Energy and Environment: Sustainable Startups Event Review

On Wednesday 11th November 2020, the Energy & Environment Policy Centre of King’s Think Thank hosted a fantastic panel event on the theme of Sustainable Startups. As part of our current theme ‘Does our private sector align with environmental standards?’, we wanted to reflect on ways in which sustainability can be an inclusive part of entrepreneurship. During the event, we managed to successfully explore and discuss the challenges associated with including sustainability standards into the development of small-scale businesses.

We had the pleasure of welcoming four young and dynamic entrepreneurs from a variety of industries, including cosmetics and packaging, food waste management, carbon offsetting, and hospitality. They led the discussion and shared their insights and experiences while answering questions from the Energy & Environment Policy Centre and from the audience. Our first startup founder, Claudia Gwinnutt, presented CIRCLA.

Her business was « born out of frustration » from the overwhelming presence of plastic packaging in the cosmetics industry. Based on partnerships with brands, the concept consists of selling sustainable beauty products packaged into reusable containers, collecting back those containers when they are empty in order to create a virtuous cycle of reused packaging. Liam Jones, Business Development Manager at Olio, was our second speaker. Olio is a revolutionary tool for food waste management: the app allows people to share their surplus food locally with others who might need it, for free. While strengthening communities, the app also promotes a more sustainable lifestyle by re-asserting the true value of food and all the work that goes into producing it. With 2 million current users, Olio’s ambition is to reach 1 billion users by 2030.

Our third guest was Charlotte Horler, founder of Nula Carbon. The goal of this carbon offsetting business is to use carbon credits as a catalyst for wider change and a concrete tool to fight climate change. Especially, by creating Nula Carbon, Charlotte wants to bridge the gap between the concept and the application of carbon offsetting practices by deconstructing the jargon and making carbon credits more accessible to both consumers and businesses from a variety of industries. Finally, we also welcomed Shonil Sumaria, from The Oblique Life. As a startup focused on community-building, The Oblique Life plays a key role in strengthening sustainability values and inspiring their members to take action. In particular, they have launched in 2020 a series of initiatives built upon the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2030 agenda. 

One of the key challenges linked to including sustainability standards in the creation of a new business is: how can a business reach beyond its core audience? In other words, the difficulty lies in bridging the gap between the foundational audience and the target audience of sustainable startups. Indeed, businesses cannot take for granted that because people want to do better, they will do better. Given that consumers who use a sustainable product or service are already likely to be eco-conscious individuals, entrepreneurs need to find ways to attract those consumers that are yet to be convinced. Our guests suggested that sustainable startups need to act as positive and inclusive guides rather than agents pressuring for change. They also acknowledged the necessity for green businesses to adopt a comprehensive perspective of their industry and not become restricted by their “sustainability bubble”. A key strategy is to be product- or service-centric, meaning that the product you provide must be a witness of the commitment behind its development and production process, by providing a high quality at an accessible price and by being transparent about the company’s next steps.

Following questions from the audience, the speakers discussed the many areas that still require improvement. They agreed on the need for early education on the environmental damage caused by human consumption. Both Circla and Olio were concerned by the significant gaps in legislation for sectors such as recycling, packaging and food waste. Despite that, there was consensus regarding the fact that the UK does provide a favourable environment for businesses to develop, through various types of policies such as tax incentives and grants. Many accelerator programmes represent a trampoline for young entrepreneurs onto their desired market. These policies are even more relevant in Covid-19 context where aggregate consumption drops, and insecurity for small- and medium-sized enterprises increases.

With stars in their eyes, our guests concluded that the core of creating ‘green businesses’ was mainly about leading a business that “just makes sense”. When creating a business out of passion for a specific cause, pioneers are able to combine a cohesive working environment with an innovative target-driven performance. On the long-term, this is precisely what enables to preserve sustainability values while scaling up the business. It all comes down to the balance between profitability and purpose. Maintaining one’s values will necessarily bring more individuals onboard, including key actors like investors that will want to be part of that positive change. While discussing the recent Oatly-Blackstone scandal, our guests highlighted how important it is to choose wisely who you raise money from. Ultimately, funding sources reflect to what extent the business is willing to maintain its core sustainable values.

We would like to thank Charlotte Horler, Liam Jones, Shonil Sumaria and Claudia Gwinnutt for attending our panel event. The link to the panel recording can be found here, together the list of links to our speakers’ websites. Stay tuned for more exciting events from King’s Think Tank!

by Ximena Bénard-Tertrais – Liaison Officer, Energy & Environnement Policy Centre and Irina Tabacaru – Director, Energy & Environnement Policy Centre.

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