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Business as a Platform for Change

Business success should not be quantified in terms of profit alone but its ability to find innovative ways of tackling system-wide problems.

Photograph by Rebekka Mell @rebekka_mellphotography

Maria, co-founder of Little Plant Pantry, was invited to give a short pitch at TEDxAmsterdamWomen Talent Night 2020, which resulted in her writing a little "manifesto" outlining her outlook on business as a platform for change.

Some human needs have short-term projections, such as “I need a sugar rush!”. Others have long-term projections, like living in a world with clean air. The second group almost always requires us to work with other people, to reach out and connect.

Business offers us the convenience of satisfying our momentary needs, often ignoring the true hidden cost. But what if business addressed our long-term needs instead? What would be its message? What would be our role as customers?

Early in 2019, my partner and I opened the first minimal waste store in Amsterdam. This news provoked a much varied response from the general public. Why would a business such as this be seen as disruptive or idealistic?

We didn’t just offer produce, we took an environmental stance: that production and consumption as we know it is no longer sustainable. This is a systemic problem with far-reaching consequences. We’re trying to find a solution by developing the circular grocery shopping model in which a store takes responsibility not only for its products but also for the waste produced from its sales. Thus we’re creating an urban ecosystem that relies on customers’ active participation in completing the circle of production and consumption while minimizing waste.

My education is in literature and film. I’m not a business person. We opened the shop because we realized that we wanted to change our own consumer behaviour. That there is a relation between the current environmental crisis and our own actions. It was a citizen act, not a business act. Was it an irrational business decision?

There is a perception that business success means profit. Profit means power. If one refuses to pursue profit, one has to admit that they will have little say in the redistribution of resources. But I disagree. I see business as a tool for research that can be used to address structural problems in society. Business shouldn’t settle for convention. It shouldn’t just offer convenience. Business can serve as a platform for change. It can generate public awareness.

A business pursuing ethical and environmental practices makes a pact with its community. It has to be open to communication. The community in turn has to be open to participation in building better models together. We’re not just exchanging money for goods, we’re exchanging knowledge. Business in itself is a call to action and as such it has the power to involve communities as active contributors to the research, not just passive users of a service.

How can you create such a business? Discover a problem and formulate a research question. Have a thesis and put it to test. Don’t be afraid to fail. In the spirit of research and innovation, every failure should be seen as valuable as every success. What you're working towards is finding an operating solution. Finally, choose your call to action carefully so you can personally live with the consequences of your choice.

A truly rational decision should maximize options for everyone. Business that endangers the environment is not rational for it limits potentialities for all living creatures. Business that overlooks ethics is not rational for it lacks a faculty for self-reflection. Business that quantifies its success in terms of money alone is not rational for it roots itself in fiction.

Business is inevitable. And it can be a valuable tool. Instead of treating it as a means to an end, we can use it to build participatory models allowing people to collaborate for research and discussion. Not just to fulfill our momentary needs.

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