This post was written by Bianca Mohn, SEMBA ’16
When we hear the words “climate change,” so often what comes to mind is negative. Images of dry, barren fields, polar bears desperately clinging to melting ice caps, Donald Trump as he fiercely denies its existence – you get the picture. These associations are well ingrained in our conceptualization of climate change as an overwhelming monster of destruction that we would rather not think about. This mindset carries over to the corporate world with businesses not addressing climate change in their strategic planning, preferring instead to focus on other “more pressing” priorities.
Climate change is terrifying in the big picture. But it does us no good to run away in fear of the changes and to avoid addressing it all together. We need a new way of thinking about climate change, a mindset that recognizes the challenges yet is motivated to act. What if, for instance, climate change was viewed as an opportunity rather than as a threat? What if companies included climate change in their strategic planning as a way to increase their performance and not just as a risk assessment?
Some companies are already embracing this new way of thinking about climate change. For five months I worked as a sustainability strategy consultant for Interface Inc., a global carpet manufacturer headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Interface has a long history of sustainable thinking that began when the founder Ray Anderson had an epiphany on how business can make a positive impact in 1994. He challenged his company to “Be the first company that, by its deeds, shows the entire world what sustainability is in all its dimensions: people, process, product, place and profits – and in doing so, become restorative through the power of influence.” Since then Interface has been working towards its Mission Zero goals to have a net zero impact on the environment by 2020. Interface is poised to meet its 2020 goals, and is now working on the next chapter of its sustainability agenda.
Here is where the new thinking on climate change comes in. Interface has announced a new initiative called Climate Take Back, an ambitious strategy to work towards reversing climate change by 2050. Climate Take Back has four platforms – “Live Zero” to continue operating with a zero net impact on the environment, “Love Carbon” to use carbon as a resource to build and to create, “Let Nature Cool” to let nature do its job without any interference from the company, and “Lead the Industrial Re-revolution” to inspire other companies to create new business models. As the sustainability strategy consultant, I created frameworks to help Interface identify the goals for each platform, articulate what success looks like for Climate Take Back overall and for the four platforms, and delivered recommendations for key strategies, metrics, timelines, stakeholders, external partners, and how to engage employees. In everything, the question was how climate change will provide opportunities for Interface to improve its products, operations, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, profits, and external relationships.
What I learned through this experience is that there are so many opportunities around climate change that other companies are overlooking. Take carbon, for instance. The rhetoric around carbon emissions is usually focused on the increasingly dangerous levels of CO2 and the rising global temperatures. The Scientific American featured an article by Scott Waldman in March 2017 which featured the headline “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Hits Record Levels” followed by “It marks five consecutive years of CO2 increases of at least 2 parts per million, an unprecedented rate of growth.” Fear is a natural reaction to reading this, followed by a sense that the problem is too enormous to even begin to tackle. Intimidating as these facts may be, we need the science and facts, particularly in the post-fact world that we seem to be living in. But we also need hope, creativity, and resourcefulness. We need more companies like Interface who look at rising CO2 levels and resolve to make their products out of carbon neutral and carbon negative materials by 2050. We need business leaders to recognize that social and environmental effects of climate change will inevitably impact their businesses, and that now is the time to innovate around the challenges and opportunities that climate change will bring.
We also need to educate future business leaders to look at climate change through the lens of opportunity. I graduated with a MBA focused in sustainability from the University of Vermont’s Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA) program. The program integrated sustainability into every class, from marketing to finance to operations. This program teaches students how to look at world issues such as climate change, poverty, inequality and ethics, and to see how business can make a positive impact. This mindset should not be exclusive to niche educational experiences, but instead the type of thinking that all business students should be trained in. Companies should then be eager to recruit and hire these types of thinkers to form creative and innovative teams.
At the end of the day, climate change is the future and context of opportunity. What is needed is less of “climate change is not my problem and I can’t do anything to fix it” thinking and more of “what can I do and what can my company do to maximize the opportunities from climate change by making a positive impact?” When individuals and companies redefine a threat as an opportunity, it makes space for innovation, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, and connection. If we can work towards this with climate change, then our world will be a healthier and happier place to be.