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What is "sustainability" and "sustainability impact"? A quick guide for startups


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In our work with startups we experience often that it is difficult for them to have a common understanding what sustainability impact is. In this short blog post in Q&A style we discuss questions that we often receive and try to provide short answers.

Q1: Can we describe sustainability in a single sentence?

The most impactful definition was probably made by the Brundtland report. It defines sustainability as:

‘‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987).

Q2: So where exactly do we need to contribute to, in order to contribute to a sustainable future? What do (impact ) investors care about?

The most widely shared conceptualization are the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). We recommend to click on this link and look at these 17 goals. To which of these goals do you contribute? It is most likely more than one, which is ok. As you will have limited time however and a fast changing business model, we usually suggest to focus on the top 3 most important goals only. In general, it makes sense to ask yourself, how your activities influence the 17 SDGs (positively and negatively).

Q2: Should we look at environmental, social or economic sustainability?

Sustainability should never be an only social, or only environmental perspective, as there are often trade-offs and interactions between these dimensions. As an example, increased food security (social dimension) could lead to environmental destruction (pesticides, water usage etc.). These trade-offs need to be considered when you define your sustainability impact.

Q3: Now that we have a rough understanding about sustainability, what exactly is sustainability impact?

Sustainability impact has several dimensions. A good conceptualization in our opinion was made by the Stanford center for social innovation, with their so called impact compass. Check this link for a nice little online tool. There is as well a white paper, that describes these 6 dimensions (see page 4 in the document) that are relevant when considering sustainability impact. Dimensions include "value to society" (i.e. how important is the problem you address?), efficacy (i.e. do you know whether your activity will really contribute to solving the problem?), impact magnitude (i.e. how much of the problem can you solve) or scalability (i.e. how many people benefit from your activities?). From our experience this is a valuable approach to conceptualize the impact a startup might have.

Q4: What does systems change mean? Do we necessarily have to scale and become a large organization in order to generate large impact?

Scaling is one way to achieve high impact. You should however be careful, that if you are e.g. a litte more resource efficient, but lead to a growth of the market of your product/service, your overall contribution can be negative. A new stream of practitioners and researchers is interested in how to achieve real systems change. This is a little more complex. A very good overview including case studies are given in the following document (click here) from the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the World Economic Forum.


We value comments, thoughts, resources you might found helpful and feedback below! Thank you!


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