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Curated experts in sustainability fields who can thoroughly elaborate their view based on their accumulated knowledge and experience

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Christopher Marquis

Professor
University of Cambridge

About

Christopher Marquis is the Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School and the author of the award-winning books Better Business: How the B Corp Movement is Remaking Capitalism and Mao and Markets: The Communist Roots of Chinese Enterprise.

Chris has written over 20 peer-reviewed academic articles and published over 50 Harvard Business cases. He received a PhD in Sociology and Business Administration from the University of Michigan and served as Vice President and Technology Manager at JP Morgan Chase before returning to academia.
Passionate about how academic research can help people around the world address our most significant challenges, he examines how some of the biggest crises of our day —climate change, inequality, and racism — are intimately connected with how our current form of capitalism has prioritized accumulating and concentrating wealth for the few affects the concerns and needs of everyone and everything else. His research and writing focus on the need to rebalance the interactions between corporations, governments, and civil society to deliver socially and environmentally beneficial outcomes to all. 

February 22, 2024

Pioneering a Sustainable Digital Future: Insights from Mightybytes


In the wake of escalating climate challenges, I recently had the privilege of interviewing Tim Frick, the founder of Mightybytes, a digital agency and B Corp committed to marrying digital innovation with environmental sustainability. Our conversation unveiled the hidden environmental toll of the digital age and discussed Mightybytes' pioneering efforts to mitigate this impact through thoughtful, sustainable practices. 

These issues are fundamental to addressing climate change and a more sustainable future, which is a theme of my forthcoming book The Profiteers: How Business Privatizes Profit and Socializes Cost. While many digital innovations may increase the efficiency of product and service delivery, because of decreased cost and easier access leads to greater use and so greater overall emissions! A phenomenon known as the rebound effect.    

Frick's insights shed light on the often-overlooked ecological footprint of our online activities, and the importance of incorporating sustainability into the design and conception of a product and try to avoid the need to emit in the first place, as opposed to reducing or offsetting emissions later, as is the common strategy today.  In talking with Frick, I thought of Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.” 

Below are some key points from my article on Mightybytes

  • The Hidden Environmental Costs of Digital Technology: Frick highlighted, "Pixels require electricity, and most of that energy, even in 2020, is still powered by fossil fuels." This statement challenges the common perception of the digital realm as inherently eco-friendly, underscoring the significant environmental footprint associated with our online activities. 

  • A Comprehensive Approach to Digital Sustainability: "When you apply sustainability principles to the entire life cycle of a digital product or service... you begin to understand how design and technology choices can significantly impact the environment," Frick shared, advocating for a holistic view of sustainability in the digital space. 

  • Redefining Sustainable IT Practices: Frick outlined key areas for improvement, including green hosting, performance optimization, enhancing findability, and improving usability. These practices not only address the environmental impact but also consider the social implications of digital decisions. 

  • The Vision for a Greener Digital Future: Frick expressed optimism about the growing awareness and adoption of sustainable practices within the industry. "It's encouraging to see organizations like Mozilla Foundation and the World Wide Web Foundation considering sustainability as a critical factor for the internet's future," he remarked. 

  • Mightybytes' Tangible Impact: By powering 100% of client projects with renewable energy and adhering to the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Mightybytes demonstrates the feasibility and benefits of sustainable digital practices. 

  • Driving Change Beyond the Digital Sphere: Mightybytes' initiatives serve as a beacon for how digital agencies can lead by example, promoting a sustainable, inclusive, and environmentally conscious digital ecosystem. 

The journey of Mightybytes underscores the importance of integrating sustainability into the core of business operations. It showcases that with thoughtful consideration of environmental and social impacts, companies can drive significant positive change. As we navigate the challenges of the digital age, the example set by Mightybytes illuminates a path forward for businesses aiming to harmonize technological innovation with environmental stewardship. 


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February 15, 2024

Putting people at the heart of business at Cascade Engineering


What started three decades ago at Cascade Engineering as a question of how to find and keep talented workers has evolved and expanded into company and community programs that support employees and encourage inclusion. During that time, Founder and Chair Fred Keller also has become an advocate for business as a creator of positive social and environmental impact, an educator of future business leaders, and a changemaker in his community and industry.  

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, The Profiteers, poverty creates many systemic barriers, including reliable transportation and child care, access to healthcare, housing instability and other inequities. In addition to a good paying job, these elements need to be addressed, or else an employee could just get caught in a trap of poor attendance and performance as they deal with trying to overcome these lingering issues. 

Keller says valuing workers as human beings reflects the values he learned as a child — the importance of nurturing and supporting other people, which in turn nurtures and supports the local community. By providing on-site support and connections to workers who had been receiving welfare services, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based company has also seen its monthly employee retention rate climb to more than 90%.  

To learn more about Keller’s belief that companies should take responsibility for employee-support initiatives, I recently talked with Keller and Christina Keller, who serves as the Cascade Engineering Family of Companies CEO. Below are some key points from my article on Cascade Engineering

  • Fred pointed out that the sole focus of profit maximization has prevented businesses from making more positive impact. “We still have Milton Friedman’s words in echo chambers through our hallways, encouraging business people to maximize profits and forget the externalities,” he says. “The challenge for business leaders as they consider the problem is they just want it to go away. I was convinced that was not an appropriate approach.” 

  • Fred says his belief is influenced by his family traditions and human rights struggle in the 60s. He was greatly influenced by a book by Ruby Payne, which talks about people have a different worldview when living in poverty. He decided to add a social worker to their staff from the state welfare program, which led to positive outcomes to their staff and to the company.   

  • He describes that his approach as “start with the heart”. “It’s good for your business, it's good for your employees, it’s good for the community, and you know what? It doesn’t cost a lot. It costs a little bit, but there is a return on investment,” he says. “We're not going to make a big difference until we think in terms of the impact of our business on community. Not our country or our state or the world, but our own local community.” 

  • For instance, Cascade created a Welfare to Career program to try to break cycles of poverty, helping low- wage workers move from welfare poverty to build careers. The insight was that, a well-paying job with good benefits, while important, was not enough, and that even with a job in place, it can take months to transition out of poverty, assuming the proper tools and resources are available. 

  • Another program they ran is the Institute for Healing Racism, which has had thousands of participants. “We’re thinking deeply about how we could make our organization a place where folks that are black and brown feel safe. That it's a place where they are comfortable,” Fred says. “In the mid-2000s we declared Cascade to be an anti-racism organization, and I think we were one of the earliest to do that.” 

  • Christina Keller gives two suggestions on how businesses can effectively start social initiatives. “One is partnering with local folks, so you’re not going it alone. Second is to really dive deep to learn about the barriers that your employees are experiencing, ”she says. “From a leadership perspective, we’ve found that people who are closest to the problem have the most effective solutions. So if you can find those ideas, enable them, then people can more organically work together as leaders to move things forward.” 

While some businesses consider profit maximization to be their sole purpose, Cascade takes a different approach by putting people at their heart. By empowering employees, Fred and Christina Keller have built a strong business with plenty to give back to the community.  


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February 8, 2024

Sustainable design means “as little as possible”


The founders of Wildling Shoes Anna and Ran Yona believe that feet are healthy by nature, and we only need shoes that will protect them from the elements. Wildling shoes are therefore designed to interfere with regular foot function as little as possible, allowing feet to move freely and develop naturally. The company uses all sustainably sourced materials and ethical manufacturing practices to minimize its ecological footprint. Anna told me their products are designed with the philosophy “as little shoe as possible.”

The importance of design to sustainability is a topic covered in The Profiteers: How Business Privatizes Profits and Socializes Cost. While a lot of environmental programs start by trying to mitigate waste and pollution issues that already exist, a more fundamental way to be sustainable is to start with design. As Einstein said "a clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it." 

I recently caught up with Anna to learn more about the company and its mission. She told me that an inspiration for the company was finding shoes for their children. None of the models available seemed to meet the requirements in terms of freedom of movement, sustainable materials, and fair production which inspired their founding of Wildling Shoes. Below are some key points from my Forbes article on Wildling Shoes

  • Yona said that “when designing a shoe, we try to use only the bare minimum of materials - only what is necessary to create a high-quality product,” she says. This also makes their product recyclable. She adds that “being able to take back our products soon and recycle all their components is one of our bigger goals for the next few years.” 

  • To reduce its environmental impact, Wildling Shoes chooses to focus on materials and design. “We choose local, natural materials and craftsmanship, leave many fabrics undyed to reduce water and chemicals use, specifically test all materials for their quality and durability and make our products repairable,” Yona says. “Our model avoids the down pricing rush so typical of fast fashion, pushing customers to buy yet another product they don’t need at a price that is unsustainable. Our shoes are never out of season and will be sold until they are out of stock.” 

  • Wildling Shoes has been working towards a 100% sustainable supply chain. “Today the supply chains for our main textiles are transparent, so we know about each step a material takes in the making - beginning with the source and cultivation via each processing step up until the production.” Yona says. “It takes a lot of time, effort, and passion to implement changes for the better from within the existing structures.” 

  • B Corp certification process takes Wildling Shoes to a new level of sustainability. “Completing the assessment allowed us to see where we have already made good progress (e.g. regarding our work culture and supply chain management) and where we need to improve (e.g. regarding documentation and measurements),” Yona says. “This has led to establishing a sustainability report, collecting, and analyzing data in all areas of the company.” 

  • Wildling Shoes are also working to better the lives of their workers. “We have two people dedicated to improving the social standards, with our focus lying on the shoe and outsole production facilities now. The team runs a regular risk assessment to rule out any harmful conditions,” Yona says. “We strive to create good, close relationships with all production teams, to work together on equal footing, share information and improve working conditions continuously.”  

  • Yona says the company’s long-term goal is not just to minimize harm but to achieve regeneration. “For guidance, we look at how a well-balanced ecosystem functions and try to adapt our way of thinking and our actions to those principles,” she says. “Circular, collaborative, diverse and regenerative - this is what the future looks like for Wildling.”  

While sustainability is a long journey for all companies, we see how far Wildling Shoes has come with a simple idea – good shoes should be as simple as possible. In this case, what is healthy for people is also healthy for the planet.  


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February 1, 2024

Flying towards net zero


The challenge of mitigating carbon emissions from air travel is a significant hurdle in the fight against climate change. Traditional carbon offset strategies often fall short, as they typically fail to address the root cause of emissions and can create a sense of complacency. Further, there's a growing skepticism around the effectiveness of offsets, as they can give the illusion of action without leading to substantial reductions in actual emissions.  

I cover these topics and many of the problems with current offset approaches in my forthcoming book, The Profiteers: How Business Privatizes Profit and Socializes Cost. 

Goodwings, a Copenhagen-based travel provider, is addressing these challenges head-on with its innovative approach to reducing emissions from travel. For instance, they announced recently their work on biofuels as part of their climate solution portfolio. Unlike traditional offset methods, Goodwings uses booking revenues to finance green jet fuel (biofuel), offering a more direct and accountable way of mitigating the environmental impact of travel. 

To learn more about this new offering and emissions challenges of air travel, I spoke to Christian Møller-Holst, CEO and founder of Goodwings, about impact and how businesses are finally waking up to climate change. Here are some key points from my article on Goodwings

  • Adopting biofuel outlines Goodwings’ sustained effort to make flying sustainable. “We have been investing in verified carbon removal projects for some time now, which are a hugely effective way of using nature to neutralize emissions,” Møller-Holst says. “But we always knew we wanted to go one step further with our impact strategy, and keep pace with the innovations reshaping the aviation sector.” 

  • With its model of traveling plus accommodation, Googwings managed to make biofuel options affordable to the average travelers. For example, if you fly from New York to Boston, your round-trip emissions will total around 150 kg. For that trip, a 3-night hotel stay booked on Goodwings.com will generate around $60 in hotel booking commission, which means that Goodwings can afford to reduce your round-trip emissions by 50% using biofuel, and pay for the remainder through verified removal offsets. 

  • Ultimately, the aim of Goodwings is to achieve Net Zero in air travel. “Removing carbon is much more expensive which is why business model innovation is crucial. We must develop new business models designed to make products and services more sustainable and ensure that they can become mainstream by taking into account the price sensitivity.” he says. “In travel price is king, which is why we’re thrilled to be able to remove our clients’ emissions without increasing the price.” 

  • Møller-Holst says he has seen great customer demand for biofuels and sustainability-oriented products in general. “I believe that businesses of all sizes are finally waking up to climate change,” he says. “Not only are companies witnessing the effects on supply chains and revenue streams, but decision makers are noticing the effects in their personal lives too, which is driving a lot of positive action at a senior level.” 

  • Goodwings is also a certified B Corp. “As a company built with the purpose of turning travel into a driving force for good, the assessment confirmed that we had designed Goodwings the right way, but the process still opened our eyes to more areas of improvement,” Møller-Holst says. “Besides the assessment itself, the B Corp community, and the great work of B Lab and Sistema B, provides a platform for mutual inspiration and sharing and we’re proud to be part of it.” 

  • Møller-Holst says that beyond removing carbon from air, Goodwings has a much wider influence by inspiring other companies to follow their course. “It’s not about becoming the best in the world, but for the world. This is strongly embedded in our culture and values and drives all our decisions,” he says.  

Fly less or pay more, at first glance these to be the only two solutions that could reduce the carbon emission of air travel. However, Møller-Holst and Goodwings shows us there is actually a third path that continues to provide quality service while reducing carbon emission. As Møller-Holst says, “Net Zero travel should be the go-to choice in the future.” 


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January 25, 2024

Regenerative finance with a long-term focus for positive impact


Over the last decade and a half, the idea of “impact investing” – where funds are directed to generate not just financial return but also social and environmental impact – has become increasingly popular in investment and social impact circles. A pioneering firm in the impact investing space that I have been following for over 10 years now is RSF Social Finance.  

While the Rockefeller Foundation coined the term “impact investing” only as recently as 2007, San Francisco-based RSF has been working according to the field’s underlying principles since its founding in 1984. As part of my research of purpose-driven businesses, I interviewed RSF CEO Jasper van Brakel to learn more about this new type of investment and why it is important for society and the planet. 

I especially appreciated his focus on applying regenerative models to finance, which is also a key focus of my forthcoming book, The Profiteers: How Business Privatizes Profits and Socializes Costs.

Read more for some key points from my article on RSF

  • More recently RSF has put its focus on “regenerative finance”, which is “the use of various forms of capital to create healthy and equitable social and environmental systems,” according to van Brakel. “In regenerative finance the goal is to make positive change possible, with the financial return as a by-product. Regenerative finance sees money as a means, not as an end. It’s about circulation, not accumulation,” he says. 

  • In particular, regenerative finance provides a solution to the problem of systematic racism in finance industry, where BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) entrepreneurs often have more difficulty in obtaining capital. “As RSF we’ve begun focused work on addressing inequity with the Racial Justice Collaborative, which uses philanthropic money to support U.S.-based social enterprises with BIPOC owners and leaders,” van Brakel says. 

  • Regenerative finance is bounded with the concept of mission-first business structures, which are popular in the start-up community and have been adopted by large multinational companies like Bosch. “Mission-first structures are ways to implement stakeholder control and ensure that companies can create the outcomes that regenerative finance seeks,” van Brakel says. “It is a significant step beyond benefit corporations because it fully protects the mission and tilts the power dynamic.” 

  • There have been many successful regenerative funds, including Funders for Regenerative Agriculture, Grounded Capital Partners and Beneficial State Bank. “RSF’s Social Investment Fund, which is a debt fund 100% dedicated to social enterprises, is another example,” van Brakel says. “Investors in the fund receive a nominal return but know that their money is out there working to create a better world. The entrepreneurs who have loans with the fund appreciate the fact that their lender and the sources of their capital are aligned with their mission.” 

  • van Brakel believes the key underlying problem is that the financial system is broken. “Because the incentives in the current financial system are set to maximize profits, to discount or ignore negative impacts from business operations, and to see money as a goal rather than as a tool,” he says.  

  • Any investor can participate in the regenerative finance movement. “What your dollars do when you’re asleep matters, no matter the amount,” van Brakel says. “We like to think about impact investing and regenerative finance as something investment funds, banks and other financial institutions could do. And they should!” 

Rather than relying on governments or free market capitalism, regenerative finance provides an alternative solution to our problem that refocus on the long-term and includes multiple stakeholders in corporate governance. Reshaping the financial system is certainly not going to be easy, but as van Brakel says, “all the ingredients for the solutions are here, and we have this decade to do it.” 


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