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The winding road of social enterprises and sustainability pros

Are you keen to help the environment? Or build on your existing initiatives? Social enterprises and sustainability/environmental professional landscape is diverse. It encompasses areas that directly or indirectly aim to safeguard that on which everything else – including the economy – depends. 

Let’s look at the social enterprise examples and other shades of green through which people help the planet:

  • Direct environmental protection, e.g. of threatened species, prevention of wildlife trade
  • Independent specialists within the environmental field, e.g. restoration ecologists assisting with revegetation of a disused mine, marine biologists assessing the impact of coastal resort development on coral reefs, soil contamination experts analysing levels of heavy metals in public parks, “green” architects designing energy efficient buildings with green roofs/walls, etc. 
  • Consultants who assist their corporate clients with creating, formulating, implementing, communicating, and reporting on sustainability strategy, ESG, frameworks, policies, emission reduction and net zero pathways, etc.
  • People in the investment and finance sector who help/influence decision-making around the allocation of funds towards environmental sustainability, e.g. impact investing, green finance 
  • Employees in large/r organizations, e.g. in-house sustainability officers at a construction company
  • Teachers/educators/school principals/early childhood centre directors who embed sustainability in the curriculum at their service
  • Entrepreneurs who moved toward more environmentally friendly practices, e.g. fashion designers using synthetic nylon instead of thirsty cotton
  • Protection of Indigenous cultures, traditions, languages, and even existence itself as many remaining tribal societies disappear. Ideally, Indigenous people undertake this activity themselves (or with only a little help) 
  • Legal advice specializing in environmental protection, and in helping people in danger (e.g. people affected by poisoned water resulting from mining)
  • Charities and NGOs fundraising and distributing funds to environmental causes, such as saving Malaysian bears
  • Charities and NGOs fundraising and funding social causes, such as representing people displaced by the loss of traditional hunting/foraging grounds 

People who have their day job and run their social enterprise for profit on the side, e.g. sustainable gardening workshops

  • Influencers who support environmental causes, e.g. promoting plant-based apparel instead of leather 
  • Volunteer-run community groups such as Transition Towns whose mission is to lead a low-impact life 
  • Self-sufficient eco-villages where people live permanently
  • Volunteers, such as urban bushcare restoration groups
  • Activists such as Greenpeace
  • All “accidental greenies” (as below)

So, on this greening social entrepreneurship landscape, we have:

Primary greenies

  • People whose primary intention is to help environmental and social causes, e.g. social enterprises and environmental/sustainability pros – the ‘primary’ greenies. Greenpeace activists getting chained to a bulldozer in a national park; sustainability consultants formulating a corporate sustainability strategy; and restoration ecologists rehabilitating a mine site all vary in kind, but their root concern – helping the environment – is the same.

Accidental greenies

  • People whose primary intention is not to help environmental and social causes (traditional accountants, farmers, builders…). These ‘accidental’ greenies are either incentivised directly, for example, farmers earning carbon credits from planting trees instead of grazing sheep (something they do only if the price for planting trees is higher than grazing sheep). 

Or, they are incentivized indirectly, for example, accountants working through a carbon accounting framework for their corporate employer.

Although these people don’t fit the social enterprise definition – they might not even care for the environment –  they’re indispensable enablers of sustainable transition, whether they’re asset owners (farmers), skilled specialists (accountants, data analysts, electricians…) and/or people in decision-making positions (board members, bankers, politicians).

We need more ‘accidental’ greenies & social enterprises

These people aren’t primarily driven by environmental causes, but they’re positioned to facilitate decarbonization transition, e.g. corporate accountants working through a carbon accounting framework, or farmers planting trees instead of grazing sheep.

Without them, the Triple Bottom Line concept would be impossible

By joining forces of both, the ‘primary’ and ‘accidental’ greenies, we’ll speed up the sustainable transition, and bring about sustainable development, defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But isn’t this too simplistic?

In broad strokes, the above categorization of people into ‘primary’ and ‘accidental’ greenies may help …

… but when we get to the fine print, we face complexity.

So, let’s look at the greening landscape from a different angle, because another way social enterprise companies and environmental/sustainability pros can realize themselves is by tapping into three “green buckets:” 

  1. Direct action
  2. Regulatory approach, and
  3. Market approach

Direct action

Reducing single-use plastics, riding a bicycle instead of driving, catching a train/bus instead of flying (or avoiding travelling altogether), eating a plant-based burger instead of a beef cheeseburger, voting for politicians with strong environmental programs, switching banks/pension funds based on their enviro-credentials, buying local/cruelty-free/eco products, growing own food … 

planting drought-tolerant and native plants instead of thirsty and introduced plants …

… designing yards to cool down and enhance biodiversity, installing solar panels on own roofs or purchasing renewable electricity, and so on. 

The entire social enterprise business model can be built around green movements in society – where these movements stem directly from concerned people. 

For example, a social enterprise can partner with a plant-based fashion brand and a vegan cheese producer

It can help them with communication, marketing and lead generation by articulating the environmental/health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle and love for animals. It can earn income from these companies in exchange for bringing customers – people concerned and wanting to make change; also by speaking at public events, displaying the company logo at concerts and exhibitions, etc.

Transition Towns 

Defined as “a movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world,” they are another example of how social enterprises make a difference. Spread across thousands of groups in 48 countries, these volunteer-led groups meet regularly anywhere from tiny villages to megacities. 

They often cook a plant-based meal, have a presenter speak on a particular topic, e.g. urban beekeeping, and watch an environmentally-focused documentary, followed by a discussion. They also engage in local initiatives, such as maintaining community gardens, minding a stall at weekly farmers’ markets (to sell the produce), running a free bicycle repair, and getting local businesses on board with sustainable transition … whether it’s ditching single-use plastic straws in cafes or installing solar panels on schools. 

Regulatory approach

This “green bucket” contains government and government agencies within countries, for example, those with multi-tiered governments (federal, state, local/county) such as Australia and the US. There are laws, codes, regulations and directives around environmental protection and agencies that specifically enforce the law, such as the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). In Australia, for the first time, there is now a federal Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) which shows the seriousness of the climate challenge and (belated) willingness of the government to take it seriously. 

There are also government agencies whose purpose is not primarily environmental protection, but whose role is required to bring about sustainable change

For instance, the department of primary industries may offer grants and rebates to homeowners/businesses for the installation of solar panels or rainwater tanks. Or the tax department may offer tax breaks for low-emission building developments (and, conversely, tax high-emission developments heavily).

The space for social enterprises and environmental/sustainability pros is immense in this “green bucket”. It could be as simple as finding a law/code/regulation/incentive relevant to their purpose and connecting it with those who benefit (or lose) from the regulation/incentive. 

Example: Biodiverse rich yards instead of thirsty lawns

A local government/county in a dry part of the US (e.g. Phoenix Arizona) issues a new ban on using sprinklers in suburban yards to preserve dwindling water reserves. This negatively impacts residents’ lawns.

Environmental/sustainability pros, e.g. sustainable horticulturists, permaculture gardeners, and landscapers can approach residents with lawns and offer their services for redesigning their yard to make it lush without the need for sprinklers, e.g. by installing dry creek beds, planting drought tolerant plants, and …

Using other water-sensitive urban design (WSUD) principles.

And, while they’re doing that, they can of course promote other environmental/sustainability and social enterprise initiatives to their new customers. It could be something related to the existing issue (e.g. installing a rainwater tank), somewhat related (e.g. supporting drought-relief initiatives in Somalia), or unrelated. 

The above occurs within a single country.

But there are also multilateral (multi-state) agreements and regulations designed to bring about a sustainable, low-carbon world. Some are non-binding, such as the Paris Accord, other are mandatory, such as the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), which is the world’s first and biggest carbon market. 

The individual EU member states are obliged to reduce their emissions, including from energy sources, agricultural practices, industry, or lightbulbs. If they don’t, they’ll either pay heavy fines or they will lose funding from various EU grants and schemes. 

The subject of carbon markets leads us to the third “green bucket” …

Market approach

In his book ‘Superpower’, Ross Garnaut, Australian economist and former government adviser on climate change, writes that “reliance on regulatory approaches and direct action for reducing carbon emissions is likely to be immensely more expensive than a market approach” … and “comprehensive carbon pricing is the centrepiece of any environmentally and economically efficient program to reduce emissions.”

It is not surprising to read these lines from an economist…

But he has a point. 

Not only is the regulatory approach more expensive, but it’s also – unless you live in Switzerland – extremely slow. 

(For example, it is only in 2022 that the New South Wales government in Australia banned single-use plastic bags. The country’s two biggest supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, both banned them in 2018 nationwide despite the absence of regulation.) 

Unlike bottom-up direct action, which depends on the intentions of individuals…

…unlike the top-down regulatory approach which depends on slow bureaucratic wheels, the market-based approach uses the founding principle of capitalism and adapts it to the 21st climate-changed century.

Which principle?

The ‘invisible hand’ & social enterprises

Adam Smith proposed the “invisible hand” in 1759 as a way to describe the allocation of resources, goods, prices, and labour in the economy through natural, spontaneous, and intervention-less means. 

His invisible hand operates to this day…

… and is becoming green, or at least, has a green glove on. It shapes market behaviour in a way that reduces planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions – without needing to get people on board.

For example, Australian farmers can earn carbon credits for low-carbon initiatives, such as storing carbon in their soils, planting natives, managing stock to allow native forests to regrow, or reducing methane in their cattle herd. 

There are many opportunities for social enterprises and greenpreneurs in this “green bucket.”

These days, equity investors and lenders have their ears pricked at the opportunities to provide finance for or invest in low-carbon initiatives.

There are, naturally, many swamps and toxic vines on the winding road through the greening landscape. 

Social enterprises and sustainability/environmental professionals need to stay vigilant.

Unlike fifteen years ago, when we had climate change deniers in one camp, greenies in the opposite camp, and an indifferent majority in the middle … 

Today, we have 50 – and counting – shades of green. 

Everyone and his cousin claim to care for the environment and “act” on it.

This increase in focus on sustainability and environmental issues has its good side and, in Jungian terms, its shadow. 

There are insidious things, such as the loss of biodiverse rich forests that are disappearing even more under the doctrine of decarbonization, because rare minerals needed in EV batteries often lay beneath primary rainforests. 

In these cases, too much focus on reducing carbon emissions leads to environmental destruction, which occurs paradoxically as a result of acting on climate change.

Will eco-preneurs choose the trees or EV batteries?

Most “non-greenies,” understandably, can’t distinguish these nuances but eco-preneurs can and should.

And they need to help others navigate murky waters of ‘net zero,’ and ‘carbon neutral.’

Further reading:

Latest tips and advice for green businesses

Our fresh list of 100+ green business ideas

Interviews with green business owners.

Check out our resources library.

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