Earth Day and I have something in common – we were both born in 1970. Over the years, being environmentally conscientious on a personal and corporate level has become an expected way of life versus something celebrated once a year. Have we incorporated concepts and practices like sustainability and efficiency into how we live and work to such an extent that almost every day could be considered Earth Day?
To get a different perspective on the topic, I spoke with Nathaniel Koloc, who is much younger than I am. He and I met at last year’s Unreasonable Institute, where he worked with other young entrepreneurs and mentors to fine-tune his business plan for an enterprise focused on the triple bottom line – people, profit and planet.
While he earned an M.S. in sustainability in 2011, he doesn’t know the exact date of Earth Day. Still, he doesn’t think it’s time to cancel the observance. “We all want a better world,” says the co-founder and managing partner for strategy of ReWork, whose mission is to connect professionals who want to make an impact while also earning a decent living with organizations that espouse similar values. “It was quiet in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it’s caught on to the point where contributing to greater sustainability is now a competitive advantage.”
Which brings me to my next question: Why now? It doesn’t seem that long ago that Earth Day conjured images of slightly scary parades and people chaining themselves to tree trunks and getting arrested.
Over the past few years I’ve found myself wondering how we got from there to here so quickly. Or maybe – and this gets back to aging – the transition hasn’t been so rapid after all.
Koloc believes that, beginning in the 1980s, people started becoming critical of the social and environmental impact many businesses were having. One of the most popular responses was to throw money at the problems, but that approach, he says, has been replaced in large part by a new way of designing businesses so that they serve as economic engines but also address issues previously left to activists and charities.
The new approach is second nature for the new generation of entrepreneurs like Koloc, who grew up with an unprecedented level of connectivity. “When I was in high school we talked about real problems,” he says. “We had the data. We talked about poverty and hunger. We heard and read about and understood the stories about the loss of top soil, deforestation, water and hunger.”
While Koloc does believe that problems are getting worse, he also believes that a perfect storm of sorts is in effect to address them. “We’re stressing the planet out, but we’re able to measure it better and tell the story better,” he says. “And being able to access that information all the time gives people easier access to what they need to become a global citizen.”
Once they become global citizens, he says, there are more options than ever before. “There’s a tectonic shift underway,” he says. “You’ve got the startups creating value beyond money but on the other side there are the big companies figuring out what their role should be, so they’ve developed sustainability departments to address issues.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between 1970 and 2012, besides the number of birthday candles, is the receding need to make a choice between salary and purpose. “There is less and less of a differentiation,” Koloc says. “That’s because doing the right thing for the right reasons is becoming more important for more people, and the business paradigm is shifting toward making the world a better place because more people are refusing to settle.”