Can we use the disruptive model pioneered by Amazon, Uber and Airbnb in the struggle against climate change?
Uber is the world’s biggest taxi company, but doesn’t own a single taxi cab. Airbnb and Booking.com are the world’s largest hoteliers, but don’t possess any hotels.
And after being in business for a quarter of a century, Amazon – the world’s biggest bookseller – is only now experimenting with physical bookshops.
There are many lessons to be learnt from such examples. Chief among them, perhaps, is that being disruptive does work.
These days, businesses and consumers are far more receptive to ‘early-stage’ disruptive ideas. They have seen for themselves how easy it is to be overtaken and left behind by clever ideas whose time has come.
I’ve been thinking a lot about disruptive ideas in recent weeks. And in particular, I’ve been thinking about disruptive ideas in the context of sustainability.
And the conclusion I’ve come to?
We may need some fresh disruptive ideas and business models if the sustainability agenda is to make much more progress.
That may sound mad. Since – say – the 1970s and 1980s, the world’s environmental protection initiatives have made huge progress.
Sustainability is high on both corporate and government agendas. Cars are far more fuel-efficient. Houses, offices and factories are far more energy-efficient.
Skies are clearer, water cleaner – especially in the developed world, although progress is being made elsewhere, too.
And yet, and yet. Waters are clearer, yes. But visible pollution has been replaced with microplastic fibres.
Smoke from coal-burning has gone from our skies. Yet CO2 emissions are at record levels. The Amazon’s rainforests are vanishing. Sea levels are rising. And average temperatures are increasing.
Is it any wonder that groups such as Extinction Rebellion are protesting so vociferously? Or that the activism of teenage protesters is so widely applauded?
For me, personally, one of the most persuasive signs that current approaches to sustainability aren’t delivering fast enough has come from the Harvard Business Review.
Late last year, influential management thinker John Elkington took to its pages to officially ‘recall’ – that is, take back – a concept he first launched 25 years ago: the Triple Bottom Line.
Simply put, he argued, the Triple Bottom Line was no longer enough. Something else was needed. Something bolder.
The idea behind the Triple Bottom Line was simple. Instead of focusing on just profit, the Triple Bottom Line sought to get businesses to view their performance in a broader context.
They should examine their social, environmental and economic impact.
The idea has had a powerful effect. Twenty-five years on, it’s made a big difference.
But it isn’t enough, acknowledged Elkington. Too many businesses see it as a trade-off mechanism, rather than as an absolute test.
Something else is required if we are to really ‘shift the needle’.
As he eloquently put it: ‘We have a hard‑wired cultural problem in business, finance and markets. Whereas CEOs, CFOs and other corporate leaders move heaven and earth to ensure that they hit their profit targets, the same is very rarely true of their people and planet targets.’
The ugly side of fashion
Which is why I’ve been thinking about disruptive ideas, and alternative business models.
Could they do enough to ‘shift the needle’?
I’m excited about their potential, to be sure.
Take the fashion industry. It’s been described as the second-most polluting industry in the world.
In water-scarce countries, water goes to produce cotton, not food. Microplastics from synthetic textiles fill our rivers and oceans.
According to the United Nations, the fashion industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined. It is responsible for up to 20% of global wastewater, and 10% of global carbon emissions.
Container ships full of cheap clothes ply the world’s shipping lanes. They belch out vast amounts of the sulphur-laden black smoke that comes from burning bunker oil, the world’s dirtiest fuel.
And yet, at the end of it all, a lot of ‘fast fashion’ simply gets thrown away. The UK sent around 300,000 tons of clothing to landfill in 2016, for instance.
What can be done?
Instinctively, most people think about some form of clothes recycling. But they are forced to conclude that the technology to cost-effectively turn unwanted clothing into useable yarn doesn’t yet exist.
But there’s another form of clothes recycling that doesn’t need technology. Or rather, the technology that it needs is already developed and with us.
The sharing economy
I’m talking about clothing rental, which is catching on fast.
Names such as Girl Meets Dress, My Wardrobe HQ, By Rotation, Rent the Runway.
These and others are offering affordable clothing rental services, either on their own account (they own the clothes), or as intermediaries (other people own the clothes).
At the moment, a lot of the activity is at the high end, in designerwear. Fast fashion it isn’t – yet.
That said, there are experiments underway. H&M, for instance, is trialling a rental scheme at its flagship store in Stockholm. In the United States, Banana Republic has recently launched a rental service.
Even so, it’s clear that what’s going on has the potential to evolve and grow.
As a business model, it’s different and disruptive. And it addresses many of the sustainability issues of the traditional ownership model.
Instead of being hung up in a wardrobe, clothes are worn again and again – just by different people.
So could such a model ‘shift the needle’ in terms of fashion’s impact on the environment?
No one, including me, yet knows: it’s far too soon. Right now, fashion rental is far from becoming mainstream.
But don’t forget: so too, once, were Uber, Amazon and Airbnb.
Disrupting accepted business models in fashion – and other areas – could really help in the struggle to combat climate change.
This article was written by London Roundtable attendee, Omera Khan. If you are also interested in attending our next Roundtable in London, you can contact [email protected]