How startup-corporate partnerships could solve the impact imperative

Words by Daniella Loftus

I was born in 1995. The final year you could be classed as a ‘me-me-me-llennial’.

There is a perpetual stereotype that millennials are defined by heinous self-involvement. The facts on the ground, however, tell a different story. 64% of millennials will not accept a job at a company that lacks a strong CSR culture [1] and 75% of us are altering our spending habits around environmental concerns. [2] Rather than blindly bowing to a market promising us bitcoin and selfie sticks, millennial interactions with the corporate world act as a direct imperative for the widespread reforms so desperately needed.

On the demand side, appealing to millennials is a corporate carrot. The market for sustainable products is expected to grow to $150 billion by 2021 in the US alone, and 50% of growth in Consumer Packaged Goods from 2013-2018 came from sustainability-marketed products. [3] The corporate stick, meanwhile, takes the form of legislation. Climate-related laws have increased twentyfold over the past 20 years, with there now being over 1,200 climate-related laws globally. [4]

Whilst the adoption of sustainable practices is becoming do-or-die for corporates, for most it won’t come easily: 90% of companies believe they’ll have to change their core business model in order to operate in the sustainable economy. [5] This is no small task. Until recently, those behaving in the least sustainable ways often reaped the greatest rewards. As such, those most in need of change are often Goliaths with tens or hundreds of thousands of employees. What’s more, these employees were selected for their capacity to thrive within unsustainable systems. This means that corporate leaders are tasked with reimagining, not only revenue streams, but also the culture which underlies them.

Enter startups: unlike their antiquated elders the startup ecosystem is undeniably shaped by millennial idealism. In the face of corporate Goliaths, these startups can be seen as Davids; mission-driven underdogs armed with slingshots of agility. However, rather than aiming these slingshots at their established corporate counterparts, it’s often the startups who stand on these giants’ shoulders, who reap the largest rewards — particularly when it comes to impact.

Startup-corporate partnerships offer impact-focused startups the opportunity to expand their reach at an unprecedented pace. At the same time, they provide corporates with the opportunity to embed meaningful change in a way that is easily digestible, by offering three distinct elements: unique market knowledge, allowing companies to prioritise investment by feasibility and impact; pilots which can test the impact and practicality of solutions before scaling; and a demonstrable culture of innovation, which corporates can emulate.

This past year, adidas led by example in its partnership with Evrnu. The fashion industry has long been one of the leading culprits when it comes to environmental damage. Not only is it responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, [6] it generates 4% of the world’s waste each year. [7] Evrnu, is one of a number of companies trying to change things, in this case by using bioengineering to repurpose single-life textiles. In collaboration with adidas by Stella McCartney, last year Evrnu piloted its infinite hoodie in a limited edition collection. [8] Created from 40% cotton diverted from landfills, and 60% NuCycle – Evrnu’s newest bioengineered waste fabric – the hoodie is 100% recycled and recyclable. Working with adidas allows Evrnu to fund and trial its new fabric in a space where a multi-billion funding gap exists. [9] At the same time, the incorporation of NuCycle provides adidas with the opportunity to reduce its carbon footprint and water usage. For all parties, this is a clear win-win.

This type of mutually-beneficial partnership, which institutes tangible impact whilst simultaneously promoting revenue generation, should provide market sceptics with some faith that the system can be reformed from within. As one of the impact-incited millennials I’ve described, I experienced the process first-hand when I was invited as a talent to the UN-sponsored UNLEASH Global Innovation lab last November.

UNLEASH took the form of an impact-centric hackathon, where 1000 global millennial talents were tasked with creating impact-focused startups themed around eight of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

My team and I were assigned to the issue of informal transport networks; faced with the challenge that 70% of trips in emerging cities remain informal and untraced. We devised a solution which took the form of a data sharing programme, where informal transport users would provide access to their analogue phone data in return for perks. Under the name Aona, we planned to provide this data back to urban planners in South Africa where $4 billion dollars annually are allocated to tackling the problem.

Participating in UNLEASH really hammered home my belief that the impact ecosystem is changing. Within the UN sponsored programme, the positive social value of our solutions was placed on equal footing with their ability to attract investment from an end user. Working for Founders Intelligence, an entrepreneur-powered consultancy, the fusion between cutting-edge impact and corporate viability is something with which I’m challenged on a daily basis. Yet, within a UN sponsored programme — a space where I expected idealism — this pragmatism left me both surprised and impressed.

Looking at impact-focused changes in the corporate landscape gives me hope that my generation’s appropriation of consumption and production can pave the way for a new genre of capitalism. Forcing corporates to adapt, by voting with our dollars and willingness to work, may be a far cry from overturning an unsustainable system. However, if leveraged correctly, millennial engagement with corporate capitalism has the capacity to re-sculpt this system’s outputs to an extent that they become unrecognisable, and ultimately, net-positive.

Conduit member Daniella Loftus is an Analyst at Founders Intelligence, an entrepreneur powered consultancy, as well as an UNLEASH 2019 Global Talent. She has worked in both the impact and startup ecosystems in New York, London and Mumbai and is passionate about the deployment of technology for social change.