It can feel hard to muster Earth Day cheer when the news is often bleak. Climate-change-driven extreme weather is starting to feel like the new normal at the same time global governments are retreating from significant coordinated action.
So how do We Work’s most sustainably-minded innovators manage to keep a bright outlook? They’re inspired by the changes they see happening at the frontlines of battles against climate change, ubiquitous waste, and fossil-fuel consumption. We spoke to members from four organizations—Global Green, Karma, Stojo, and Ubuntu—who collectively work in five countries about the most potentially world-changing ideas in sustainability in 2019.
Organization: Global Green
Mission: Advance solutions to climate change by building sustainable, resilient communities
Names: William Bridge, COO, and Emma Nault, head of strategic partnership and development
Location: WeWork 520 Broadway in Santa Monica, California, and funding projects around California, New Orleans, New York City and more
The next big thing? DIY green infrastructure
Why is this so important? According to Bridge, Global Green’s priorities for action in the many underserved communities in which it operates stem from a core belief: “We need to start taking initiative ourselves and not wait around for government,” he says. That means helping communities most susceptible to the effects of climate change prepare, whether fighting flooding in New Orleans by teaching people how to build a rain garden, or fire prevention in Southern California for families rebuilding after devastating blazes. “Current climate action at the national level is quite ineffective given our political situation,” says Nault.
Mission: Drastically reduce disposable-cup use
Name: Jurrien Swarts, co-founder
Location: WeWork 81 Prospect St in Brooklyn, NY
Next big thing: The domino effect
What does that mean? Swarts’s brand of collapsible coffee cups has successfully capitalized on people’s desire not to waste a cup every time they order coffee—in just five years, the company has sold 1 million of them. But Swarts says coffee cups are just the beginning. “We think of our product as a gateway product to sustainability,” he says. “Once your eyes have been opened to the disposable-cup problem, over time it changes your overall behavior. It changes the way you relate to all single-use plastics.”
What he wants to see happen next: Swarts dreams of the day when cities integrate models for closed-loop systems around waste into their planning. “You could have a deposit system and collection system in infrastructure” similar to a bike-share program, he says. “It would take a combination of using app technology, scanners, barcodes, [and] payment systems to incentivize people to do the right thing to not create more trash.”
Mission: Fight global food waste
Name: Elsa Bernadotte, co-founder and COO
Location: Based in Stockholm, and operating all over Sweden and in Paris and London, from where Bernadotte works at WeWork 41 Corsham St
Next big thing: Extreme youth activism
How it’s playing out: “Right now, young generations are engaging to raise sustainability as a more important topic and actually express their views on what we need to do to solve the major global issues,” says Bernadotte. She points to the example of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish 16-year-old whose school strikes to protest climate change attracted more than 1 million students worldwide this March (and are scheduled to happen again May 24). “She has taken the lead in that sense, and there will be more after her,” adds Bernadotte.
How does that impact Karma’s work? Karma makes an app that helps restaurants and grocery stores reduce food waste by letting them sell it at half-price at the end of the day. She regards the youthful energy around sustainability as a signpost that her business is focused on the next generation of consumers. “They will be the future of customers,” she says.
Organization: Ubuntu Power
Mission: Provide power, internet, and other infrastructure to off-the-grid communities in sub-Saharan Africa
Name: Juan Herrada, CEO
Location: WeWork Moor Place in London, and Nairobi
The next big thing? Following the lead of developing markets for energy solutions
How does that work, exactly? “There’s a general trend toward more renewable sources of energy and decentralizing that away from central coal, power stations, fracking, and all the fossil fuels—breaking [the system] up into hyperlocalized generation units,” explains Herrada. But as climate change forces economies in the developed world to reckon with the fragility of their power grids in the face of extreme events like hurricanes and persistent flooding, models like Ubuntu’s are becoming increasingly relevant in places like North America and Australia. “The greater innovation and rate of development is being done in the frontier markets in contexts that have been considered poorer,” he says. “And then those innovations are fed back into developed markets.” He compares the process to mobile payments, which took off in Africa and China well before in the U.S. or Europe.