Apr 16, 2024

11 min read

Reframing Sustainability - An Evolution of The Profit Motive

Sustainability is hot right now. It’s become a really hip thing to be associated with if you’re a company. Everyone and their grandmas is now talking about going green. There’s a good measure of fatigue and cynicism today about the sustainability narrative being co-opted by the corporate world - the consumer is jaded and tired with corporations trying to win their favour by selling sustainability-flavoured candy. So, what is it that they’re getting wrong? Where is this cynicism coming from? Are they not getting something? This is what we’re about to explore. Going further from there, in this post, we thought we’d ask ourselves how we understand sustainability and how we see it as a company.

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Another day, another tired old, “go green” marketing campaign - now they’re all over the place. All sorts of companies have started chiming in - not just the ones that are traditionally seen as eco-friendly. There’s a seemingly interminable catalogue of sustainability driven campaigns today - all sorts of products being positioned as the “green” alternative; Every commodity out there claiming to save the planet. 

It’s not coming out of nowhere. There’s a massive demand for more sustainable products and services from today’s consumer, who seems to be more clued up than ever about environmental issues and wants to make a difference with their purchases. 

There is a clear directive from the world’s consumer base that companies that prioritise holistic well-being over myopic self-interest will be rewarded richly. Now more than ever, consumers are choosing to go green, making a huge statement with how they spend their money.  This message has been received loud and clear by the businesses of the world and they’re tripping over one another trying to get on the sustainability bandwagon. 

The market has a good idea about a company or brand’s hierarchy of values - we might not exactly know the inner machinations of what makes a company tick - but we sure can call out a bandwagon jumper just fine - the ones who are built around a core value that calls for more environmental consciousness are easy to identify. 

But on the other hand, environmental concerns are pressing and urgent - there is an ever growing realisation that we need urgent action to reverse some of the catastrophic trends of ecological degradation that we see around us today. We’re literally burning the planet down - destroying the very source of our lives. So maybe this is a good time to start caring about sustainability - or even performatively caring about sustainability?

This is a good time for all earth dwellers to take a moment to ask ourselves what sustainability means to us. It’s time we reconcile our desire for a healthier planet with the drives that are leading us to burn the planet down. 

However selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.
- Adam Smith

There is this idea that all economic activity is driven by the profit motive - at least in a liberal economic model.

This is broadly true - when free from external agencies that seek to force their hands, human beings largely tend to work towards their own well-being and prosperity rather than against. 

But, the idea that all transactions, in a market, happen among rational and self-seeking players with a myopic vision of profit is not true. People are complex organisms and have divergent drives, motivations and incentive structures. 

Human beings belong to multiple structures that exist at multiple levels of organisation - i.e. first and foremost, we are individuals. As individuals, we belong to family units, the welfare of which we sometimes put over our own. Similarly, when we zoom out, we belong to various other collective units, which command varying levels of loyalty, responsibility and belonging. 

This is not just some abstraction - in our day to day lives, we make several decisions that balance our commitment to wellbeing and value across various levels of this hierarchy of belonging. 

We are often faced with situations where we prioritise well-being on the level of the collective over that of the individual. The converse is true as well, obviously. That’s where accountability comes in. We’re much less likely to make decisions that benefit us as individuals at the cost of our community’s well being when there is a certain level of accountability within said community. 

Today, we’re able to exchange value at multiple levels and maintain accountability on a really large scale. Thanks to technology and social media, we are able to see how value exchanges affect not just the producer and the direct consumer but literally everything else on the planet. 

This is where the idea of sustainability becomes relevant from a macroeconomic standpoint. 

So, how do we see sustainability? What’s sustainability, as defined and understood by us? 

Creating and offering a multi-layered stack of value. That’s how we see sustainability. Very simple. Not catering to one problem of an individual or an entity while contributing to other problems at other levels of collectivity that they occupy. 

What do we mean by this?

We are quickly realising that a product or a service that offers value to one party but at the cost of our collective wellbeing is just not doing a great job of leveraging all the available resources we have. 

Today, more than ever before, we have an oceanic pool of knowledge, operational tools, know-how and talent to draw from. National borders don’t matter. College degrees don’t matter - there are way more sophisticated and bespoke methods available to vet for quality. Consumers have a ton of power and choice in terms of the products and services they choose to associate with. 

Similarly, businesses also have more choice than ever about the kind of solutions, talent, processes and structures they can employ. 

So, the businesses that we’ll see doing well in these times are those that execute on the promise of value-creation at every level of organisation - the individual, the micro-collective (i.e company, demographic group etc), macro-collective(s) - i.e humans as whole, life as a whole etc and then, one level up from this - the habitat that all of these other levels share - which is planet earth. 

So, a sustainable business is one that takes upon itself the task of adding value - not just to one level of the hierarchy - but to as many levels as possible. 

With consumers getting more and more informed and highly eco-conscious, companies and products that operate on a less inclusive model will simply not make it. 

Sustainability in the IoT Sector

Let’s take the example of the IoT sector. 

If we continue pushing out products that find a way to reduce labour, cut costs, drive up operational efficiency etc. but do so by requiring thousands of battery changes every year - that’s a bad idea.

 Dumping hundreds of thousands of batteries into our oceans and soil (which are precious resources that affect the wellbeing of every single one of us directly), we are literally adding negative value to the world. 

No business can expect to live for long adding negative value - maybe it can go on for a while as the information gap closes - but this isn’t going to last very long. 

Like we said earlier, the idea is pretty straightforward - all of us hold a hierarchy of identities based on the hierarchy of social collectives that we belong to, at various levels. At one level, we’re individuals with guaranteed rights, powers of discretion and individual choice. But, this individuality is dependent to varying degrees on the family setup we belong to.

Likewise, we belong to various other levels of collectivity - like cities, countries etc - at the highest level, all living organisms belong to the collective that is “life on earth”. This is not an exercise in abstraction - this is not some imposed framework that ought to be adopted to view the world through - this is a reality. 

Things that happen to the ecosystem at large, happen to us. Things that affect the air, soil, water and general livability of this planetary ecosystem, affect us too as an extension. That this needs to be said goes to show how much we’ve become atomised in today’s world. 

We are facing some pretty grave threats as a planetary collective and urgent action is what’s going to get us out of trouble - this means, businesses that offer value to the various levels of collectivity that we inhabit will be chosen over those that serve just one level. 

This is the way to see sustainability. 

Sustainability isn’t some credo that we use to parade how virtuous we are. It is merely an attempt to integrate a more holistic understanding of adding value into our products and services. 

An Evolution of the Profit Motive

The profit motive gets a bad rap - but it really works! To a large extent, the buzzing industrial world around us which allows us luxuries like frappuccinos and reading articles online, is a direct result of a liberal economic order. 

We’ve built a society that is built around the profit motive rather than being predicated on individuals overcoming their self-interest. This has brought us economic growth and prosperity. Sure there are millions who are still struggling to make ends meet - but the fact remains that this economic model has lifted hundreds of millions, if not billions, out of poverty. 

Now back to the idea we started with - how do we look at companies parading their attempts to be more ecologically sensible, as some sort of virtue pageantry?

It really is irksome to see businesses using the "sustainability angle" as a sort of selling tactic to push more of their wares onto us. 

Why? Not just because it's inauthentic - although that's not great either. It's more because it reflects an inaccurate understanding of what sustainability means - an understanding built on outdated and obsolete models.

This would be a good place to ask ourselves what sustainability means to us.. So, at its core, why sustainability? Why should we be sustainable?

That "should-ness" around sustainability is what we have a problem with. That's where we think a reframe is in order.

We as individuals make choices all the time that look like "I should / I ought to" choices when seen from a child's perspective. To a child, anything that isn’t play - or immediately fun, is just something he/she does only because their parents give them no other choice. 

But, as adults, most of us simply understand the complexities involved in reconciling our divergent drives - i.e short term gratification vs long term goals; expediency vs well being. We might experience the occasional bit of friction, sure. But, we all get how careful planning, delayed gratification and mutual civility pay off in the long run.

As families, we're the same way - we make choices that ensure the highest amount of wellbeing (given practical constraints) for the most number of people in the family over the longest possible time. In doing so, we choose to align our everyday choices with long-term wellbeing over short-term expediency.

At the levels of individual and family, this is just seen as being sensible - no "should-ness" there that leads to virtue signalling - not that being sensible isn't a virtue to be celebrated though - but there isn’t so much moralistic posturing around it, is what we mean. 

What we're saying is this - choosing to not destroy the foundational aspects of our life - i.e. water, soil, air is just the sensible thing to do. There doesn't need to be a dramatised narrative or moral grandstanding around it. It's simply what living beings do when confronted with choices that they are smart enough to comprehend - they make choices that correspond with their own sustained well-being.

This is how we see sustainability. Simply acting in our own best interests. Doing what will enable us all to reap the most value in the long-term. Pure common sense.

Creating batteryless IoT products so we can stem the catastrophic flow of billions of batteries into our oceans and landfills doesn't make us virtuous - these are simply the kind of things that need to be done if we plan on continuing to live here as a global collective (as a species).

Finding new ways to source our materials so we don't cause ecological destruction, human suffering and contamination is again - just what we'd do if we were acting sensibly in our own self interest.

To us as a company, this is what batteryless IoT stands for - Sense. It's just the more sensible way to do connected technology. It's the only way we can build on the huge promise of IoT technology without it contributing to our already growing list of environmental problems.

Sustainability here isn't a cause - It's just finding deeper alignment with our own desire for wellbeing - a distillation, an evolution if you will, of the profit motive. The need to create value - the need to ensure better outcomes for ourselves.

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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