Embarking on your climate journey – startup insights

At a recent event in Berlin focused on sustainable growth, our panellists shared practical tips for startups looking to embark on their climate action journey.

Thanks to our panellists - Janina Bauer, Global Director of Sustainability at Celonis, Arnavaz Schatten, Director of Sustainability & Impact at Infarm and Luis Orsini-Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of CYCLE - for sharing their insights and learnings, and to our Head of Impact Elodie Broad for moderating. You can read further insights, on balancing sustainability and growth, from the event here.

Over the course of the panel, we heard some great practical advice for startups at the beginning of their climate journey, including:

Start early.

Retrofitting sustainability into a business, rather than integrating it from the get-go, will be both expensive and complex. Starting early means embedding sustainability as an underlying principle which the organisation will follow as it scales and complexifies. It also means understanding your fundamental business model-linked issues and how to manage and mitigate them as you grow. By contrast, retrofitting an operating model to make it less climate-intensive is hard, disruptive and costly.

The later you start, the more expensive it will get. Start as early as possible: gather data, understand your emissions, establish your goals and create initiatives to get you there.

Luis Orsini-Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of CYCLE

Be strategic and prioritise.

Strategic planning is hugely important to your success. Resist the temptation of high-visibility, quick, “feel good” but siloed actions. Focus on what is fundamental to your core business model. A clear view of what sustainability topics are the most material to your business will help you prioritise, especially when your business goes through a period of flux or uncertainty and needs to reevaluate everything.

Don’t be afraid of getting down to very pragmatic choices. Be clear about what must be done now and cannot be fixed later, and have a no-compromise approach to those elements.

Arnavaz Schatten, Director of Sustainability & Impact at Infarm

Get everyone involved.

Climate action is the responsibility of the whole company. CEO or Founder involvement is an undeniable success factor, but employee engagement is key: when provided with the right platform to get involved, your people are your biggest drivers of change and accountability. Our panellists also highlighted the positive effects it had on people, including heightened motivation and engagement, noting it can even become the primary reason for retention. Including sustainability performance in leadership and/or employee KPIs helps drive further accountability across the organisation.

You need your CEO and founder to own the topic, to engage people, and to make decisions. But then you also need to get everyone involved, dig deep into what feels natural to your company, and figure it out together. Sustainability should feel like everyone's business.

Janina Bauer, Global Director of Sustainability at Celonis

Choose KPIs that make sense.

You can’t improve what you don’t measure. Having KPIs is not only key to tracking progress internally but also integral to authentic impact reporting. Carbon emissions reporting is increasingly expected of companies. Other Impact KPIs will make sense in the context of your specific business. Use them to tell your full sustainability story.

If you only track your carbon footprint, not growing will seem the only possible way to tackle it. But then there’s a purpose you’re playing, a reason for your business to be there, and in that context growth is a good thing. You cannot completely decouple your growth from your carbon footprint, but you can improve its intensity.

Arnavaz Schatten, Director of Sustainability & Impact at Infarm

Take advantage of available tools and materials

Panellists acknowledged and welcomed the rapid acceleration of tools and resources available to early stage companies, from carbon accounting and ESG reporting platforms, to industry or peer initiatives. Leaders for Climate Action (LFCA) was mentioned as a great resource, providing actionable guidance and access to peer learning and experience sharing. Your investors could also be another source of valuable resources, tools and insights.

There are so many tools fixing the data problem and the collection problem, so starting that early is not as daunting anymore

Janina Bauer, Global Director of Sustainability at Celonis

Lastly, consider the positive impact potential of your products and services, and grow it.

While the fight for a sustainable future often starts with neutralising negative impacts, do not overlook the potential positive impact your product or services could have; for example, a technology solution that helps others reduce emissions, an educational service that improves people's livelihoods. If you find that “win win”, make sure to incorporate it in your sustainability story and programmes and focus on scaling your positive impact while scaling your business.

Every company is different, and will have their own unique challenges on their climate journey. The most important thing you can do is just get started, and be prepared to continue learning and evolving as you grow. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!

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