Maturing the Sustainability Conversation - Sustainability in an Exponential World

Its no secret I was raised in early adopter “Hippie” culture. I often joke that it was back in a time that we hippies still needed to make money.

Melissa Baer
Melissa Baer
March 11, 2021
Maturing the Sustainability Conversation - Sustainability in an Exponential World

Its no secret I was raised in early adopter “Hippie” culture. I often joke that it was back in a time that we hippies still needed to make money. That is only to point out that we’ve been “social enterprising” before it was a term. We didn’t have the luxury of taking corporate or government money and doing good with it. We had to build the good into our business models from day dot.

The number of times I’ve had the conversation about “what does the future hold” and how do we be more sustainable as a globe… well it’s not a stretch to say I remember conversations such as these from as early as 5 years of age. The common conclusion from most people that explore this challenge in any depth is that we need decentralisation and diversity. That goes for energy production, use, food production, distribution and consumption.

So the early answers for “how do we do sustainability” usually resulted in “what the world needs is more small farms”.

Well let’s add Moore’s law and the exponential curve to the conversation and the plurality we’re living in. What is actually true is that technology and new solutions rarely replace, but rather we get MORE categories, solutions, realities, options etc.

When I read the article by Elena Bennett from the Stokholm Resilience Centre- Sustainability Science for Biosphere Stewardship, it’s so encouraging to see this put into a framework that can be clearly communicated. We need to take into consideration the regional, social, cultural, geopolitical contexts.

So what?

Well, ultimately in order to achieve sustainability we need to do what’s right by the biosphere first. Then we can build the social and economic sustainability goals on top of that. Otherwise it’s a fast path to nowhere good.

Another great diagram from Stokholm Resilience Center articulates this necessary prioritising of the Biosphere.

Stolkhom Resilience Centre — UNSDG’s in order of priority

So how do we build business models around this imperative? How do we keep diversity high at the ecological level — to produce those necessary biosphere outcomes?

Business models that take diversity into consideration

Ultimately this is challenging. We’ve built our supply chain on volume. Infrastructure, sales teams, buying behaviour…ev-ery-thing!

We know (especially in New Zealand) that we have to move towards a value added model. We know we can’t ever hope to achieve the volumes needed to address “world hunger”. (For a better context on frameworks to understand macro economic models and where value add fits into world hunger paradigm, read our white paper here).

However the actual DOING of building diversity into our business models is relatively cumbersome. That’s ultimately what we do at Webtools Agritech. We create solutions for companies that are in the processing manufacturing and aggregation business of taking raw “agricultural product” (loose term, because forestry and fish are also included) and making into something edible or usable. Because this process of moving from commodity to value add affects Sales teams, product development teams, procurement/supply management teams, production management teams. We make solutions that solve each of these problems. Ultimately how do we get value add, and transparency (proof of value) into our supply chains and our business models? 

Why we haven't done it? 

There’s quite a bit of inertia in the industry that supports the current business models. From investment in infrastructure to simply the legacy of knowledge that has gotten us to where we are today.

Some would argue that “the consumer won’t pay”. This argument is less and less valid. If we look at what we DO know, we definitely know that product categories have only increased. I make the joke that if the Kardashians can hock products as ridiculous as “couture pops” for $30.00 per lollipop, then we are leaving value on the table when it comes to food products.

Couture Pops by the Kardashians — $30.00 USD per Lollipop

Yes I know those are novelty products and not food staple categories, however there are plenty of examples in food (even in New Zealand) First Light and their exclusive meat list in America, and Alliance and their Te Mana Lamb. There are more, to think that this trend will not continue, along with every other consumer product category on the exponential trajectory is to be naive. You can even reference the History of Money and see that the number of product sku’s in circulation have also followed an exponential trajectory. So, in conclusion, consumers will pay. How are we building business models around enabling artisan at scale or Hyper niching to follow the individualisation trends that are sweeping the world?

Another reason we’ve not done it — tech capability. Some of the tech required to do this is relatively “new” (probably been around a while, but new in the sense that it’s affordable, understood by developers and decision makers alike). We do now have the technology to enable this, we just need business models that focus on data, and commercialising data.

Soon, (as I always say) the data about our food will become more valuable than the food itself. Are you ready?

What have we learned? 

One size does not fit all. Small farms alone will not be the solution, they will be part of it, but they will not be alone.

Theres one thing we can learn is that plurality and the exponential options is a real thing, we’re not going back. We are built to evolve, to move forward to create. We can only hope to “create” ourselves out of this mess.

Business model shifts are essential in the food and agriculture industry in order to address some of the most harrowingly diverse, “patchwork earth”, complex challenges.

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