Environmentalism and Entrepreneurship: A Better Alberta
By the day, it seems, consumer-driven movements are changing the face of business. Socially responsible investing (encompassing “green investing”), for example, is growing rapidly. In August 2017, Morgan Stanley released a report detailing the significant growth in popularity of socially responsible investing among millennials in particular. Millennials who reported being “very interested” in socially responsible investing increased an impressive 35.7 percent from 2015 to 2017. From formal efforts like Fairtrade to informal movements like boycotts or social media hashtags, the power of individuals to affect change only continues to grow. Businesses and entrepreneurs meanwhile are not just working to adapt to the new, more environmentally conscious social paradigm, they’re also leading the change in many ways. So, how do we make a better, more environmental Alberta? How can citizens and businesses help fight climate change? Read on to find out.
1. THE POWER OF ENTREPRENEURS
It’s no secret that businesses follow the trend of social opinion and that the shift toward more environmental commerce is partially a byproduct of this. What’s also important to note though is that businesses aren’t filled with profit-seeking automatons, they’re filled and fuelled by a variety of people, many of whom want to make the world better. These folks and the companies that they helm are often leaders in environmental advances from more affordable solar panels to more efficient heating and cooling systems. Innovation is both a game of supply and demand, you need the desire for newer and better ways of doing things, but you also need the means and people to create those newer and better ways. That’s where entrepreneurs come in. The example of Elon Musk is perfect here; Musk is an entrepreneur who wants to make money, but more than that, he wants to help solve the world’s most pressing challenges. In fact, Musk has said that he once thought Tesla would fail but that failure would be okay since the real goal of Tesla wasn’t profit, but the advancement of electric vehicles both technologically and in popularity.
2. THE POWER OF DOING GOOD
In 2017 the economist, John List, ran a study that aimed to find out how (awkward term alert) corporate social responsibility (CSR) firms attract workers as compared to non-socially responsible firms. Social responsibility, in this case, is broader than environmental responsibility but still closely related. What List found was that CSR firms not only attracted more workers, but also more productive workers than non-CSR firms. These findings back up what Morgan and Keith alluded to in my interview with Junior Achievement, that people care about the social and environmental impact of their work and will work harder for companies that are socially responsible. This means that businesses have a direct incentive to be more environmentally responsible and to advertise that responsibility, and thus inspire other businesses. Even if being environmentally conscious didn’t affect consumer behaviour at all, businesses would still benefit from being environmentally responsible due to the productivity increase. Of course, environmentally conscious businesses do attract more demand, so the arguments for them are all the stronger.
3. THE POWER OF “CONSUMERS”
I put the word “consumers” in quotation marks for a specific reason; I hate the term. As an economics student I hear it a lot and while it serves an illustrative purpose, I’ve never liked it. To me, it reduces people to their economic functions and oversimplifies the problems of economics as being merely financial ones. The general term for people that I am most fond of is “citizen”. A citizen is someone who while playing a role in the economy, is so much more than that. They’re also a democratic participant and a human being with wants, needs, and relationships above all else. We need to be conscious of how we use the term “consumer” and how its use can reduce how we see ourselves and our fellow humans to being mere economic actors. We can never forget that we have a higher responsibility to each other and to our environment. “Consumer” is a useful term when speaking about economic actions, but in all other things, we should think of ourselves and our fellow people as citizens principally.
4. THE POWER OF CHOICE
The power of citizens then, is that we choose what goods and services we buy and that we have the power (for the most part) to choose what type of organization to work for. Related to the power of consumption is the idea of “dollar voting” wherein we “vote” with our money for what types of goods and services we want more of. The idea of dollar voting essentially boils down to the notion that what we buy and from whom we buy it matters, and that we should be aware of the impact of those purchases. Dollar voting has some valid criticisms to it, the premier one being that certain folks have a lot more “voting power”. However, we shouldn’t let the inequality of power in dollar voting prevent us from making more ethical purchases.
By consciously choosing more environmentally friendly products over less environmentally friendly products (choosing recycled paper, for example) we are showing that there is demand for the more environmental alternatives and we’re reducing our footprint at the same time. When it comes to employment, for those who have options, when we decide to work for employers that are environmentally conscious we encourage other employers to practice environmental responsibility to keep up and attract the best talent.
5. THE POWER OF EDUCATION
What’s amazing about Junior Achievement, and organizations like it is that while they’re not explicitly environmental they promote environmental consciousness as a fundamental part of doing business. We should celebrate this consciousness across sectors and organizations because environmental issues can’t be compartmentalized, they affect everything. We should encourage and incorporate environmental thinking in every organization we’re apart of because environmentalism isn’t a political ideology, it’s a way of being more conscious of how our actions impact the greater world.
Following the example of Junior Achievement, education is a vital component in making Albertans more environmentally aware. This is particularly important at young ages since virtually every person goes through the primary and secondary education in Canada. Showing students how environmental issues are affecting the world around them and offering them some ways of combating these issues can go a long way in creating more conscious citizens. Just as Junior Achievement encourages environmentalism through its partnership with the Emerald Foundation, educational organizations should encourage environmental thinking as a part of doing business.
6. THE POWER OF THE SMALL THINGS
When I was chatting with Keith from Junior Achievement he mentioned a simple example of environmental commerce in action: removing plastic straws. He talked about how a local pub had stopped giving out plastic straws, unless requested, and how that small, subtle change had made him much more eager to patronize the pub in the future. While banning plastic straws unless requested/needed (a crucial caveat), is a small gesture, it’s one that points to the changing nature of business and how being environmentally conscious can actually be a boon for companies. By encouraging changes like this one in our local businesses, we can create tangible progress, one straw at a time.
Climate change is perhaps humanity’s greatest existential threat and one that will cause massive destruction if not dealt with in our time. This enormous challenge is surmountable, but it requires every part of humanity; lead by governments but crucially, with the inclusion of businesses and citizens. We should never forget that it is we, the people, who hold the power to change. Governments and businesses are human organizations, and we need both to act. Thank you for reading.
This article was written in partnership with the Alberta Emerald Foundation.