winning multiple awards. Recent tower campaigns have been launched in South Korea, China, the Netherlands, Mexico, and Poland.
  • Solar Glass. Solar glass could change the way we create homes and commercial buildings. Researchers at the University of Michigan are developing solar glass, a sustainable engineering project that has generated a lot of buzz in recent years. Just as the name implies, solar glass would be able to capture and store solar energy. According to the research team, 5 to 7 billion square meters of usable window space exists, enough to power a full 40% of US energy needs using solar glass.
  • Edible Cutlery. A green alternative to plastic cutlery, Bakey’s edible alternative comes in three different flavors—plain, savory, and sweet. They’re 100% natural and will biodegrade if not consumed.
  • Water Capture. Some innovations are the result of using nature as a design mentor (biomimicry), for example, recent advancements in fog catchers or netting systems in arid climates help communities capture water from the morning fog and were modeled on an understanding of how the texture on the Namibian Desert Beetle’s forewings captures moisture so efficiently. The Biomimicry Institute provides learning journals that can help designers create a strong foundation for further learning. They have also created an amazing website called “Ask Nature”.
  • Green Buildings. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED® is an international symbol of sustainability excellence and green building leadership. LEED’s proven and holistic approach helps virtually all building types lower carbon emissions, conserve resources, and reduce operating costs by prioritizing sustainable practices. Canada is one of the top territories in the world for LEED certification. Did you know that buildings generate nearly 30% of all greenhouse gases, and 35% of landfill waste, while consuming up to 70% of municipal water?

From whirlpool turbines to edible cutlery, water blobs, and package-free shampoo and toothpaste, here’s are another 22 inventions that could help us cut back on plastic, reduce garbage in the sea, and make the Earth a better place:

10 great new books on sustainability

Since writing my bestselling book People Planet Profit on the opportunities of sustainable innovation, to find new ways to drive social and commercial progress, there has been an abundance of new books emerge.

Here are some more of the best new books exploring the challenges of sustainability, and opportunities for business, to deliver more meaningful, focuses and profitable impact:

The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance

The Upcycle is William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s follow-up to Cradle to Cradle. “Now, drawing on the lessons gained from 10 years of putting the cradle-to-cradle concept into practice with businesses, governments, and ordinary people, William McDonough and Michael Braungart envision the next step in the solution to our ecological crisis: We don’t just reuse resources with greater effectiveness, we actually improve them as we use them. For McDonough and Braungart, the questions of resource scarcity and sustainability are questions of design. They envision beneficial designs of products, buildings, and business practices – and they show us these ideas being put to use around the world as everyday objects like chairs, cars, and factories are being reinvented not just to sustain life on the planet but to grow it.” Amazon

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and The Breakthroughs We Need

“Bill Gates has spent a decade investigating the causes and effects of climate change. With the help of experts in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, political science, and finance, he has focused on what must be done in order to stop the planet’s slide to certain environmental disaster. In this book, he not only explains why we need to work toward net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases, but also details what we need to do to achieve this profoundly important goal.” Amazon

Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take

Paul Polman and Andrew Winston’s great book is my favourite of the year. “The ex-Unilever CEO who increased his shareholders’ returns by 300% while ensuring the company ranked #1 in the world for sustainability for eleven years running has, for the first time, revealed how to do it. Teaming up with Andrew Winston, one of the world’s most authoritative voices on corporate sustainability, Paul Polman shows business leaders how to take on humanity’s greatest and most urgent challenges—climate change and inequality—and build a thriving business as a result.” Amazon

How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything

Adidas took the bold step to put a carbon footprint figure on the pair of every pair of its new Futurecraft running shoes. Mike Berners-Lee explore more. “Part green-lifestyle guide, part popular science, How Bad Are Bananas? is the first book to provide the information we need to make carbon-savvy purchases and informed lifestyle choices, and to build carbon considerations into our everyday thinking. It also helps put our decisions into perspective with entries for the big things (the World Cup, volcanic eruptions, and the Iraq war) as well as the small (email, ironing a shirt, a glass of beer). And it covers the range from birth (the carbon footprint of having a child) to death (the carbon impact of cremation). Packed full of surprises-a plastic bag has the smallest footprint of any item listed, while a block of cheese is bad news-the book continuously informs, delights, and engages the reader.” Amazon

The Responsibility Revolution: How the Next Generation of Business Will Win

“How to create a company that not only sustains, but surpasses-that moves beyond the imperative to be less bad and embrace an ethos to be all good. From the Inspired Protagonist and Chairman of Seventh Generation, the country’s leading brand of household products and a pioneering good company, comes a one-of-a-kind book for leaders, entrepreneurs, and change agents everywhere. The Responsibility Revolution reveals the smartest ways for companies to build a better future-and hold themselves accountable for the results. Thousands of companies have pledged to act responsibly; very few have proven that they know how. This book will guide them. The Responsibility Revolution presents fresh ideas and actionable strategies to commit your company to a genuine socially and environmentally responsible business and culture, one that not only competes but wins on values.” Amazon

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist

Cities from Amsterdam to Berlin all now want to be doughnuts because of this book. “In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth sets out seven key ways to fundamentally reframe our understanding of what economics is and does. Along the way, she points out how we can break our addiction to growth; redesign money, finance, and business to be in service to people; and create economies that are regenerative and distributive by design. Named after the now-iconic “doughnut” image that Raworth first drew to depict a sweet spot of human prosperity (an image that appealed to the Occupy Movement, the United Nations, eco-activists, and business leaders alike), Doughnut Economics offers a radically new compass for guiding global development, government policy, and corporate strategy, and sets new standards for what economic success looks like.”  Amazon

Grow the Pie: How Great Companies Deliver Both Purpose and Profit

“What is a responsible business? Common wisdom is that it’s one that sacrifices profit for social outcomes. But while it’s crucial for companies to serve society, they also have a duty to generate profit for investors – savers, retirees, and pension funds. Based on the highest-quality evidence and real-life examples spanning industries and countries, Alex Edmans shows that it’s not an either-or choice – companies can create both profit and social value. The most successful companies don’t target profit directly, but are driven by purpose – the desire to serve a societal need and contribute to human betterment. The book explains how to embed purpose into practice so that it’s more than just a mission statement, and discusses the critical role of working collaboratively with a company’s investors, employees, and customers. Rigorous research also uncovers surprising results on how executive pay, shareholder activism, and share buybacks can be used for the common good.”  Amazon

The Truth About Green Business

“Everything you need to know to green your business and grow your profit. The truth about what climate change means for your business. The truth about running lean and green. The truth about future-proofing your business. Simply the best thinking. The truth and nothing but the truth. This book reveals 52 proven green strategies and bite-size, easy-to-use techniques that get results.”  Amazon

Rebuilding Earth: Designing Ecoconscious Habitats for Humans

“It is estimated that the earth’s population will expand to an unprecedented nine billion people over the next century. This explosion in population is predicted to place further stress on our environment, deplete our natural resources, and lead to increases in anxiety and depression due to overcrowding. In this visionary and uplifting book, Teresa Coady offers readers new hope. Rebuilding Earth is her blueprint for designing and building the cities, buildings, and homes of tomorrow, resulting in more conscious, sustainable, and humane living. Coady shows us how we can shift from an outdated Industrial-Age framework to a more humane, Digital-Age framework. This revolutionary approach will enable communities to harness various forms of green energy and reduce the amount of material needed to build infrastructure while contributing to a healthier planet (and society). We can then experience a new sense of purpose, health, and happiness. Meaningful and lasting change, the author tells us, can only come through designing interconnected communities that are vibrant, resilient, and communal. Unlike most predictions of doom and gloom, Coady presents a refreshingly optimistic view of humanity and its future. This book will appeal to those in the construction, design and development finance industries, as well as anyone interested in improving their lives through understanding the connections between the environment and health.”

Business and brands are the best platform for change

Here is my recent TED Talk, I describe some of my most recent ideas and insights for turning the challenge of sustainability into a profitable opportunity for business, and progress for our world:


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