NEW BOOK: Historians have barely noticed the marginal entrepreneurs who founded the green business movement in the 19th century. In his new book “Profits and Sustainability: A History of Green Entrepreneurship”, Geoffrey Jones tells the story of the pioneers of healthy eating, alternative energy and alternative living.
The pioneers who have created green companies
Interview with Sean Silverthorne
Innovators often come out of the confines of society, where it’s wise to focus on ideas that may seem foreign to the public. Here, Harvard Business School historian Geoffrey Jones shared some of the themes of a new book, Profits and Sustainability: A Green Enterprise Story Explained by Pioneers of Green Enterprises. Jones describes the origins of the “extraordinary and often eccentric men and women” who created mid-19th century companies around the idea of a sustainable planet. We interviewed Jones, business history professor Isidor Straus, about the book published yesterday.
Sean Silverthorne: In most cases, the articles in this book focus on individual entrepreneurs rather than on the environment. Why?
Geoffrey Jones: The history of corporate environmental protection in recent decades is one of the big polluting companies trying to become more sustainable. It was either praised as a source of hope or condemned by writers like Naomi Klein. Rather, I wanted to look at an almost completely neglected group of visionary entrepreneurs who from the start set up companies to create a more sustainable world.
These green entrepreneurs have taken me as outstanding examples of the power of entrepreneurial imagination to change the world, and thus more interestingly, as progressive remediation measures. They differed from the norms of their time. Most environmentalists have always viewed capitalism as a plunder of the natural environment, which is historically largely true. In the meantime, most companies did not care about their environmental impact, as until recently there was no way to integrate environmental impacts into their results.
The green entrepreneurs in this book then broke with several conventions. Not surprisingly, contemporaries often treated her as crazy. It turns out that yesterday’s fools are the historical origins of the sustainable world of the future.
Silverthorne: We currently see green businesses as something, but their examples and research date back to the 19th century. What were the environmental issues at the time when entrepreneurs were trying to solve? And what role did they play in making the problems accessible to the public?
Jones: The environmental costs of industrialization and urbanization were identified as early as the 19th century, while polluted cities and entire animal species, such as the American buffalo, were threatened with extinction. These visible costs caused the first conservation movements and the creation of national parks, starting with Yellowstone in 1872. The first green entrepreneurs in this book identified less visible but equally or even more pressing issues. Some were concerned about the costs of human health and soil health, chemical fertilizers and industrial agriculture. Their efforts laid the foundation for today’s organic food industry. Others were concerned about the sustainability of rural communities that did not have access to electricity. They laid the foundation for today’s wind and solar energy industry before the First World War.
In the next century, green entrepreneurs identified the growing environmental challenges facing the world: how can the waste generated by industrial societies be recycled? How do you build buildings and cities that do not consume gas? How can you create a system? financial support that supports sustainability instead of working to undermine it. They found solutions in for-profit companies that developed new technologies and business practices.
Silverthorne: I’m interested in your book research. Many of the entrepreneurs you talk about are marginalized in society. Was there any particular difficulty in research in this area that you had to overcome?
Jones: The book search was not easy. There were no records that I could examine in my office or in large corporate or government archives. The search was more like a detective story when I discovered the names of pioneers and innovators long forgotten and looking for models. I interviewed entrepreneurs from around the world to find out the details of what has happened in the last few decades. It was inspiring to hear the unseen stories of men and women who founded organic food companies in Denmark and Turkey, pioneers of waste recycling and socially responsible investment in Japan, British social banks, tourism, Ecologically in Costa Rica and the United States. Architecture in Canada and New Zealand, etc. For earlier periods, I have used many memoirs and autobiographies of entrepreneurs and other unconventional stories. I also worked with documents written in other languages, especially in German and Scandinavian languages, which were largely unknown to English speakers.
Silverthorne: Is this the right time to become a green entrepreneur?
Jones: I think the answer is mixed. Environmental problems are much more pronounced than they were 30 years ago. There are subsidies and tax breaks, and a clientele of people who install solar panels on their rooftops, stay in eco-stations, want to recycle their waste, and so on. At least American consumers are even more value and value oriented. The willingness to pay more for being green is not widespread.
There is also a lot of confusion about what sustainability really means. The growth of corporate environmental protection has spread the rhetoric of green into the business world, but it is not an absolutely positive development. Today, we are inundated with what environmentalist and green entrepreneur Paul Hawken has called “senseless eco-language”. The limits of the concept of sustainability have become so great that any company can claim to be involved. This shift has contributed to the obstacles faced by real green entrepreneurs in trying to persuade consumers to pay more for sustainable goods and services.
Silverthorne: What are the lessons here not only for entrepreneurs who want to create green businesses, but also for existing businesses that want to become greener?
Jones: One of the most important lessons in history is that sustainability is expensive. It has become fashionable to say that being sustainable can be profitable, but in most cases I see it as an aspiration rather than a reality. In every industry there are conventional established companies offering existing products and services at lower prices. Building a sustainable business or greening an existing business is designed to educate consumers, customers and policymakers on why they should pay more for existing products and services.
Green entrepreneurs not only have to sell their brands and products, but also their ideas. It takes a lot of time and money, especially because the concept of sustainability is not easy. In the past, and as will be the case in the future, new technologies need to be developed to reduce the cost differences of conventional products. It’s also a long process because revolutionary technologies are rare.
However, the lessons of this study are not just about the difficulty of sustainability. Many of the entrepreneurs mentioned in this book may not have been very rich, but they have had a positive impact on the world. Often regarded as marginal and eccentric numbers, they laid the foundations for the renewable energy, organic food, ecotourism and sustainable finance industries. They have opened up new ways of thinking about sustainability. There has never been a greater need for a new generation of these entrepreneurs.
Silverthorne: What was your opinion about the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement? Will this affect the creation of green businesses?
Jones: Strangely enough, the story offers the consolation that is troubled by the withdrawal of the Trump government from the Paris Climate Agreement. As my book tells, the global wind and solar industry first appeared in California in the first half of the 1980s, though legislation passed under President Jimmy Carter laid the foundation for the new era, Governor Jerry Brown of California, advised by Green Architect Sim Van der Ryn and former Jesuit Tyrone Cashman. They worked with pioneering entrepreneurs in wind and solar energy.
Today, individual states such as California and New York, cities like Boston and corporations can help the United States achieve its goals in Paris, despite the withdrawal of Paris. The Administration’s proposed cuts to Environmental Protection Agency budgets and clean technology research are more damaging than the duties of the Paris Agreement, which are in any case in line with a set of voluntary guidelines. The symbolic damage is enormous. The government of the world’s largest economy and the second largest carbon emitter, said the science of man-made climate change is probably wrong and even if it is not wrong, it will be ignored in favor of promoting American wealth regardless of environmental impact.
This ignorant and ethical attitude makes it much more difficult for leaders in other countries, especially in emerging countries with many people who are still poor, to make environmental protection a strategic priority. As US companies compete in sustainable industries and technologies, they now have the disadvantage of perceiving their home country as a bad environmental joke worse than a threat. This will be a welcome bonus for companies in countries like China and Germany, whose governments are now taking the lead in global sustainability.