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Sustainable entrepreneurship as a solution to present-day problems

What can you do when you encounter a poignant social or environmental problem? Some people take up their protest signs or sail large distances to stop a whaling vessel with a small boat. Others write letters or sign petitions. Politicians strive to change laws and allocate government funding. Then there are some individuals who are left feeling powerless and distressed by the extent and complexity of the environmental and social issues humanity faces today. For those concerned with social or environmental issues, who don’t have political ambitions or who recoil from activism, there is another way to make a mark upon the world. Sustainable entrepreneurship provides the possibility of fighting social and environmental problems without holding up a protest sign or chaining yourself to a tree. Even better so, they are fighting the social and environmental problems of this world – with a profitable business. These days, smart activists are learning a new trick called business. The founder of Dutch Weed Burger was a radical animal rights activist, who was arrested multiple times and followed and screened by the police. He stopped protesting and started a business. Now that he can put the word CEO on his business card and makes a profit, he finds that he has gone from police’s ‘person of interest’ to VIP at business events1.

Some entrepreneurs are driven by new discoveries. They create a new technology and look for its application in the market. After their discovery, they look for a potential customer problem to address with their new technology. An example of this is the Smartphone. It did not arise from a problem, but from a technology. Engineers created a smart, new product. Only it was after it was brought to the market that customers found out that they needed it. Sustainable entrepreneurs often experience this process the other way around. They find a social or environmental problem first, and then try to discover a solution. This is often more challenging than solving a customer problem. Unlike a customer, the environment cannot pay in cash for a solution to its problem. The same goes for social problems. The people with the biggest problems are usually also the poorest people, and cannot pay for solutions. Because of this, social and environmental problems ask for other solutions than customer problems. For example, the founders of Fairphone wanted to solve a problem: when they started their company, all smartphones used polluting and environmentally degrading materials for their construction. In many countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the mining of these materials was an exploitative process for the workers. The workers received bad pay and often worked under life-threatening circumstances. However, the people in Congo did not have the money, education or legal structure needed to improve their own circumstances, nor to save their environment. Fairphone has created a Fairtrade telephone, that contains recycled, safely-mined and Fairtrade materials. To change the circumstances of the workers and the environment in Congo, they sell the phone to consumers in the Western world. In this way, Fairphone’s customers are not only paying for their phone, but also for social and environmental improvement in Congo.

At Campus Fryslân, we want to help entrepreneurs solve social and environmental problems. My research looks into the way people relate a problem to an opportunity. Our first question is why some people feel the need to solve a social and environmental problem. Our next question is how they go from seeing a problem to seeing an opportunity. Even more interesting is the question: How are they different from the people who see a problem and don’t see an opportunity? We think some entrepreneurs will have experienced the consequences of those problems firsthand. Social entrepreneurs who have visited countries where children can’t get good schooling, for instance. Others solve problems they have not yet felt the consequences from personally, such as global warming. I’m working on a large-scale research to find the answers to these questions. The findings of my research will be used to help concerned people start a business from the problems they feel are important. We will use them in our master Sustainable Entrepreneurship that starts next year. We can use problem-based learning to help the students translate social or environmental problems into opportunities. After all, finding the right solution starts with defining the right problem.

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Last modified:19 December 2018 07.02 a.m.