The Human Dilemma at the Heart of Sustainable Businesses

Sandra Pina and Bas Van Abel, in conversation. #LittleBigConversations

Bas van Abel, founder of Fairphone and De Clique, and Sandra Pina, CEO of Quiero, talk about the power of business to make a measurable impact from a human perspective.

Changing the mindset, and valuing the human dilemmas in the business & sustainability equation, scalability with new models that separate funding from decision-making, the process from storytelling to measurable impact, subscription models and technology as a driver of sustainability are some of the ideas shared by renowned social entrepreneur Bas van Abel, founder of Fairphone – the first circular smart phone from start to finish – and of the circular start-up De Clique, and Sandra Pina, CEO of Quiero , at the inaugural event of Little Big Conversations, the new Sustainable Brands® Madrid forum held on June the 7th in Madrid.

Sandra Pina and Bas van Abel reflected on the sustainability & business equation with the common thread of the disruptive models created by the Dutch entrepreneur. With Fairphone, Van Abel turned the model of permanent device replacement and the classic programmed obsolescence of the smartphone on its head with a simple reasoning: «To make a smartphone that has a long life, the calculation is simple: if you make a phone that lasts twice as long, you only have to produce half as many phones, use half as many raw materials and recycle half as many».

However, in executing this idea, human and business dilemmas also came into play, such as the dilemma of making a sustainable yet profitable business, the human dilemma of creating something while destroying (a resource), the dilemma of daring to create systemic change rather than simply improving an existing design. All of these are at the core of Bas Van Abel’s vision as an entrepreneur, designer and technology expert. «A company is the most important thing you can design because it is connected to the whole economic system and determines it, a company can have a real impact on the system,» he said. Coinciding with this approach, Sandra Pina insisted on the need to measure this positive impact with tools and the use of data, as a prior and indispensable phase for brands to be able to communicate it and demonstrate it to their stakeholders and the community.

Fairphone seeks systemic changes that challenge the core of its own business. As a social enterprise, with a business mission and KPIs of selling smartphones, they also measure the KPIs of the customer using them as long as possible, an essential dilemma. «When you are aware of how your business model can be good and bad at the same time, the real challenge is to align your business model with your mission, which in the case of impact companies is another one”, explained van Abel. Along these lines, Sandra Pina commented that “it is fundamental for this mindset to spread, to generate conversation at all levels of the company and in its environment. And to have a good story telling, because everything starts with a story, (even before the company exists, as shown by the example of Fairphone, a disruptive idea that is sold before the product is created). A story that then has to be transformed into real and measured impact”.

De Clique, creating value from food waste thanks to data

The second case analysed by Sandra and Bas was that of De Clique, also born of a change of mindset. When we go to a restaurant or eat food, we see ourselves as consumers. But we can be producers of resources for new products, transforming what is considered food waste into something valuable. De Clique collects waste from its customers (mostly restaurants), transforms it into new products and then sells it to those restaurants. Data enables this business model in which the customer is the producer of the raw material from which products are created (compost, essential oils…) some of which they in turn will buy. «We sell them a whole portfolio of products made from things they have produced themselves,» explains Bas. De Clique has developed management and monitoring apps that allow, among other functions, traceability of the process, analysis of geolocated waste, and impact reports on carbon footprint reduction. «We are convinced that we are doing something good, which is also a lot of fun, and in which the restaurant teams are very involved. A great story telling with impact,» says the company’s founder.

Not only are products with a much higher value and price obtained, and the more they sell, the more positive impact they generate, but also the scalability of a business model is sought that maintains the power of decision making independent of the shareholders, prioritising the real value of the company and not speculation. This is where the financial conversation becomes relevant, Pina insists. «The growing prominence of impact investment makes dialogue between financial management (institutional investors, fund managers or multinational companies) and business areas (brand, commercial, sustainability) increasingly necessary. It is essential that the corporate and brand worlds move forward in alignment to build a sustainable and regenerative future. This is precisely the objective of our Little Big Conversations,» he recalled, «a format that aims to pepper conversations and debates on much-needed topics and generate value while changing paradigms».

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