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Market News

 May 01, 2007
Applied Sustainability: Finding Your Niche

 Strategic Thinking by Anna Clark

The sustainability bug has bitten entrepreneurs and business leaders of all kinds. It's not enough to just slap a green label on your product or service: so how does the aspiring eco-preneur apply sustainability to his or her practices?

Aspiring eco-preneurs seeking sustainability careers have a veritable blank slate before them, a reality that can inspire more confusion than confidence in even the most seasoned professional. The prospect of entering a burgeoning field with the potential to save the world is certainly attractive, but the path to profitable green business can be elusive. Questions I frequently hear include, "I want a green career, but which one?" Or more urgently, "How do I figure out how to make money?"

The folks asking these questions are not college students steeped in idealism and inexperience. They are successful, accomplished professionals that, you might say, got bitten by the green bug. This bite can inject such unbridled enthusiasm into the bloodstream that it befuddles the brain. How does one gain enough clarity amidst the confusion to find a niche? How and to what exactly does the aspiring eco-preneur apply sustainability?

Our first notion may be the obvious: make or market a green product. Yet, designing a product, financing its development, and bringing it to market is no mean feat. Ecomagination makes sense for GE -- they already had the infrastructure to make appliances; it was just a matter of creating more energy efficient ones. When Honda and Toyota saw the potential to make green by going green, they applied sustainability to the manufacture of cars. The point is they applied sustainability to what they already knew.

If you already run a company, particularly a products-oriented enterprise, road-maps exist to guide you in going green. Methodologies such as The Natural Step provide a framework to integrate sustainability into every aspect of your business. Restaurateurs and retailers can promote green by simply inserting organic ingredients and green products into their existing operations. However, if you are professional in IT, engineering, or design -- or even in public relations, advertising, or marketing -- you need to be more innovative.

Sustainability is not merely in the output. For every finished green product, there are hundreds of processes behind the production, packaging, distribution, and marketing of that product. The demand for sustainable services is rapidly increasing in the B2B market. A company that engages in sustainability reporting using a framework such as the Global Reporting Initiative will be careful to scrutinize its suppliers upstream and downstream. Thousands of companies worldwide, including hundreds in the U.S. alone, seek sustainable suppliers and services professionals. This is the space that screams for green innovations.

IT and consulting services professionals can tap into tremendous opportunities by addressing the challenges that sustainability presents to various industries. Documentation and transparency are key aspects of sustainability, yet many companies have no systems in place to absorb these activities. Developing a concept for a data management system focused on a sustainable supply chain may not be as sexy as designing the latest eco-sports car, but it is no less relevant in the scheme of green. In fact, discourse over environmental IT solutions has reached a critical mass, warranting its own news site, produced by GreenBiz, GreenerComputing.com.

The greatest potential in sustainability lies in what we don't yet know. Thomas Edison invented the incandescent bulb in 1879, which was an improvement on an already 50-year old idea. It took another half a century for the first fluorescent lamp to be introduced in 1936. Imagine, only in the last decade has fluorescent technology been adapted into a green lighting alternative, such as the compact-fluorescent bulb (CFL), that people will actually buy.

Yet, the modern CFL, which requires two-thirds less energy and lasts ten times longer than the incandescent bulb, provides enormous potential for widespread energy efficiency. That is just one example of one product's slog toward sustainability. The opportunities for such improvements in other products and processes are infinite. Are any light bulbs going off for you yet?

Shallow sustainability focuses merely on the production and sale of green products. Sophisticated sustainability strategies rely on systems thinking, where every aspect of a process has the ability to affect every other aspect. Within this context, everyone can find a part to play in green business.

If you are in the throes of planning a green venture, temporarily suspend your worries over how to make the most money. As long as you continue focusing on how to make green from green, your mind will drift to the obvious and pass up the potential in less tangible, but no less compelling, applications for sustainability. Steve Jobs said it best during his commencement speech at Stanford, "You've got to find what you love." This becomes easier when you actually know what you like. You may love the idea of green business, but if you don't like sales, then becoming a green retailer may not bring you happiness or success.

Anyone with a successful career has at some point taken an inventory of their skills and interests and funneled them into a position that pays. You may have accumulated decades of expertise in your chosen field before you decided to go green. Along the way you've grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle that a well-paying job affords you.

Do you have to throw all that to the wind to experiment? Folks have done just that before, say, during the Gold Rush and the High-Tech Boom. My best advice? Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, turn what you are merely good at into a career you love by finding a way integrate sustainability into your area of expertise.

Research. Brainstorm. Develop your ideas. Once you have something that resembles a workable concept, conduct a feasibility study. Let your future clients be your guide. Before you know it, they will become co-creators in the process. The result could be a pioneering breakthrough or a proprietary tool that you can market to an entire industry.

Consider partnering with the firms that are building to the highest green standards or manufacturing the soundest green products. Investigate what tools they need to do every aspect of their jobs in a more sustainable fashion. Then provide them with the means to accomplish this.

Speaking of Edison, his quotes alone can ignite the imagination. "I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work." "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." "If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves." Or my personal favorite, "Hell, there are no rules here -- we're trying to accomplish something."

Sustainability offers opportunities for professionals from every discipline. Nobody has the market cornered on anything. If you could be sure the best applications for sustainability hadn't yet been discovered, would that knowledge grant you the freedom to at least try? If you stay persistent in your passion, you'll find your niche and maybe even the next great idea. Now get to the drawing board. What in the world are you waiting for?

Anna Clark is president of EarthPeople, a consulting firm that helps companies of all sizes save money and bolster their brand through the leading-edge principle of sustainability.