Published on GreenBiz
At the beginning of 2019, I chose corporate sustainability as my “beat” in journalism school because I was deeply concerned about the environmental impact businesses have on our fragile planet.
I still am, and if you read Joel Makower’s column last week, you’ll know why. But after writing about the intersection of technology, business and sustainability for 10 weeks this summer at GreenBiz Group, I’ve encountered more reasons to be optimistic.
One thing I find surprising is the high level of attention the mainstream business world is paying to sustainability right now. People across the whole org chart, from entry-level employees to C-suite executives, are doing their share in energy efficiency, emission reduction, waste management and other green business initiatives. Or, at least, trying to.
I credit this trend to an improving rhetoric that focuses on the “do well” part of sustainability and not just “do good.” After all, the way to business leaders’ hearts is knowing that being green will improve their bottom lines. Not to mention the growing consumer demand for sustainable products and my generation’s preference to work for socially and environmentally conscious brands.
Another takeaway is the central role technology plays in advancing a clean economy. I geek out on tech because it provides practical solutions to the most dire problems we face, helps bring ideas to reality and nascent projects to scale. It’s the foundation of most, if not all, climate actions we can think of today. (It also contributes to many of those problems.)
Here are a few tech sustainability trends that captured my imagination this summer:
Where there’s a block, there’s a chain
Most people know blockchain as the technological enabler of Bitcoin, a decentralized public ledger touting transparent and hackproof digital recordkeeping. Now it’s also breaking onto the sustainability scene, fast.
In just two months, I saw a plethora of startups applying blockchain’s decentralized nature and transactional edge to social and environmental issues, from carbon removal credit marketplaces to energy trading apps. I wrote about one, BanQu, which helps small farmers get financial services by keeping an immutable record of their transactions.
There’s still quite some noise regarding blockchain’s application. Some domain experts I’ve spoken to argue that only a tied-in cryptocurrency can unleash blockchain’s revolutionary power. Others say blockchain does not need cryptocurrency in the sustainability context. Due to concerns about data privacy and compliance, there’s also debate on whether to use public or permissioned ledgers.
The bottom line is, blockchain as a nascent technology has way more skeptics than evangelists, and only time will tell how powerful of an ally it will be to advance the business of sustainability.
You can hack food waste with smart tech
My awareness of composting got an instant boost when I moved to the Bay Area from Chicago, where I’ve been in school. But I soon learned that composting can have the reverse effect — knowing their unconsumed food is going to compost gives people a mental high-five that makes them more careless about wasting food in the first place.
The most effective way to curb waste is preventing it from happening, the highest-ranking solution on ReFED’s food recovery hierarchy. The famous saying “what gets measured, gets managed” signals where technology comes in: Tech-enabled data analytics can help kitchens better measure what’s been wasted and how much.
One example is artificial intelligence. Companies such as Microsoft, Google, Sodexo and IKEA use AI-empowered tools to track and measure food waste in their corporate kitchens. U.K.-based startup Winnow uses a combination of cameras, smart scale and AI-guided meters to help them do that. Leanpath, a tech company I wrote about, does similar things.
I grew up riding kiddie kick scooters, so it took me a moment to get used to the speed and weight of the e-scooters that dot Oakland street corners. Once I did, I became addicted to the ease of commute brought by scooter sharing. And they’re environmentally friendly, right?
Well, not exactly. I saw broken scooters deserted curbside quite often over the summer. How long were they in use before breaking down? Are they disposed of or recycled? Who is taking care of that? With these questions in mind, I found that the average shared scooter’s lifespan is measured in weeks. That doesn’t sound very sustainable.
With millions of electric shared scooters deployed globally, end-of-life is an unignorable issue. Atlanta is asking scooter companies to include life-cycle assessments in the applications they file with City Hall. Some companies are working on extending that lifespan through durable design. Software and computing also can help scooters protect themselves from failure.
Full disclosure: I’ve gotten into a few wheel-world accidents — none serious — but I’m not giving up scooting anytime soon. I believe ridesharing is the future of green transportation, as long as e-scooter companies figure out how to make them operate safely and within a circular economy.
Speaking of the circular economy…
It’s perhaps the most popular concept in the green business world right now. After binging Circularity19 videos and following Lauren Phipps’ Circular Weekly newsletter, I’ve come to understand and love this closed-loop system, where waste is minimized or eliminated and resources are used continuously through recycling, remanufacturing and refurbishment.
The fashion industry is a front-runner in adopting circular economy principles, with the rising popularity of clothing recommerce marketplaces. Luxury consignment unicorn The RealReal went public this year. Rent the Runway challenges apparel ownership. Why exhaust resources to make new clothes when you can recycle old ones? Fast fashion is going out the door and circular fashion is walking in.
Consumer product packaging is also going through a circular transformation. Disposable packaging no longer meets today’s environmental needs. One company, TerraCycle, received major attention and support from consumer brands for its zero-waste system, Loop. It recycles and refills high-quality packaging from major brands, shifting ownership from consumer to company. This container-sharing system is a renaissance of the “milkman” model.
My summer at GreenBiz has been intellectually stimulating and challenging. I encountered ideas that broadened my horizon, including carbon drawdown, the clean beauty movement, plant-based proteins, the future workplaces and more. It’s really inspiring to see so many business and tech innovators incorporate sustainability into their daily practices.
On that positive note, here’s hoping my rendezvous with the world of sustainable business extends beyond just a summer fling.