Ethics And Sustainability Will Be The Innovation Catalysts Under Trump

The government may be paying little attention to these issues, but innovators will be


There have been concerns about the new White House over the past 3 months about almost everything, including ties to Russia, failure in healthcare legislation, a rise in racism and anti-semitism, concerns about women’s rights, and the government approach to climate change. Thousands of protests around the country have been held, with millions of people across the world marching to oppose these changes and potential bills.

However, this huge amount of vitriol around some of these bills may actually play into the hands of innovators across the world, specifically when it comes to climate change and pollution.

All but the most hard headed now accept that climate change is happening and most agree with the 97% of climate scientists who believe that the actions of humans is a key component to this change. It isn’t only in surveys that people believe this either, it is impacting their buying habits, with electric car sales in the US in February 2017 up 68% on February 2016. The sight of a Tesla on the roads is no longer an exciting thing, it is expected.

It shows that environmentalists like Elon Musk, who is almost universally appreciated by people across the planet, are becoming seen as the world’s true innovators. The importance of an innovation now is measured almost as much in its green and ethical credentials as it is in solving a problem. People are turning away from the traditional market leaders in many industries in favor of more innovative and responsible alternatives. With a government at the helm who look like they are unwilling to do anything about climate change and pollution, it will be down to individuals to make the change themselves.

One of the most important elements that people are worried about is not even about how a product is created or how it performs during use, but instead what happens to it at the end of its life and how long that takes. We live in a society which values ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ from their products and this is causing issues when people buy new products, because what happens to the old ones? We know that Apple, for instance, can recycle the majority of its old iPhones using a robot called Liam. Liam can deconstruct 1.2 million iPhones annually, removing cobalt, lithium, gold, copper, silver and platinum (as well as the the aluminium used in the phone body) to help recycle old handsets. However, this is not the case with most tech companies, and millions of phones, fridges, computers and TVs are simply thrown into landfill across the world every year.

This requires considerable thought, but it is an area that is ripe for innovative disruption. Modern companies are always looking to build brand loyalty so that people will throw away their old products and buy their new ones, but it is this very behavior which has the most impact on the environment. Fairphone are perhaps the only widely known company who have tried to break the cycle, but the quality of the phone itself is behind other companies and few people have decided to make the switch.

The idea of the phone is to both source the components in an environmentally friendly and ethical way, but also make it easy to repair and upgrade for any user, so any element can be quickly changed if broken, minimizing waste that ends up the landfill. According to the Fairphone scores 15/20 compared to 8 for the iPhone and 6.5 for the Google Pixel, so it is still not perfect, but shows the huge shortcomings in this area for other tech companies. Fairphone have managed to sell over 100,000 phones since inception, which is impressive given their lack of name recognition within a market dominated by billion dollar competitors, indicating perhaps that some of the bigger companies could look into something similar.

The perception of companies as ethical and socially conscious could also see some chasers closing the gap on incumbents or new companies take market share. A clear example is Lyft vs Uber, with the car hailing companies at different ends of the ethical scale according to public perception. In the last few weeks alone, Uber has broken the picket line for protests at New York airports, had their CEO filmed berating a driver, and had a self-driving car involved in a crash. Lyft, on the other hand, has pledged $1 million to the ACLU over the next 4 years, allowed users to round up their trip totals and donate the difference to charity, and opposed Donald Trump’s travel ban by saying it is ‘antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values.’ Uber remains far and away the most popular of the two, but with Lyft having a valuation hovering around the $6 billion mark, it is hardly a wilting flower and may be catching up to its bigger rival.

Embracing ethical and sustainable business practices and essentially going against the government line, is likely to become increasingly popular in the coming years. Opposition to political decisions made by the Trump administration do not seem to be causing the same kind of damage to many companies as it would have done in the past, like Lyft, who operate in areas that hold profoundly anti-Trump beliefs. Lyft, for example, operates in over 300 cities and therefore the majority of its customers are urban dwellers. According to voting data from urban areas, 65% voted against Donald Trump in the 2016 election. By contrast, in rural populations (where Lyft doesn’t operate), Trump picked up 62% of the votes. This means that for the majority of their potential customers, having an anti-Trump agenda means they are more likely to get business.

We have even seen with companies like Apple, Twitter, Spotify, Netflix and 93 others who filed a case against the original travel ban, that organizations who work across a wider area are also unaffected by these overtly political statements. With the most recent Gallup poll putting Donald Trump’s approval rating at just 36%, with a disapproval rating of 55%, there seems to be little risk to many companies when becoming more ethical and sustainable to pointedly go against the government position.

Whether it is in creating genuinely sustainable products or taking ethical positions, it is clear that there is momentum for companies to embrace many of the things their government is rallying against. This shift leaves room for savvy innovators to exploit the gaps in the market that will come either from existing incumbents not moving fast enough or getting the move wrong. Although many people are unhappy at how the US is currently operating, the truth is that it is going to be opening up a lot of ethical innovation opportunities soon. 

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