Friday, December 1, 2023

Power of small and medium businesses to achieve sustainability


By Pauline Laravoire

Small and medium businesses can play a crucial role in achieving sustainability. Here’s how.

Sustainability does not have to be a complex concept. It actually isn’t. While it has been theorised from diverse academic angles and is used in a plethora of different situations, sustainability actually boils down to a very simple value and necessity: our ability to share.

Thinking and behaving sustainably indeed relates to our capacity to be mindful of the fact that resources are limited on this planet and that we are sharing our earthy home with another 8 billion humans and trillions of other living beings. We, therefore, need to understand the influence – positive or negative – of each of our decisions on society and the environment around us in this finite world; realise that the more I take, the less there is for others; and act accordingly.

Sustainability is, therefore, a specific mindset which requires us to limit the amount of resources and space we take to a certain degree on behalf of the collective space available for each of us to thrive. It also entails two more components: our ability to think at scale and our ability to think long-term.

We accept to waste, let go, overconsume, and take more space than we are entitled to because we fail to think about the broader scale.

Thinking at scale, on the one hand, enables us to take adequate actions through hypothetic multiplier extrapolation. You may sometimes face the situation in which you need to choose whether to accept or not the plastic bag, plastic straw, or plastic cutlery that someone’s handing to you. Or whether you should let yourself go and choose a non-veg platter tonight, despite your efforts towards a climate-friendly, cruelty-free, plant-based diet. Of course, one such isolated decision from one such isolated individual won’t matter much in the great scheme of things, which is the usual trap that our short-term thinking, instant-gratification-hungry little brain makes us fall into.

We accept to waste, let go, overconsume, and take more space than we are entitled to because we fail to think about the broader scale. If we were to multiply such instances by the number of people falling into the same trap several times on a daily basis, we would immediately understand how such challenges pile up: 10 million plastic bags consumed per minute around the world, close to 80 billion land animals killed every year for our taste buds, roughly 15 billion trees cut every year etc. Not so hypothetic anymore.

Thinking long-term is even more prominently at the core of sustainability – or, if you simply reverse the word, our ability to sustain, i.e. to thrive over time. The notion of time fundamentally lies in the concept and mindset of sustainability, which requires us to train our brain to think in the long term, much beyond present generations: not only are we sharing space and resources with existing generations, but we are also stealing depleting resources from future ones.

In both cases, it is about thinking beyond ourselves, at scale and in time, to understand that we’re sharing resources both with our contemporary peers as well as with all future beings that haven’t been born yet. Our failure to do so has evident harmful consequences on both the environment and the socio-economic fronts. The initial trigger of the recent Covid-19 pandemic was actually quite the perfect illustration of this hubris: human beings encroaching beyond their boundaries (more specifically, bat-based coronaviruses unexpectedly finding their way to humans, or rather, the other way around).

The same thought process could be applied to the way we build our businesses and let our markets evolve: the more space a business takes, the less space there is for fair and equal competitive opportunities for other smaller businesses to grow. The larger a company, the greater the chances that said company sets unfair market rules and maintains unsustainable practices.

A case in point is Amazon, in a state of quasi-global monopoly among e-commerce platforms and overall online solutions, from cloud to publishing services. Amazon today places itself in the top 5 most valuable companies in the world and is worth more than 1.5 trillion dollars. Likewise, Forbes Business Magazine evaluated its founder Jeff Bezos’s worth at 180 billion dollars, making him an undeniable Ultra High Net Worth Individual. Taking place or making space in this world appears to be a choice that applies to companies and individuals both.

Now, it is indubitable that Amazon is winning the market; but is the taste of victory the same if won unfairly? Amazon’s apparent success hides other realities, such as suboptimal working conditions and lower-than-market salaries, the generation of around 270 million kilograms of plastic packaging waste in 2020, and the infamous “Amazon Effect”, i.e. the not-so-slow decline in physical retail stores.

Rethinking markets towards more inclusivity and fairness invites us to value market granularity over market polarization.

The Amazon Effect (Amazon’s blitzkrieg in favour of online shopping and the subsequent market normalisation of said culture) goes much beyond physical stores shutting down: it has cancelled entire neighbourhoods which used to rely on smaller convenience stores, killed millions of retail jobs, made consumers more impatient and sedentary, and became so prominent that it now seems too big to fail.

The pandemic itself reinforced Amazon, which hired another half a million employees in 2020 only. It completely revolutionised the way society purchases goods, but is it for the better? In a way, such a dominant market position has allowed Amazon to bypass market checks and balances and to feel entitled to implement practices even out of line. Amazon has ended up taking so much space that it has become the default paradigm.

Rethinking markets towards more inclusivity and fairness invites us to value market granularity over market polarization. A balanced web of small and medium market players is more desirable than a monopoly or oligopoly. It provides a fair chance to enter, rebalances market shares, calls for businesses to implement locally instead of expanding globally at all costs, and empowers more entrepreneurs to thrive.

Embracing such balance mechanically encourages us also to embrace a new mindset: one that is comfortable with and standing proud of being and remaining small. Keeping company size in check and accepting slow and limited growth enables businesses to keep their focus on quality and positive impact while enabling others to grow around, very much like a garden thriving on permaculture.

I have met with a few of these entrepreneurs asking, “Is it okay to want to remain relatively small?” When every other business around is embracing the mindset of big and fast. To these entrepreneurs, I say yes, it is desirable to take just the space that has been made for you; for that, we need to learn how to collaborate instead of trying to bring each other down. May we usher in a new age of building small and medium, well-intentioned businesses that are able to stay true to their original objectives and leave space for others to thrive equally.

Also Read: The age of changemakers – innovating out of a crisis

(Pauline Laravoire is a council member of WBSBC. She is Sustainability Director at Techno India Group as well as Y-East’s co-founder.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)


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