The Intersection of Social Enterprises & Environmental Sustainability

Can businesses do good and be profitable? Hunter Lovins, President and Co-Founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions and Time Magazine millennium Hero of the Planet, thinks so. On April 11, Lovins shared her thoughts on social enterprises and environmental sustainability at an event hosted by Net Impact NYC, Bard MBA, and MPOWERD, at COOKFOX architecture firm in Chelsea. John Salzinger, Co-Founder of MPOWERD, a New York City-based B Corp, moderated the conversation.

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There is a “personal case, a business case, and a society case for well-being,” which becomes apparent if we switch the predominant narrative from “he who dies with the most toys wins,” to one that reflects “wellbeing is the key to happiness,” Lovins said. Her latest endeavor, Leading for Wellbeing, brings together business leaders, policy makers, scholars, faith leaders, media experts, and change agents to create a world that works for 100 percent of humanity.

On the business side, many social entrepreneurs are working towards this new narrative. MPOWERD, for example, makes clean energy products that are affordable, easy to use, and good for the earth—including Luci inflatable solar lights. MPOWERD wants to empower the 1.5 billion people in low-income countries still living without electricity by delivering Luci lights at prices they can afford. According to Lovins, social enterprises like MPOWERD have an important role to play in helping to solve energy poverty. Throughout the world, 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity. Many use kerosene lamps which can have negative effects on health.

“It’s a wonderful idea to start a business, but incredibly challenging,” said MPOWERD’s Salzinger. As an impact company with an integrated bottom line, “it’s difficult to garner investment from people who are looking to make a gazillion dollars tomorrow.” Salzinger focuses on making sure that his company’s products are affordable and available for those who need them, but not free. “When something is earned or worked for, it’s valued more,” he said. “Clean energy companies need to create a business model to help people afford the technology.”

“Only one out of 10 entrepreneurs make it,” added Lovins, who teaches at the Bard MBA program and mentors at the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder. “The reasons businesses fail are well known,” she said. They confuse cash flow and profit, they don’t know who they are, they exercise poor leadership, etc.

Social enterprises are one of several ways to marry profit with a positive environmental impact. Countless studies have shown the numerous benefits businesses receive from working towards the “wellbeing narrative,” particularly when it comes to consumer trust. Lovins explained that she often gets called on to be a spokesperson for public relations campaigns that result in positive outcomes for the environment but are rooted in brand competition (e.g. Ford vs. GM). Then there are businesses like Unilever that have seen increased sales for their purpose driven brands. In addition, thought leaders like Jigar Shaw have advocated that we should be focusing more on business innovation than technological innovation, since business innovation can help unlock access to existing clean technologies around the world.

Bringing about change, however, is not just about changing large scale narratives, policies, and business practices. Sometimes we can bring about change simply by communicating with individuals.

Making change starts with changing outlooks. Can humanity avoid a total system collapse? “If you believe no, you’re gonna get to be right,” said Lovins. “If you believe yes, you have a chance.”

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