July 18, 2013

The emergence of a new generation of business innovators

When you look at the environmental and social challenges we face, it's often tough to stay optimistic. The worst predictions of climate science are coming true. Resource scarcity – especially water – is a major threat to business and the economy. Worker conditions around the world, like those that lead to the unfathomable tragedies in Bangladesh, can seem like intractable problems. And the political system that we need to tackle big issues is mostly broken.

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And yet so many people are doing amazing work to tackle our mega-challenges. I normally focus on how large corporations are managing these issues, but at last month's Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego, I met some entrepreneurs who inspired me. They are leading small enterprises that will help solve some very big problems, and sometimes multiple challenges, all for a profit.

I was a judge for the SB Innovation Open (SBIO), a way to highlight some great new companies and give them "the right support and exposure". I'm all for increasing awareness of new ideas, so here are a few of the semi-finalists that are charging forward to solve our greatest challenges.

Reducing food waste: FreshPaper

The winner of the 2013 SBIO, Fenugreen, is the maker of FreshPaper, a simple way to help reduce food waste (which claims up to 40% of our food). Slip a dryer-sheet-sized piece of FreshPaper, available at Whole Foods, into your refrigerator drawers and fruit and veggies will last two to four times longer. The magic ingredients in these sheets are organic spices that founder Kavita Shukla learned about from her grandmother in India (it's an amazing backstory). The company is also selling the sheets into the food supply chain, helping reduce waste from farm to table. Longer story here.

Improving energy efficiency of industrial systems: Blue Box

Half the worlds energy is consumed by industrial equipment and up to half this energy is wasted because these systems run dirty. But much of the machinery is very hard to clean given their size and design. Blue Box is a small, well, box that creates foam to clean these systems, such as cooling towers. As one early customer, Linde Group (a large industrial gas manufacturer), found out, the cleaning cut energy use by 20% for their production plant, delivering energy savings of over $220,000. Longer story here.

Giving voice to factory workers around the world: Labor Voices

Imagine if someone had spoken with apparel workers at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh before the horrific collapse. Could we have avoided the tragedy? Founded by Kohl Gill, Labor Voices has hit upon a shockingly simple way to reach these workers: call them.

Before you laugh, consider this: there are more than 1bn cell phones in China and about 100m in Bangladesh – a huge majority of adults have one. Labor Voices collects phone numbers and enables interviews and anonymous reports on working conditions, pay, how workers were recruited, and many other issues. Leveraging this new radical transparency, the company hopes to improve workers' lives, give better information to the retailers that depend on these factories, and help the factories operate better. The small company got a big jolt recently with a $600,000 contract from Walmart to contact workers in all the retail giant's Bangladeshi factories. Longer story here.

Tackling e-waste in an unusual way: Isidore

Two problems that seem unrelated: 1) growing piles of electronic e-waste, requiring some labour-intensive recycling; 2) a large prison population in the US, with people who need skills to rejoin society. Solution: Isidore trains the incarcerated in Los Angeles to recover valuable materials from electronics. As CEO Kabira Stokes said, this is "value recovery for people and stuff". Longer story here.

Cleaning up Haiti: Thread

Haiti is still reeling from the devastating 2010 earthquake that left countless people homeless and without jobs, and created an enormous waste problem as trash and debris gathered in vast piles (with very limited municipal services: there are 15 garbage trucks for a population the size of Philadelphia). So Ian Rosenberger created Thread, which employs Haitians to collect plastic, taking it off of the streets and out of canals. They process the plastic into recycled PET flake, which customers can turn into consumer products. Longer story here.

I can’t do justice to these or the other semi-finalists, so please read the longer pieces at the Sustainable Brands site orwatch short videos on all 11 companies. The other six are…

· Amplification Project (driving social change)

· ecopia (bio-plastics from tapioca)

· Efficiency Exchange (tools for reducing footprint and increasing data transparency at Chinese factories)

· printeco (efficient printing)

· EOS Climate (capturing used refrigerants, a huge climate challenge)

· Back to the Roots (which wins my unofficial prize for most excited entrepreneurs, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, recent classmates from UC Berkeley who decided for some reason to grow organic mushrooms with used coffee grounds).

It wasn't just these companies that gave me hope at Sustainable Brands. I met some other energetic change agents. I was leading a panel discussion on the role of companies in policy, looking at what the private sector should lobby for – such as a carbon tax – not just against. The panelists sat in a semicircle, with attendees joining the inner circle to ask a question. A young man stepped up and sat down with us (without shoes for some reason).

He raised the critical point that we probably can't get much done until we fix the problem of money in politics. I gave him my opinion: given the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case (saying, roughly, that corporate money is protected free speech), we need a constitutional amendment. And I'll admit that I wasn't too optimistic on getting the required 38 states to pass such a law.

So this young guy says: "Got it. But if we work backward from the goal of passing that amendment, what do we do? How do we get started?" Then he added: "Look, I've got 60 years left in this body, and I want make them count… put me to work."

Now imagine the new companies above filled with people like this. I'm starting to see a path out of our deep mega-challenges and it's incredibly exciting.

(A version of this post first appeared at Guardian Sustainable Business.)

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