The Last Word: Thinking sustainably from the start (up) 

If you are a start-up founder, whatever product or service you are developing, look at it with a sustainability lens and reflect on how it leads to a better future, globally and in emerging Europe in particular. 

A couple of weeks ago I joined the Wolves Summit in Wrocław, Poland. The event is an excellent platform that effectively connects start-ups, investors and partners with relevant stakeholders across the world and is a must for every start-up in the emerging Europe region. I was invited to deliver a keynote discussing sustainability and the need to build sustainability awareness among start-up founders. 

If I look back at the time when I was setting up Emerging Europe exactly a decade ago, there were no sustainable development goals, there was no ESG, or environmental, social and governance. Even the word sustainable was not used that much.  

And our own sustainability journey was not a simple or a straight one either. 

As a social enterprise, we knew we wanted to contribute to the social, economic and democratic growth of 23 countries in the region that we defined as emerging. We also knew that this social, economic and democratic growth had to be future proof, or as we’d say today — sustainable. This meant that the emerging Europe region would be based on very stable pillars that would resist any external or internal shocks. These were our road signs. 

Only when in 2015, the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, did we borrow the five Ps — People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership — and divided the key areas the region had to make significant improvements. 

We knew that the region and individual countries had to up their game to create future-proof education systems and high-quality and health and social care, encourage sustainable lifestyles, and focus on green energy, strengthen regional collaboration and modern leadership, build people-first economies and enhance inclusive entrepreneurship, and finally, strengthen democratic principles and the rule of law and media freedom and independent journalism. 

It also happened that, perhaps due to the nature of our organisation, that a lot of the processes and solutions that we used, have always been sustainable or, as we’d say today — ESG-compliant. We have always been digital, working in the cloud. Our team has been based across the emerging Europe region and has also been quite diverse. We put a lot of processes in place and had our own code of conduct outlining our do’s and don’ts.  

It might not have always been possible to reach all the goals at the same time. Sometimes, we will reach one goal at the cost of another, but we have always done our best to be as sustainable as possible. 

Privilege and responsibility 

At the same time, we have been running a company for the last ten years. I don’t think that you need to run your own company to be an entrepreneur. You can be a teacher, you can work at an assembly line, and you can still be an entrepreneur. 

Being an entrepreneur, or having an entrepreneurial spirit, means that you are simply not fine with the current circumstances, that you question the status quo, and you want to somehow improve the circumstances, that you want to disrupt and find a solution that will increase our quality of life and reduce the time needed. 

Statistics say there are some 600 million entrepreneurs around the globe. That means that only one in every 13 people is an entrepreneur. But not everyone is an entrepreneur or has this entrepreneurial spirit. You might actually run your own company and still not be an entrepreneur. 

I believe being an entrepreneur and running an organisation that can make an impact is a privilege, but being an entrepreneur is also a responsibility. Because you have the tools and skills necessary, you are obliged to make those improvements and make that impact. 

These days, entrepreneurs and start-up founders operate in an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and not only do we need to make an impact but also be prepared to face challenges. Those who are not prepared for these challenges risk being left behind. Therefore, it is essential to have a plan in place to deal with any potential disruptions.  

An opportunity not a challenge 

Entering lockdown back in 2020 was a challenging time for a lot of companies and for quite a few of them it meant dissolution.  

I believe we were already quite well prepared for various challenges but even for us lockdown was the time when we had to pause for a moment to think; and we ended up using it as an opportunity and focused even more on the digital part of our organisation. 

A couple of weeks ago, I chaired a session focused on sustainability leadership and we discussed how aware of the sustainable development goals or environmental, social, and governance (ESG) small and medium companies as well as start-ups are. Now we see a lot of discussions about sustainability, carbon-foot print, EU taxonomy and sustainability reporting, impact investment. 

During that discussion, my fellow panellists were frank. One of them admitted that two years ago, he had absolutely no knowledge or understanding of ESG or sustainability. But together with his partners, they had always followed a set of values which eventually brought him to explore ESG. Another has been focused on impact investing for the last two decades, long time before the acronym ESG was even coined, without even referring to is as ESG.  

It is clear that start-up founders and entrepreneurs are more focused on developing the solution — in the end the primary objective of every business is to create, serve and keep a customer. And in order to be able to do that, they first need to have developed a product or a service. 

And once they have, they need to focus on adding value to their service or product and sustainability will definitely be an important way to achieve that goal. 

It’s a mindset 

Last year, at the Future of Emerging Europe Summit in Brussels we talked about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I still remember the words of the chief green officer at Żabka, a grocery chain in Poland. Right after the invasion, Żabka stopped working with Russian suppliers. It wasn’t an easy decision, but they could not do it in any other way. And it turned out to be an opportunity to explore other markets. 

That decision resulted from their understanding of sustainability. As their CGO said, sustainability is a mindset. And it is, one that has to be developed right from the start. 

So, if you are a start-up founder, whatever product or service you are developing, when trying to provide more value, look at it with a sustainability lens and reflect on how it leads to a better future, globally and in emerging Europe in particular. 

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