As a recent undergraduate of the John Molson School of Business at Concordia, Lucas Fraser dug into the world of sustainability and built his own start-up; Circle Environmental Solutions. From an emerging interest in the topic after returning from Southeast Asia, Lucas used his passion for business to bridge the sustainability gap between responsibility and real opportunity. From higher employee engagement to increased investment and cost savings, the benefits of integrating sustainable practices are significant, and Circle helps businesses take advantage of those benefits. Focusing on the customer process, Lucas also discusses the challenging aspects of data collection and creating an actionable implementation plan. Looking into the future, he is excited about the increasing awareness of sustainability, as well as the inevitable growth opportunities it will bring.
You founded Circle in 2017 after traveling through Southeast Asia. Tell us a little bit about what motivated you to launch this platform. Was sustainability something you were always passionate about?
Aside from my love of running, cycling, and spending time outdoors, I wouldn’t say I had much interest in sustainability before my travels. It was only after seeing firsthand the destruction caused by environmental irresponsibility – smoldering landfills adjacent to communities in Indonesia and Vietnam, glaciers nearly entirely melted away, and more – that I began to take the concept of sustainability seriously.
Apart from corporations having the responsibility to manage their environmental impacts, Circle describes many other positive aspects of taking action towards sustainable practices. What are some of these benefits?
Sustainability isn’t just a matter of responsibility, it’s a real opportunity. The main benefits to be realized by businesses who integrate sustainability into their strategy fall into a few categories: risk mitigation, increased investment, employee engagement, cost savings, and marketing.
Regarding risk mitigation and increased investment, a good example is the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). This group, founded by Michael Bloomberg and Mark Carney, has created a framework for climate-related financial risk disclosures for use by companies in providing information to investors, lenders, insurers, and other stakeholders (TCFD). As of 2019, they have been supported by over 800 public and private firms worldwide, collectively responsible for assets in excess of $108 trillion (TCFD). These investors, banks, and insurance companies are actively seeking to invest in companies who assess and mitigate their climate-related risks. This is one example of a global movement providing an opportunity to businesses who proactively engage in sustainable business practices.
On the employee side, HBR reported in 2016 that morale was 55 percent better and turnover was reduced by 25-50 percent in companies with strong sustainability programs. The truth is that people want the company they work for to be represent their own values, and these increasingly include environmental awareness and action.
When it comes to the bottom line, environmental assessment and impact reduction can do much more than most people expect. For instance, automakers have reduced the amount of energy required to make vehicles by 75%, or the amount of water required to make a pair of blue jeans by 99% (Guardian). 88% of studies show that good Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) practices result in better operational performance (HBR). Companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Walmart, and more are rapidly transitioning from grid energy to on-site renewables like solar and wind because it reduces their energy costs AND increases their resilience in the event of power outages. What would it cost your business if you lost power for a day or two? Clearly, it’s a mistake not to, at the very least, perform an assessment of your organization’s environmental footprint, risks, and opportunities. That’s part of what we do.
In your experience working with businesses on sustainability, what area are they mostly struggling with? Why do you think that is?
The main challenges are that collecting, analyzing, and gaining insight from environmental metrics is difficult for large organizations, and in effectively communicating these insights to all relevant stakeholders.
The clients we work with generally have offices around the world, both leased and owned, varying in size and function, and often controlled by separate corporate entities. It is challenging and nuanced work to collect data on, verify the accuracy of, and take action to reduce the environmental impacts from these facilities. On top of that, they are navigating employee reluctance to change, investor pressures, and myriad other external and internal complications. Needless to say, it’s not always a simple task.
Once the initial assessment is done, the next challenge – selecting a reporting framework and generating compliant disclosures – begins. Depending on their industry, size, whether public or private, and location, companies can choose to adopt GRI, SASB, CDSB, TCFD, CDP, or other frameworks to use in their public sustainability disclosures. Each brings with it a unique set of opportunities and challenges.
Walk us through the basic customer process. What information do you normally need from a business to be able to provide the feedback necessary for an actionable plan?
This varies greatly by company. We often work with businesses who are just beginning their sustainability journey. Step one is to confirm executive support for a sustainability program if this is not done already. It’s crucial in the early stages to determine the goals of the company. Are they hoping to engage employees, find new investors, reduce their long-term risk, or attract new customer segments? Depending on their motives, we will create a custom plan that may include initial environmental and materiality assessment, industry benchmarking, implementation of an environmental management system (EMS), setting of objectives and targets, working towards ISO, B Corp, or other certifications, and much more.
We work as partners with our clients to create a sustainability approach that is not only effective at aligning environmental impact reduction with business success but is capable of integrating into the core business strategy for the long term.
What has been your biggest struggle as an entrepreneur in signing on new customers?
The biggest challenge so far is timing. We have met many would-be-qualified businesses, but if the leadership, investors, or customers are not actively applying pressure to act on climate change or adopt sustainability, it is not likely to happen.
You’ve had a successful couple of years building Circle; what are you most excited about going into the new year?
This year is set to be a big one for Circle. We are working on a few major projects in collaboration with partners and are constantly improving our ability to create value for our clients. We expect to bring on several more major clients and to continue our positive momentum.
At the end of the day, our work is driven by a deep passion for solving the world’s biggest challenge: climate change. Every opportunity we get to help companies achieve a reduction in their environmental footprint is a win for us, and for everyone.
Do you have any advice for recent graduates or current business students that are interested in becoming entrepreneurs?
All I can say is make sure you are doing it for the right reasons, and you never forget what they are. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”