Voices in Sustainable Enterprise: A New Generation of Innovators  

Ecology Prime is pleased to share the exceptional work and unique perspective of five bright minds from the Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University, Sustainable Enterprise course, of Fall 2021. Individually, the points of view shared by these independent thinkers, are timely and unique. Collectively, these voices beckon to a broader generational shift that has been underway, and which is becoming more inclusive, diverse, and focused on a shared pursuit of a more sustainable future.

Mark Coleman, adjunct instructor of Sustainable Enterprise and an award-winning author of three books on sustainability, introduced a class of 29 students to Sustainable Enterprise. The course’s content, purpose, and learning objectives are focused on providing the tools, methods, and understanding of how systemic changes influence business and entrepreneurs and consequentially, how business and entrepreneurs address the needs of society and create new paradigms through sustainable value. The course is part of a broader curriculum which prepares students to engage in transdisciplinary collaboration to develop sustainable solutions to complex organizational challenges. The essays and video presented here over the next weeks were submitted as the Sustainable Enterprise course’s final projects.

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Can Social and Sustainable Enterprise Create a More Sustainable World?

By Kiera McManus

The term sustainability has been increasing in popularity in recent years to the point that it has moved past it’s basic definition. It is a vague promise that has become an expected part of our world. Sustainability is representative of not only the consistent maintenance of natural resources, but equality and security in food and rights. It is economic stability and affordable energy, or proper sanitation and education. It encapsulates many factors that make up a suitable world, one free of scarcity and inefficiency. And while it is an important goal that we should continue to strive towards, its vague nature can also lend itself to evading progress. Words like sustainable, clean, and natural are good to have, but their overuse can be a handicap in making true advancements. It is important to recognize these shortcomings with the term, although it can still serve as an optimistic goal to work towards.

With a shifting climate, plummeting air quality, deforestation and unmitigated plastic pollution, it is unsurprising that interests are rising for sustainable action. People want to see more sustainable progress in the products they buy and the companies they support. Recent studies show that 68% of consumers aim to be more conscious about supporting brands with reduced environmental impacts (Forbes, 2021). Because of this, enterprises that are socially and sustainably minded are more likely to succeed. This provides an incentive for startups or current companies to reassess and reconsider their values through an environmental lens. This increase in demand for conscious products will not only aid businesses, but will then in turn help create a more sustainable world. This idea, however, is not an easy solution to the world’s environmental problems, as there are many challenges and complications that can get in the way.

As the average overworked, overstressed consumer gets through their day, the ability to make sustainably-minded choices in their purchases and actions is, undeniably, a great privilege. What can they afford? What conveniences might they be able and willing to sacrifice? This is where entrepreneurship can help solve the issue. Eco-friendly alternatives for every imaginable aspect of your life can be created, and with increasing innovation, these options will continue to increase in number, variety, and accessibility. But this can also create issues that may just not be noticeable at the surface level. Consumers may want to make more environmentally-friendly choices, especially as major companies and organizations—some of which are major polluters, responsible for more environmental damage than any one person could accomplish—push the message of individual impact. Countless free-to-use carbon footprint calculators are available online, for example, to push the pressure of change onto the consumer. And yet, even when this average consumer makes a choice with their purchasing power that they believe to be the most sustainable, they may be completely misled.

This is why accountability among sustainable enterprises is as important as ever. As general interests shift towards green options, so do many companies that want to keep up with current trends. But little stops these enterprises from taking the easy way out, and cutting corners to get the most benefit from the environmental movement without having to sacrifice changing their products. Greenwashing is a major marketing issue that has little regulation. Even if customers don’t necessarily notice, little changes such as green or nature-themed packaging and the use of buzzwords like ‘all natural’, ‘eco-friendly’, or just ‘green’ can sway people to buy products without the assurance that they are actually all that much better than other options. While there are hard-set certifications that can be looked for on products, the average consumer may not have the time or motivation to research the companies they’re buying from and determine if they’re being lied to. The consumers should not bear the burden of this responsibility, and yet they often do, so greenwashing runs rampant. For true change and growth in sustainability, enterprises must make sacrifices rather than cut corners. Businesses can offer truly sustainable options and provide solutions to market failures, not to the detriment but the benefit of the company. Sustainability is a growing industry, with countless opportunities for new enterprises to begin and for pre-existing businesses to make a better, greener case for their product or service.

This is not to say that there aren’t challenges for sustainable enterprises, especially since major changes can be extremely costly. A corporation that makes commitments to, for example, cut down to zero net emissions by 2050 could face many challenges to keep them. Switching energy sources to renewables is a big boost, but is not as feasible in certain regions where current technology is not as efficient. There are numerous industries that are difficult to decarbonize, such as heavy-duty transportation. And for companies that have long, complex supply chains, there might be a reliance on imported goods that come from countries with very different standards and regulations for sustainability. Lofty commitments may be made, and very often have been in recent years, but if companies are not willing and able to overcome these challenges and make sacrifices to meet their goals, they will fall short.

What happens when corporations don’t meet sustainability goals? They might extend the deadline, or they might not, because the commitment is voluntary, and there is no accountability. The global food corporation Cargill is a good example of this. In 2010, Cargill made a net zero deforestation commitment for 2020; however, when 2020 arrived and they had not met their goal, the corporation simply extended their target to 2030 (Eavis & Krauss, 2021). These commitments, while sometimes good-intentioned and successful, can serve as a way for companies to get around making progress while still making promises to customers who want to see more sustainability from them. This is once again where accountability comes into play, and it is up to the enterprises to make real improvements towards a more sustainable future.

Ultimately, business can lead the way for new environmental change in that consumers influence their choices. The demand of the public creates the opportunity for entrepreneurs and organizations to provide better options, whether they are offering them for profit, altruism, or a bit of both. As trends become even more clear and information continues to spread effortlessly, the public interest to do better by the planet will only grow. Consumers will want more environmentally friendly products and services, and businesses can be expected to either follow their interests or get left behind. It will be in this shift in demand and values that sustainable enterprises can have a positive environmental impact towards a more sustainable future.

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Kiera McManus 

I am a sophomore in environmental science at SUNY ESF, with a concentration in renewable energy. I’m also planning to pursue a minor in environmental writing and rhetoric. In my free time I like reading and playing music.

My Instagram is @kiera.mcmanus 

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References

Eavis, P., & Krauss, C. (2021, February 22). What’s Really Behind Corporate Promises on

Climate Change? New York Times.

Forbes (2021, Jan 21). Empowered Consumers Call For Sustainability Transformation.

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