Are we doomed to inaction? Or can we change the climate conversation?

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Greta Thunberg, Climate Activist


It’s ATX Startup Week, which means founders and companies are convening around a number of different tracks to support and uplift each other’s businesses. Impact Hub Austin hosted the Social Impact Track of the week, with some engaging panels around fusing profit and purpose into startup business models.

One panel was specifically focused on a Zero Waste approach and what exactly sustainability means. With Greta Thunberg urging global leaders to take direct action at the UN General Assembly this past week, Climate Action is top of everyone’s mind. This panel at ATX Startup Week echoes the tension and anxiety all of us are feeling around the globe, and helped give clarity on the action we can take as individuals AND as businesses to improve outcomes.

Is sustainability meaningless?

“Everyone has a different idea of what sustainability is,” moderator Faiez Rana co-founder of Prep to Your Door began to ask, “what is your definition of sustainability?”

“I struggle with the word sustainable. It feels too vague for me, almost meaningless,” Jeff Paine, founder of Break It Down Austin began to answer the question. “With a planet that has a 500 billion year history, is anything really sustainable? Or is everything sustainable? My goal is to leave this earth better than I found it.”

Break It Down Austin is a local compost service that picks up compost from businesses around Austin.

“We don’t want to deplete resources that can’t be renewed at the rate they’re being destroyed,” said Brandi Clark Burton founder of Austin EcoNetwork. She went on to talk about the current state of the climate and sustainability conversation, “the message around our climate is all doom and gloom. When we read about cities flooding and see images of rain forests burning, our human reaction is to shut down. There’s simply nothing one single person can do about that gloom they see in the media, so they shut down, it’s our nervous system’s normal reaction.”

The audience nodded in agreement.

“How many people here by a show of hands make sustainable practices and climate action on top of their daily agenda?” Asked Rana.

Nearly half of the audience raised their hands, showing that people care about this issue, but the other half may feel the enormity of the issue renders feelings of doomsday approaching. Feelings that suggest the problem is too big for one person to solve.

Do we need energy ethics?

“I came here and I got served lunch on a plastic plate, and I didn’t want to be a jerk and leave a plastic plate out at a coworking space, so I had no other option than to throw it away.” Heather Emerson co-founder of Prep to Your Door begins, “and this concept of ‘throwing away,’ think about it...where is ‘away?’ Away is in landfills. Sure, plastic is technically biodegradable, it’ll take over a thousand years to degrade; so companies are allowed to say it’s biodegradable. There’s a misconception over what is biodegradable vs. what is compostable. But if we eliminate single-use plastic little by little, we’ll make a huge shift.”

You can learn more about the differences between the two terms. But what Heather’s point leads into is the lack of ethics around sustainability, climate action, and energy.

“There are no energy ethics,” Jeff Paine said, “there are no ethics that determine when lights should be on or off or how much green energy you should use, there are no records of what is ethical and what isn’t.”

And infusing ethics into the conversation gets complicated. Corporations and capitalism have a long history of abusing energy and products for the sake of profit. Emerson mentioned the story of the lightbulb; how Edison’s bulb is still burning many decades after its invention. But long-lasting lightbulbs weren’t lucrative for the lightbulb industry, so businesses intentionally made bulbs that would burn out in order for people to buy more. Energy inefficiency was literally an industry’s business model.

And that’s not just true for lightbulbs; it’s true for so many consumer products we use, love, and need today.

Product as a service 

The circular economy is a relatively new concept, it is defined as an economic system aimed at minimizing waste and making the most of resources. This regenerative approach is in contrast to the traditional linear economy, which has a 'take, make, dispose' model of production.

Circularity is the essence of sustainability. It promotes reuse and renewal of resources. For example if you’re a restaurant and have a lot of food waste, you hire businesses like Keep Austin Fed to minimize your waste, while Keep Austin Fed works with other organizations focused on homelessness to keep the circle of exchange sustainable.

The waves of subscription-based products are also changing the game for eco-friendly practices. Brandi Clark Burton mentioned Ray Anderson of Interface; a carpet company that paved the way for sustainable enterprise. Instead of large wall-to-wall carpets, Interface created the carpet tile. And instead of owning the carpet as a consumer, the company would service the carpet for a monthly fee. This meant the carpet’s condition is in the best interest of both the consumer and the company.

The product as a service business model is sustainable for profit and keeps the durability and use of a product at the company's best interest. It's an innovative answer to a complex, systemic challenge.

Moving forward with hope...and action

Innovative ideas around sustainability are growing rapidly. Brandi Clark Burton had four ways us as individuals and as founders could contribute to climate action:

    1. Switch to a green choice energy plan.
    2. Transportation! Think about if you need to be somewhere, or can it happen over a call or video chat? If you have to be there, take public transportation. Get There ATX and Movability have resources for businesses to implement sustainable staff-transportation options as well.
    3. Eat less meat. No, you don’t have to go Vegan, but there’s virtually not enough land on the earth for grass-fed cows to graze at the rate that we’re eating them. Try eating vegan 1-2 nights a week.
    4. Use less stuff. It sounds simple, but it’s necessary. Second-hand shopping (is plentiful in Austin) is eco-friendly. Ask yourself if you really need that new thing and if the answers yes; can you buy it second-hand?

Impact Hub global is also working towards global climate action. Learn more about how you can get involved in the Joining Forces for Climate Action campaign.