Our planet has a serious plastic problem.
At this point, the stats are difficult to comprehend. We consume 500 million plastic straws per day in America; 100 billion plastic bags every year; two million single-use plastic bags every minute, along with one million plastic bottles; the list goes on and on. And as much as we would all like to believe the answer and solution sits in the hands of Congress and the powers that be, the reality is that nothing moves quickly on Capitol Hill—and there are lobbyists at every step looking out for their own best interests.
In our pursuit of planetary wellness, real votes are terribly ineffective and practically irrelevant.
The real answer and solution is in the hands of entrepreneurs and consumers. The way we vote in our country isn’t with our ballots, but with our dollars. And as a capitalist society, nothing sparks change faster than a growing or declining financial trend. Which means it’s not just about “healing the environment.” It’s about profitably healing the environment, and doing so in a way that allows our tiny, everyday habits to compound and add up to be a monumental difference for both individual consumers and the environment, together.
This is what makes “impact entrepreneurship” so challenging.
Many entrepreneurs believe that simply by branding themselves as “eco-friendly” or “environmental-first,” they will win the support of investors and conscious consumers. Unfortunately, nobody is going to buy into your company if the product you are producing compromises their individual lifestyle. It cannot be a philanthropic effort, which almost always end up being nonprofits disguised as social-good businesses. Instead, it is up to the entrepreneur to be creative and focused on creating solutions that won’t require massive changes in consumer behavior, and to create a profitable product within the competitive landscape—that allows its environmental impact to be a memorable, mission-driven branding element to the company’s story.
So, instead of waiting for change to happen at the governmental level, here are 4 ways we as entrepreneurs can empower consumers and spark change on our own.
1. Entrepreneurs must create products that are positive for the environment without asking the consumer to make a dramatic change in their habits and lifestyle.
With any new innovation, there is always going to be a bit of a learning curve for consumers.
However, social impact entrepreneurs have to be realistic about what consumers are going to do. You cannot expect consumers to completely stop using single-use plastic, or to never buy a certain type of product again. Instead, you must creatively reimagine the problem, and look for ways to create solutions that won’t require massive changes in consumer behavior.
For example, if you say, “We have created a terrific solution that is environmental-friendly. Unfortunately, it’s 10x more expensive than the current alternative,” then it is going to be very hard to convince consumers to spend 10x more money on something that is most likely an afterthought—like buying a plastic water bottle at a convenience store. The trick is coming up with solutions that add the same benefit quality to the consumer, and have a scalable mass market price point, but do not require any dramatic changes in behavior—and even add ease to the consumer’s everyday life.
It has to be a practical decision.
2. Entrepreneurs can and should iterate on different customer niches within a given industry.
Sometimes, a small innovation can end up having a monumental impact on an entire segment of a market.
For example, my company, Hydros, is in the water filtration space. There are dozens upon dozens of companies looking to solve our country’s water quality problems by installing inline filtration systems into a customer’s house. This requires an expensive up-front cost, and long-term commitment from the customer, to spend upwards of $10,000 and install a filtration system and then pay for professional maintenance year after year. And while it certainly delivers a benefit for the customer, it comes with a massive barrier to entry and a very large life decision: “Am I prepared to spend this much money to incrementally improve my water quality?”
It’s much harder to spark planetary change with top-of-market products like this.
In our case, the innovation and opportunity to help customers improve water quality and also help reduce plastic use for the planet was to meet the customer at a more realistic price point, with a more easily adoptable product. We’re not asking the customer to buy into a completely different lifestyle and asking for a $10,000 commitment to the decision. We’re asking them to make a much smaller, much more easily repeatable lifestyle decision—that has the potential to dramatically reduce plastic use for the household over time.
3. Entrepreneurs must design solutions that make financial sense at scale.
Think about the marketplace inefficiencies that exist, and then think about how you can design a solution that would solve one or multiple of those inefficiencies.
The secret, however, is figuring out how to solve one of these marketplace inefficiencies in a way that makes sense on a company’s balance sheet. For example, if you can create a solution that will save Amazon or any other companies shipping large volumes of packages every day, and it will save them money and simultaneously give them a better environmental reputation, why would they not adopt your solution?
It can’t just be a win for the environment, because again, in our capitalist society, dollars are our votes. People are going to make decisions in their life that make the most sense at scale. They are going to do what is most convenient, most easily accessible. Which is why the solutions we create must be a win for the companies we partner with and the consumers we sell to, as well as the environment, simultaneously.
4. Entrepreneurs cannot chase an idealistic vision quest of how they wish the world was, but accept the way the world is and iterate accordingly.
Many investors who are presented with environmental-first products or startup ventures end up being skeptical—and rightfully so.
Their biggest question is whether they are financing an idealistic founder who is going to burn through their capital to sell people a dream, or investing in a practical, scalable solution that has the potential to both make a significant amount of money and, incidentally, have a positive impact on the planet.
Entrepreneurs, then, have to be self-aware enough to question whether or not their startup idea is primarily motivated by helping the world, or creating a competitive solution grounded in the realities of our capitalist society. And the reason this distinction is so important is because if you are the former, you aren’t going to last very long, which means you won’t end up driving the planetary impact you ultimately set out to achieve.
But if you are the latter, chances are, your competitive solution will end up having a tremendous impact on the habits of everyday consumers—which will profitably help the planet.