1001 Reasons Why, the Sustainability Puzzle is a Unique Opportunity

with 🎙️ Alice Schmidt, MBA lecturer, Adviser to the European Commission, and non-profit organizations like Extinction Rebellion, Protect our Winters, and Chair of the Board of Endeva e.V.

with 🎙️ Claudia Winkler, CEO, and co-founder of Goood Mobile, Europe’s first B-Corp Certified telecom provider, and a Founding Partner of Adjacent Possible Network.

💧 Alice and Claudia are the Authors of “the Sustainability Puzzle,” a must-read addressing how systems thinking, circularity, climate action, and social transformation can improve health, wealth, and wellbeing for all.

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This episode is part of my series on the UN SDG 6 and the path to reach it. Check it out! 😀

What we covered:

🍏 How achieving the UN Sustainable Development goals represents a 12 trillion dollars growth opportunity

🍎 How the Fossil Fuel Industry received 420 billion dollars a year of subsidies over the past decade

🍎 We’ll produce more food between now and 2050 than in all the last 8’000 years combined

🍏 What to do about those facts and how to connect the dots by zooming out

🍎 How our systems must evolve, and how even recent concepts like the triple bottom may already be outdated

🍏 A load of very actionable bits of advice you can start using today

🍎 How as uncool as it sounds, some of the solutions for the future can be found in the past

🍏 How “Save ourselves!” is probably a much better message than “Save the Planet!”

🍏 We’re 7 billion creative people on this planet, that could do much to make it a better world for all of us

🍎 How solving the Sustainability Puzzle may not be enough, given the point we’ve reached – and what to do instead

🍏 But also: Greenwashing, Apocalypse Porn, Need for Regulations, Crafting the right stories, Culture as the fourth bottom line, and SO – MUCH – MORE!

🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥 



➡️ Send your warm regards to Alice on LinkedIn

➡️ Then do the same with Claudia on LinkedIn as well

🔗 Check the Sustainability Puzzle’s website

(don't) Waste Water Logo

is on Linkedin ➡️

Infographic: the Sustainability Puzzle


Table of contents

Full Transcript:

These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂

Antoine Walter:

Hi, Alice. Hi, Claudia. Welcome to the show.

Alice Schmidt:

Great to meet you!

Claudia Winkler:

Nice meeting you.

Antoine Walter:

I’m going to propose you a collective postcard because you’re two on one, and both in the same city, at least, Vienna. What can you tell us about Vienna that people would ignore?

Alice Schmidt:

Ignore, or should not ignore?

Antoine Walter:

Something that they should not ignore, and that, they would be ignoring for now.

The guest’s postcard: Vienna

Claudia Winkler:

Okay. I start Alice, because I’m fast. I’d name St Steven’s cathedral, the Riesenrad, Schönbrunn castle… We have a lot of classical sites. For the more underground thing, see with Alice. Maybe she has some special tips!

Alice Schmidt:

Well, obviously, there’s the coffee, the literature, I think also the greenery. And you know, there is a sort of nascent arts and culture scene. It’s a bit more underground, so it’s definitely a place to visit.

And Vienna has the best water, I think, in Europe. The best tap water! And we’re very proud of that. So come for that. If you come for nothing else come for water.

Alice Schmidt's best tip from Vienna: drink its marvelous tap water!
Our Guest’s special tip: Vienna’s Tap Water!

Antoine Walter:

Well, that’s a really good reason and I think we are going to come to the cafe in just a, just a couple of minutes, but right before that cafe session, I have to explain everyone that you both wrote a wonderful book: the sustainability puzzle. That’s the root of our discussion today.

I just told you before we started to record, that your book is a page-turner. There’s a lot of valuable stuff inside. And that’s the reason for me to step a bit aside from the usual water topics, and to take a bit of a system approach that we will be discussing as well to the sustainability topic.

But right before we dive into the deep matter of your book, I’d like to get to know both of you a bit better.

Introducing the Authors of “the Sustainability Puzzle”

Usually, I don’t take notes for that section, because I think I can remember everything my guests have done. For both of you, it’s not the case. So I’ll have to read because it’s really an impressive path.

Let me start with you. Alice. You’ve been working with UN agencies, the African union, the world bank, many NGOs. And today, when you don’t give lectures at the university of Vienna or you run a sustainability consultancy, you’re working for the European commission and that’s where, to me, it starts to be a bit funny – you’re going to tell me if it is or not.

From successful corporate executive to social entrepreneur: the journey of Claudia Winkler, co-author of the Sustainability Puzzle

On one end, when you tell me “European Commission”, I see that as very serious, you know. Then on the other hand – and you talk a lot about in the book – you’re also advising extinction rebellion, which is actually somehow the opposite with its tool of civil disobedience. How do you juggle between the two worlds, the formal and the informal?

Alice Schmidt

Great question. First of all, they’re both serious, right? Extinction rebellion is also really serious! Where it’s clearly different it’s on the ambition and the workstyle. Let’s start perhaps with a bit more background.

When I first started my career, I actually started working in business. I have a business degree. But then I pretty quickly realized that it wasn’t for me to just do some kind of steep vertical career, so to speak.

I wasn’t interested in that! I was much more interested in this broader sort of horizontal career, as you could call it, to really get to understand this bigger picture. To work across geographies, across, sectors, across different types of institutions. That’s really me.

From shareholder economy to stakeholder economy: a journey Claudia Winkler and Alice Schmidt underwent!

That’s also where, you know, there’s a great link of course, with the book, this sustainability puzzle. And I think without having this broad experience, I couldn’t have contributed what I contributed to the book or written in that way. Personally, I’d get bored working just for one or the other. But I do recognize that it’s really important for some people to really, really focus as well.

Working with Extinction Rebellion

Antoine Walter:

And can you tell us a bit about what you do with extinction rebellion?

Alice Schmidt:

One of the things I really care about is for organizations to really measure their sustainability impact. That’s actually how the Extinction Rebellion got in touch with me. Actually their former head of finance was an MBA student of mine, and he knew I was doing that kind of stuff. Because I talk about my professional experience.

So I’ve been helping them to set up a system that would measure their impact in terms of getting the word out, et cetera. And of course, what I do with the european commission is sometimes also about accountability and evaluating the impact of programs, but it’s of course, much broader, more political, and so on, as you can imagine.

Alice Schmidt and Claudia Winkler knew, they "had to do something". What? The Sustainability Puzzle book.

Antoine Walter:

Talking about you Claudia now, you’re a social innovator and entrepreneur, and a serial founder. You first had an amazing path on the traditional side of telecoms before shaking things up. You talk in the book as well about how you established Europe’s first B Corp certified telecom provider.

So I was wondering: how do you decide one day to cross the mirror and to say, “I go from conventional to sustainable”? See how I’m now opposing sustainable to conventional, which is maybe not the right way to do it. So what happened to you all of a sudden in 2016?

Claudia Winkler:

When I was listening to Alice, I noticed that one thing we have in common is that we have a broad range of interests. For Alice, it’s doing both at the same time. For me, I’m rather a 100% or 1000% person.

I have a lot of energy and I love to put the energy into one project. But it was really an interesting journey also when I reflect on it, how I suddenly became from the successful corporate executive, a social entrepreneur. Because this is quite a big bridge to cross, honestly.

I was trained in business traditionally. I was very ambitious. So at the age of 32, as a female, I reached a board of an international telco company, which was quite revolutionary back then. So we were working in eight markets in Europe, CE region. And I totally enjoyed my career.

so Alice Schmidt and Claudia Winkler decided to write the Sustainability Puzzle book.

I always had the feeling that Telecommunication is adding value. It’s bringing together people, it’s connecting people. And I always felt I had a purpose in my life, but you know, like at some point of time in Europe the telecommunication market got saturated. We have nearly 100 or even more than 100% penetration in mobile and internet.

Everybody’s basically somehow connected to the web, to communication. And for me, this was a turning point. How do I want to spend the rest of my life? Do I want to optimize telco companies making shareholders richer? And for me, it was like, if I have energy, I want to dedicate it to something that’s contributing to our future.

On the path to social innovation

The first step was an interesting one. I decided to start in social innovation and I chose social innovation because I was quite familiar with innovation and technological innovation. It is something I did for 20 years!

So I thought it’s going to be easy, you know. Like doing a bit of social innovation and then let’s see what happens. Actually this totally changed my path. I got exposed to different opinions. I got into this cross-sector, cross-dimensional thinking, and I got so many impulses and learned that there’s so much more than being focused on your results and maximizing shareholder value.

That was for me, basically the step, the beginning of this journey. And now we do a lot of things. So I think the most interesting thing or the most daring thing we did, is establishing a sustainable mobile operator. But actually, we found companies in various fields where we have the feeling with our experience, we can contribute to a sustainable future.

Alice and Claudia's Optimistic Café started with the aim to not waste the CoVid Crisis!

We also run a platform for civil society engagement with Caritas Austria. For example, we do consulting in the field of sustainability for established companies or in the field of digitalization for companies for organizations in the social field. So I think I do, whatever, where I have a feeling I can leverage my know-how and contribute. So it’s wide, but also sometimes very focused because when I do things, I do them 1000%.

Moving into Sustainability for the sake of Purpose

Alice Schmidt:

Of course, I have to link into that because when I do things I do them 1000% too. Something I’d like to add is, that my experience was a little bit similar because when I first started working, I was with companies like Coca-Cola, et cetera. And I was working in the central, Eastern European Europe departments. That was, you know, as you can imagine, about 20 years ago.

At the time a lot of these countries were actually quite poor and I was tasked to basically sell more Coke, sell more dishwashing detergent to these markets. And I very quickly realized that that wasn’t the product that they actually needed. And so I said, how can I use my business marketing, whatever skills to actually “sell” – with quotation marks – something that the world needs? That’s how I moved into, sustainable development, education, et cetera.

Experiencing scarcity is a good way to get how important sustainability is.

Antoine Walter:

There’s an interesting pattern. You both mentioned many elements which are going to come back into our conversation. I guess for instance this shareholder economy versus stakeholder economy.

You alluded to the telecom coverage. I think that’s a stat from your book that 96% of the world is connected to telecom. It is probably the n°1 network, worldwide. It’s something we’ve covered quite several times on that microphone. The reason why we can leverage distributed treatments in the water industry, decentralized solutions, and digital solutions is that everywhere in the world there is telecom access.

All of those are feeding into the same system approach, which is at the heart of what you’re defending in the book. But I’d like to start that story just a bit before the beginning of your book because your book opens with your Optimist Cafe venture – you’ll tell me in a second, what this Optimist Cafe is, but I’m wondering what happened just before. How did your two paths cross?

How did the Authors of the Sustainability Puzzle meet?

Alice Schmidt:

It’s interesting because we both have a lot of common acquaintances. We come from similar parts of Vienna. And our common roots go back to at least 20 years ago.

But it wasn’t until about two years ago, actually, late 2019, that someone mentioned Claudia to me in the sustainability context. That person said, “Hey, you guys should meet!” And I was like, yeah, sounds interesting. Then I think I forgot her name. And a few days later I was at a party and actually, I think you had just left the party, Claudia because you had to take care of the kids, but your husband was still there. I ended up talking to him and I was like, “Okay, right. We really need to talk.”

You have to find a balance between uncomfortable truths and getting a sense of how you overcome a crisis, thinks Alice Schmidt, co-author of the Sustainability Puzzle book

So that’s what we did, in late 2019, early 2020. And it was fascinating. Cause we discovered that despite coming from relatively different backgrounds, very different viewpoints, and coming at sustainability from a very different angle, we have a lot in common.

We even found out that 20 years ago we both studied at the university of technology Sydney! Which is rare, I don’t think that many people in Austria can say that. So we were quite happy to find that out.

Towards the “Optimist Café”

Antoine Walter:

Did this meetup lead to the Optimist Cafe or was it something different?

Claudia Winkler:

It was a bit different, actually. Alice and I had a cafe in winter, it was already 2020. So I think it was February and shortly before the lockdown that we finally managed to meet and we were having coffee and it was really a nice discussion. We started to stay in touch more or less.

The Optimistic Café actually started right after the lockdown. It was in Vienna. We had a lockdown starting, I think mid-March, like most of us. And it was a very strict lockdown. So from one day to the other, you couldn’t leave the house, you had to stay home. And it hit all of us, I think all over the globe somewhere.

A sense of urgency can tell us to be more resilient when it comes to sustainable development topics, thinks Alice Schmidt.

In the beginning, some were a bit more enthusiastic and others were quite down. And we had quite some friends that were down. Maybe they were not harmed yet, but they didn’t like the feeling of not being able to move and negative thoughts actually got at us.

Optimism as the foundation stone of the Sustainability Puzzle

This is why we got together and said, we have to do something. We wanted to bring positivity back. We are optimistic people, even if the situation might be shitty, let’s do something about it!

At the time, we all were new to this whole online tool. And we didn’t use them as much in private before, but let’s do a virtual cafe. Normally I go in Vienna every Friday and Thursday in the morning, I go to Café Honegg in the seventh district.

I sit there. I meet people who contact me via LinkedIn and I have coffee and, you know, like grow my network, talk to people, exchange thoughts. And I totally loved that. And I totally missed that. It was already week three or four of the lockdown. And then we said, let’s give it a try. We put it out on LinkedIn. And we said: whoever wants to come, should come.

If you put a whiskey on a ship, the shaking up and down makes it better. A metaphor for system thinking, anti-fragility and resilience for Claudia Winkler, author of the Sustainability Puzzle book.

It was really amazing because we opened it up. And there were people from Ukraine popping up, from the Czech Republic from all across Europe and we’re like: “Okay…”

Can this Crisis be a chance? Optimists started gathering around Alice & Claudia!

We started discussing what sustainability is. Or what the crisis could bring as a chance? What kind of topics should we cover? And it was really interesting because there was some kind of menu we created together. It was the first time we used a whiteboard also. What kind of things do we want to have on the menu?

It was more fun than any plan. But the topics that popped up there were actually the start of the sustainability puzzle if I look back at it. Because the people brought up topics like sustainable supply chains, like circularity, like climate action, like sustainable consumption, and stuff like that.

And so we took this and said: “every week we’re gonna address one of those topics. Let’s see who we can find, suggest somebody who speaks to the topic.”

Shocks, whatever they are, will not go away. So we have to become resilient and sustainable, thinks Claudia Winkler.

And then we invited them and just opened up the mic every Friday morning and said: “Okay, let’s talk about whatever comes up.” We really had interesting discussions. I think all of us came from different points of view. We learned a lot. Some of us were experts in one dimension, others in others.

I always get emotional when I talk about that, because this was such a great open learning journey. It didn’t need to be experts to join, but you could take something away and you could ask questions and we totally loved that. We even continued a bit after the end of the lockdown.

Transitioning from the Optimist Café to the Sustainability Puzzle

We tan the Optimist Café until summer. And at the end of it, we were looking at each other and said, wow, what kind of learning? One of us, I don’t know who it was said: “Maybe we should write a book?” And we were like, yeah, why not? Let’s give it a try.

One year later we’re here, with our “Sustainability Puzzle” book and we still have our Optimistic Cafe community that luckily joined us for our book launch last week in Oxford. This was also quite emotional. Seeing those people back after a year,

A startup is an up and down all the time. So you need to adapt, as Claudia Winkler shares from her own experience.

Antoine Walter:

Was it the first time you met them physically?

Claudia Winkler:

We never met them physically! Alice is one of the few people, I’ve ever seen in person. I’ll meet another one of them, Alexis, next week for the first time. He’s coming from Bratislava for the first time since he’s finally able to travel. S

I’m looking forward, maybe step by step, to meet all of them. But for some, that are for instance in Namibia, it might be a bit too far as I try not to fly, but other things are feasible.

The Sustainability Puzzle aims to prove that returning to the World Before is not an option

Antoine Walter:

Let me try to take a helicopter view of the book, to summarize the thesis that you defend in the Sustainability Puzzle book. Given the story of the optimist cafe, given the story of the pandemic and the lockdown. I have a bit, the feeling that it was about all these people saying, you know, “no worries, the pandemic is going to end! And as soon as it ends, we’ll return to life as it used to be.”

You’re taking the counterpoint to that. You’re saying: “no, wait, that is an opportunity. We can shake things up and we can actually build a new world.” Is that the right summary? Would you see that the same way?

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Alice Schmidt:

I think that’s a great summary. And it is very much where we’re coming from. Because I think one of the first topics of discussion we presented at this cafe was very much around, not wasting this crisis.

Making sure that this suffering hasn’t been in vain. And then of course the sentence has been stretched quite a bit, but this is still the feeling we have.

I think, you know, in the beginning, I mean, neither of us ever played down the pandemic at all, but we did initially hope that even more positive would come out of it. But we didn’t anticipate necessarily that mid 2021 we would still be in this pandemic, talking about variants and all of that. But, this opportunity, that’s very much what stayed with us.

CoVid may also be an Opportunity for Sustainability topics

It’s also a topic that, you know, we started publishing on. And, we understood that it really resonated with people. So it was a little bit of a balancing act too. You know, obviously, when you write a book, it goes through several drafts. In earlier drafts, we had sort of much more focus on this opportunity.

We sent this to a lot of colleagues and friends from the optimist cafe, for review and for comment, and some really loved this, but others actually felt that it was too much. I think they were absolutely right. We finally struck this balance and it was also interesting to see when this book would come out because we always knew we had to wait until the worst, so to speak, is over.

System transformations require to take the majority with you, not just the front-runners, to solve efficiently the Sustainability Puzzle.

We thought that publishing a book about optimism and about opportunities of a crisis as big as COVID wouldn’t work that well. But it turned out that the timing worked well because of course we had plans to finish the book much earlier, as people do. I mean, that always happens, I think.

But somehow I think we actually really sort of hit this at the right point. And this opportunity sort of focus we have in the Sustainability Puzzle is something that resonates with people.

Did the Water Industry do “too good”?

Antoine Walter:

I had a discussion on that microphone with Hasmik Barseghyan – she’s the president of the European youth parliament for water. And she was saying that you have to be unhappy to realize that you were happy, that you have to experience the absence, to see the presence. And that is all something that is present in your book.

You show, how the scarcity we all faced within the pandemic was an electric shock and that something can be born out of it. Let me take a water example because – actually, I asked her the same thing – the water industry has been resilient.

Fossil Fuel subsidies represented 420 Billion a year over the past decade. Can we do something more sustainable with this money? That's what Alice Schmidt asks.

We don’t have stories of people that were out of water or that couldn’t flush their toilets because wastewater was no longer collected and treated. And I’m wondering if somehow we didn’t miss an opportunity because we don’t have that electroshock that some others have experienced. I’m, I’m really forcing the trait, but is it that black and white? Can a disruption create this transformational change?

Alice Schmidt:

I think very much that this experience of scarcity, of missing some things, but not missing other things has been really, really important. Right. And the whole resilience that you point out and – even though I think we mentioned the word water bath 140 times in the book or so, because just because it is such an important piece of the puzzle, right, we’re not water experts.

… this is probably a matter of context

Water is the resource that businesses care the most about, that the board cares the most about. So I would want to challenge you on that and say, yes, it’s true that perhaps in Western countries we’re quite resilient, but I’m not sure if this holds true in a lower-income context necessarily.

I do think that the Pandemic had some impacts there. We often talk about the collateral damage of all the sorts of protective measures that were put in place. I don’t want this to become too technical, but I think the point, the overarching point here is, and that’s also the balance we are trying to strike in the Sustainability Puzzle book, is this mixture between alerting people to very uncomfortable truths. And at the same time, instilling in them a sense that the CoVid crisis is a crisis we can deal with, even though, you know, it’s not like we pass it with flying colors. Certainly not.

Corporates may always want to maximize profits. If they want to have a better societal impact, a shift is needed, claims Claudia Winkler, the author of the Sustainability Puzzle.

Yet global collaboration has to improve much more, but we really understood that if – well I have to use bad language here – if “shit hits the fan” we can do it. Apologies for that. But I really think that’s what it is.

We’re trying to say, we can do it. We can get our act together. Creating a sense of urgency, I think is absolutely essential. But at the same time showing not just that we can do it, that we are resilient, but how we can be resilient. I think that’s really key.

… and the real Keyword is “Resilience”

Claudia Winkler:

If I can add on that, just because you didn’t have a shock, you know, even if the water industry was not in the center of the shock, there was a system shock. And it was a shock for all of us. But realizing how resilient industries can also be, gives you strength for the future. That’s a shift in personal change and cultural change.

It’s always like feeling that you were resilient in a certain situation. It gives you the strength and the power to master the next crisis shock or whatever. So even if you did not have a shock, you were able to master whatever was out there, which could have affected your industry as well.

So I think it had an effect on your industry. Maybe not that visible as in others. And you could also use it – as an optimist – in a positive way and saying, we managed that crisis, even if it didn’t affect us that much. So for the next one, we can do the same.

Download my Latest Book - for Free!

Antoine Walter:

Actually, you, you mentioning optimism. I think it’s it’s important to see both sides of it because I’d love to see everything with an optimist eye. It’s an opportunity and we can do much out of it. I mean, all things considered, because it’s still a pandemic.

But we could also be falling into a major trap or a major pitfall and say, that the flight transportation has suffered a lot. Fossil fuel has suffered a lot. We have to help them a lot. And then we miss that opportunity.

You are showing the positive side of it, but how do you fight the other side of the coin? How do you fight this tendency that hey, maybe Airbus is going to crash and we have to help them? What if Volkswagen is going to crash? Do we have to help them? Those are two stupid examples, really, probably out of context, but just to say, this temptation to use old recipes may be present.

Resilience shall also help the Sustainability Puzzle pieces to come together

Claudia Winkler:

I’m again, on this point of resilience. Resilience is actually the ability to deal with shocks. The next level would be even anti-fragility in terms of, not just being resilient to system shocks but to start making whatever you do better. There are some easy examples of what I mean.

It’s like if you put the whiskey on the ship and it’s shaken up and down, actually it’s good. It’s getting better by being shaken up and down. And I think we are at the point of time where there will be a lot of ups and downs. It’s the mindset you need to face those up and downs.

John Elkington, the author of the triple bottom concept, recalled it himself. Sustainable Development is still a living science!

If you’re being shocked, will you be resilient, and fight back? Or will you be trying to live with the shocks and trying to adapt to the situation and change your mindset? I think that’s an interesting question.

So how can we get the majority of people to see the change that we’re facing as an opportunity, or at least as something that’s natural? Something we all should get accustomed to deal with it because these shocks whatever they are will not go away.

Resilience shall become a mindset

If we stay in our mindset, we will have difficulties. If we open up our mindset and say, well, this is how life is going to be in the future. It’s easier. And I’ve talked a lot about my experience. I founded a few startups. A startup is an up and down all the time. And if you don’t adapt to changing situations quickly, and this becomes your normal, you will fail. And I think this is something we can take for all of us.

Triple Bottom may well have served companies as an excuse to keep focusing on profits, fears Claudia Winkler, co-author of the Sustainability Puzzle book.

Alice Schmidt:

Yeah, I agree. And then I think what you said Antoine about this example is right. Of all these pull and push factors you know, that start kicking in, you mentioned the Airbus example, the flight industry example. We talk a little bit about over-tourism and tourism, sort of kicking back in, perhaps with much more force than it ever was before.

Even though I think this is one where we don’t know yet, the jury is still out. But this is exactly the point we’re making, right? This is a complex issue. We’re talking about wide problems and they cannot be solved with one-dimensional reductionist approaches.

You always have to look at this bigger picture. Of course, we can’t predict the future. But what we do know, is that the only thing that’s gonna save us is zooming out before we zoom in.

The Sustainability Puzzle is in the middle of a Chasm. But in which direction will we cross?

Antoine Walter:

I have a last element of sidetracking here and I bring you back on track after that. But the most shocking statistic, that I read in your book is this 330 billion of subsidies to the fossil fuel economy.

And I was like, no, it’s not possible. It must be a typo. I checked on their website and I saw that, Hey, it’s good news. It’s down because in 2018 it was 440. So it’s just crazy. And I had this discussion with Julian Kölbel and Florian Heeb from the center for sustainable finance of the University of Zurich.

We're learning outdated business concepts, thinks Alice Schmidt - who knows it well as a BA and MBA lecturer.

We were doing some comparisons. They were saying that worldwide if you look at sustainable investing and you look at the portion of it, which is impact investing; impact investing worldwide is about these 300 billion as well.

So you have really this, this pull and push, and it’s the same balance of force on the two ends. And that means that just a little thing can turn the full table. I mean, it’s just the full story of a horse race, the horse that wins the race wins by a nose. But that nose makes the full difference.

Let’s not forget about the silent majority in the middle

Claudia Winkler:

If I can jump in on that, I think I totally agree with you. It’s a balance and you have people on one side and then on the other. This is change management, how we learn it in our corporates all the time. So where do you focus? Do you focus on convincing the people running in front, or do you focus on the people that, you know, like don’t believe whoever has an opposite opinion?

Actually there was something interesting that I learned. It’s not common knowledge, but actually the thing to remember, to move to people is yes, of course, you can move the front and the tipping point. But if you forget about the 60% of the Gaussian Bell Curve in the middle, then actually you’re doomed to fail.

It takes a lot of courage to step out of the mental models we're hammered into in universities and business world, thinks Alice Schmidt, co-author of the Sustainability Puzzle.

If 20% are running and saying: “yay, super!” But you forget about taking along the middle. It will not happen. So you have to make sure when you work on systems, change transformations that you’re not just, you know, like taking the front runners with you, but that you also think, how can you make this transformation approachable and inclusive for people who are undecided in the middle? So this big chunk of 60% of undecided people when it’s about transformation and change.

Alice Schmidt:

I’d just like to comment on these subsidies. We don’t need to get into all sort of taxes, subsidies, et cetera, et cetera argument, because it’s very technical, but I think the point is that today it is a cost, and we shall speak a bit more about it.

But these are also subsidies that could be used for something on the totally other end of the spectrum! They could be used to invest in resilient infrastructure, in trees, in poverty reduction. So it’s kind of this double effect, the interlinkages and the system’s effects is actually an accelerator effective and right. So that’s why it’s particularly important.

And I totally understand that you actually went and checked these figures because they’re very little known, right? I mean, a lot of people just have no idea about that.

Side note: a strength of the “Sustainability Puzzle” book is its wealth of research material and sources

Antoine Walter:

Which by the way, I have to say is one of the big strengths of your book is that there’s not a single figure given in that book, which is not sourced within the book. I mean, to check whatever is written, you don’t have to make 10 hours of Google, you just go to the link and, and you find it. That helped me a lot.

Claudia Winkler:

I’m glad you said it because, you know, like I’m an 80% person, Alice is the 120% person here in terms of doing all these kinds of things. And she put a lot of effort and put a lot of pressure on all the Sustainability Puzzle project for it to be scientifically good. So great that it’s acknowledged. It was, worth it!

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Alice Schmidt:

Thank you! But I think the challenge, of course, was to write a very accessible book, right? We didn’t want to write something that is interesting for academics only. Where you have to have a degree in whatever climate science or whatever it is. I do think that we maybe struck the right balance and I’m really glad you picked it up.

And for people that aren’t interested, I mean, this is at the very end of the book. You don’t even need to go there, but if you want to, if you’re interested, you actually can.

The frameworks governing the Sustainability Puzzle

Antoine Walter:

I’d like to address another part of your book, which was very, very interesting. Eye-opening to me, honestly, with the frameworks, the way that we structure our word. You’ve mentioned just seconds ago, Claudia, your path in the startups. All the books, I have beside me have some frameworks that are useful for startups. I mean, you have lean, zero to one, all have those elements. So those are the ones I knew.

But I didn’t know about the frameworks, which are somehow built and embedded in our society and the way we work. And there’s one with a funny name, which I would like to take as first, which is the Mickey mouse thinking, can you define Mickey mouse thinking?

We need to come out of our functions or silos, to look at the holistic picture! So thinks Claudia Winkler, co-author of the Sustainability Puzzle book.

Claudia Winkler:

That’s something I learned from Alice, but I think I’ll take that question because, for me, this was also eye-opening. Coming from the corporate side, we, as corporates always have the feeling we are in any way contributing to society. We are doing some CSR projects and maybe we want to plant some trees somewhere.

But in reality, my business, my day was structured around maximizing profits around running the operation and getting additional revenues. So 90% of what I did was the big Mickey mouse head, the round in the middle, and then at 5% on economic sustainability and 5% on social sustainability and more when we were under pressure, because somebody said, Hey, you’re not doing good. You have to do something for most of the companies. And that’s reality.

Solving the Sustainability Puzzle involves to move from “Mickey Mouse” to “Triple Bottom”…

I’m speaking with a lot of company leaders, and many will not admit that they are not about, you know, contributing to society.

I was lucky that I worked in a company where I had top leadership that was always a bit more on this side than others, but still way, not enough. So it was focused on economic and then small things like the Mickey mouse ears, social and ecological thinking.

You should speak with people you disagree with. An advice by Claudia Winkler, validated by Alice Schmidt!

And then some 25 years ago, this triple bottom line thinking started to emerge. John Elkington wrote this book about triple bottom line in 1994. It’s like you have to bring social, economic and ecological perspectives together.

And in the middle where they interlinked, that’s basically where the best spot for you is, but it’s also, again a view that separates economic, social, and ecological dimensions. So we’re not there yet. Even John Elkington himself, he just last year wrote a book, where he described that he recalled this triple bottom line concept.

… and Beyond!

It’s the first scientifical concept that was recalled by its own author because he said, actually with this concept he gave companies an excuse, that they still can continue to focus on profits and just do a bit where they interlinked.

So actually the thinking, Alice and I promote – and a lot of people who are in the sustainability field with us – is that the economy needs to be embedded in the social, environmental, and ecological environment. And only if, as a society, we get there, we will be able to strive in the future.

I studied economics like business administration, economics, like Alice did. We are in our mid-forties, you can’t see it. You can’t hear it, but I tell you now. So for 20 years, we were trained to think of this profit-maximizing thinking, the purpose of business is business. And this thinking goes to you.

Quality used to be a clear objective, until planned obsolescence popped in. Alice Schmidt explains how quality is a foundation stone of sustainable development.

So that’s what you do all day and opening up and saying maybe economic theories we grew up with are wrong. Maybe the science, the Friedman thinking that was our prevailing economic thinking is not suitable for the future, was a wake-up call.

And there are a few economists that I can recommend to all of you. It’s Mariana Mazzucato, Kate Raworth, Carlota Perez… Who call for a different way of looking at the economy. And their concepts are really eye-opening, especially for people our age that thought that the thing we learned at business school is the mantra basically because it’s not, it has to change in order for us as a society to continue striving.

We won’t solve the Sustainability Puzzle with the outdated concepts that still prevail!

Alice Schmidt:

Just to add, I mean, it still is the mantra. I mean, I’ve been teaching business students for 10 years, both BA and MBA. And I actually only teach international students. I always ask them, why do you actually take my class, which is around sustainable business and management for the future? And they sometimes say, well, because, you know, there is no similar course in my home university, but also because they really still learn today, what Claudia just described.

That the business of business is just business.

So there’s this old Mickey mouse model completely forgetting us, as individuals. But of course, we, as businesses also entirely depend on nature. We depend on the planet services, right. As we described also in the book.

The other thing is, well, economics and business are often misunderstood as a science. Because in the end it’s all about human behavior and yes, you can explain part of it. But not all of it. And so these mental models that we have, and that are really sort of hammered into you when you go to a university, they just don’t work. It takes a lot of courage, I think from leaders like Claudia to say, you know what, try it test it. It’s not working. So let’s do it differently.

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Antoine Walter:

Well, there are many elements in what you just said, which I’d like to jump on. First, it’s the first time I hear expressed clearly what you said about the triple bottom. When you say triple bottom, I see a Venn diagram, perfectly aligned with three circles. That’s the way I learned it in my environmental school.

Then, the best definition of business for muggles like me, that never studied business in any form is that in the old model, you would be looking for profits. And the purpose of an enterprise is to look for profits and in the new model that we shall establish we should be looking at a societal issue and try to solve that issue.

We need to break up the silos…

If you solve it, then profit is going to be a reward or an after effect of solving the issue, which leads me to what you just said about mental models. About 99% – it depends 97%, 99% – of our decisions are totally unconscious. It’s our mental models, our inner structure we are built with and hammered within the university to take your expression. So how do we change that? How can we disrupt such a strong structure?

Claudia Winkler:

Yeah. And I think this is our basic call at the beginning of the Sustainability Puzzle book, we need to open up, we need to collaborate. We need to look at things from various perspectives. If we all stay in our function, our silos of business, people in their business function, technical people in their function, water people in the Water field, energy people in the energy field, we will not have a chance to look at the holistic picture and we need to get together and see these things.

Some of the keys to the Sustainability Puzzle may well lie in the past - as Alice Schmidt says.

Luckily there is a lot of movement in terms of systems thinking in terms of looking at things from various perspectives, trying to find multi-solving solutions. But the basis and the key is we need to open up our mindset because there’s this, this sentence: outer change is not possible without inner change. So it all starts with us personally.

… and to stay open-minded.

It starts with how do I look at the world. Do I accept that there are other views that maybe are totally contradictive to my view? And do I start to listen?

The process we had in our book, Alice and me, we came at it from very different perspectives. So I have to admit in the first draft of the Sustainability Puzzle book, I wrote a lot about how cool the world economic forum and Amazon is.

All sustainability people here will say like, how come you do that? But it’s because in some dimensions they are really great. For technological things, Amazon created in terms of innovation, they are incredible. But you know, like just looking at the technological innovation, you tend to forget what they do with taxes, how they treat your workers, how whatever.

It is not about saving the planet: it is about saving ourselves! A key message by Alice Schmidt and Claudia Winkler, co-authors of the Sustainability Puzzle book!

So it was a process also. And even I was already at the stage of thinking more sustainable than I did, like five years ago, but still, you know, like reflecting on, why did you say in this point, Amazon is cool and we had a lot of fights.

Something Claudia and Alice experienced first-hand!

Should it stay in or not? In some points, I convinced Alice. Here, it makes sense. And for others she said, no way it can’t stay in and I accepted it. I take Amazon because it’s a very polarizing thing. We had a lot of things, not about Amazon, where we had these discussions.

So if you look at things from different perspectives, then there are different ways out of the system. And I think the first step to change is to accept that things maybe are not what they seem to be, once you open up to people from different perspectives and look at it together.

For example, the homo economicus we have in the Sustainability Puzzle book, that mental model that shapes our economics, thinking the person is greedy and only maximizing their own income. If you talk to behavioral scientists, they will immediately tell you no way.

So why is this the prevailing model in our economic thinking? If we let different disciplines work together, a different model might come out and a different way of looking at things. And I think this opening up is the key from my point of view.

I always like to do calls to action. So if the only thing you take away today is starting to look at different perspectives, starting to speak with one person at the opposite spectrum of your opinion, then every single second I invested in this talk was worth it.

Claudia Winkler

So I urge all of you to open up, start talking to people who look at the world in a different view, it’s paying off. It might be painful, but it’s paying off.

The paradigm shift may well be a return to (the best of) the past

Alice Schmidt:

Thank you, Claudia. I’s also like to come back to your point on paradigm shifts and I completely agree with Claudia, it’s really this moving out of silos and co-creating, and really being open.

But I think a bit more practically, like, how do you get there? I think it’s partly role models. It’s partly showing people how this can be done. It can be done! So don’t sort of bury your head in the sand, in the face of all this doom and gloom, you keep hearing about.

But I think it’s also about this experience. Learning is partly visual, it’s partly something you read is partly something you look at. But when you experience something, that’s a much more powerful, much deeper way of learning!

Until quite recently, it has served us humans quite well to abuse nature. So says Alice Schmidt in this week interview of the don't Waste Water podcast.

Coming back to nature – we talked about the triple bottom line and the relationship between the environmental, social, and economic pillars. I think to an extent we don’t need to look back far, I mean, just a generation ago or two generations ago, for sure.

You know, it was normal to be connected, to nature, to spend time in nature, to realize that you’re actually taking from nature. And you were going to sleep when it got dark and in many places in the world, this is actually still the case. I mean, I think we forget that. And so of course there’s an aside on what we can learn. From people that live in, so-called “not developed” or “less developed” countries.

So I think in a way it’s a paradigm shift, we do certainly need a paradigm shift, but in a way, we also just need to remember how we used to do things.

… For instance, the times before planned obsolescence

We didn’t use to build washing machines and refrigerators so that they would deliberately break after two years, we didn’t plan obsolescence, into whatever. Companies built, designed and sold. We thought that quality was a good thing.

And just frankly, most companies these days do not necessarily invest in quality for commercial reasons. So it’s a paradigm shift. Yes. But it’s also just looking a little bit into the past. It doesn’t sound very cool, but I do think we will find some of the solutions for the future in the past.

Antoine Walter:

There’s an incredible story, in your Sustainability Puzzle book about light bulbs.

I’m not going to sidetrack you now with that story, read the book, read it. I mean, I was like, “I’m gonna read that again!” I didn’t believe you. To me, it was so obvious that it was made up. Then I checked… and you’re right. It is true. So incredible.

The “Phoebus Cartel” was created in 1925 by main Lightbulb brands, to limit a bulb’s life to 1’000 hours. Meanwhile, the centennial lightbulb (the one in this picture) is still burning… after 120 years.

The stories we shall tell to solve the Sustainability Puzzle

Coming back to what you said about experiencing, there are two ways to experience stuff. There’s experiencing itself and there’s a story because a good story is another way to experience stuff – and it’s probably the best way to convince people.

I have the feeling that the story we hear quite a lot is, “it’s progress versus nature”. It is “being green versus being modern”. And, and you hear that very regularly. What’s very interesting again with your book – and I promise to the people reading this, I’m not selling the Sustainability Puzzle book, I don’t have a commission on it.

People are worried about the costs of sustainability, but these are much lower than the costs of unsustainability! A simple truth Alice Schmidt shares.

It’s just, that it is so eye-opening! What you’re saying is that we can continue to grow sustainably. It’s not “growth versus sustainability”, that is an important thing. And one of the most clever things and clever approaches I’ve read in your book was this.

If we keep saying, “save the planet“, then it’s only for green activists, but the planet is going to live! The planet doesn’t care if it’s a bit hotter, a bit cooler, the planet is there for millions of years, and will be there for other millions of years. But if we say “save ourselves”, that’s actually the reality.

And all of a sudden, we’re all part of that story. So how do we reshape the stories we tell around sustainability so that everybody understands that it starts with us?

Sustainability will save us, not the planet

Alice Schmidt:

I think I’m really glad that you got this out of the Sustainability Puzzle book because this is a very key point we’re making that yes, it’s great to sort of care about the environment. With all your heart. To be an environmentalist and to sort of protecting nature, for the sake of protecting nature, for ethical reasons, for reasons relating to your values, that’s wonderful.

And a lot of people actually work that way, right? We talked about human behavior and psychology before, but a lot of people do not work that way. Sometimes they also don’t have the kind of force, so to speak, to work that way. They might be sort of having very different concerns – it’s always easy to speak from a privileged level where we all are. I think we have to be conscious of that.

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In the end, it’s about saving ourselves. And this is again where nature and humans are linked. We couldn’t be there if it wasn’t for nature and for an intact environment. It’s the very fact that the climate has been stable for the last 10,000 years, that enabled us to live the way we did.

Humans need the Planet’s services. What would happen if they get disrupted?

And there’s very interesting research that tells us that for the longest time, until quite recently, it actually served us, humans, quite well to abuse nature. To use the name. When I talk about nature services, perhaps let’s just make clear what it is. So that’s providing food, providing water, providing fuel as in woods and so on, but also regulating certain things, like clearing the water clearing the air, regulating the climate, all of that, our services. Let’s think of that as services.

The planet has been providing these services to us humans for free. And we’ve been taking that. And for the longest time that benefited us, we are now much healthier wealthier and in a much better position than our ancestors were in many, many ways. We live much longer. But we’re now starting to damage ourselves!

We, humans, are creative. We have all it takes to save the planet! An optimistic note shared by Claudia Winkler.

For example, let’s take air pollution. I think is a very good example because it kills 20,000 people each day globally. That’s about 7 million, per year. And we forget that! We don’t count these sorts of costs of unsustainability. People are worried about what it costs to invest in sustainability. But I mean, that’s totally the wrong argument. Yes, you should calculate those costs, but they’re much lower than the cost of unsustainability.

GDP is not a measure for societal progress

I’d like to also pick up where you started, because you said, “well, it’s progress”. You know, we’re not saying it’s green versus growth. And in the end, it’s about societal progress. About making the world better, healthier for everyone, not just for, you know, rich people in rich countries. Because there’s of course a clear risk, that this is how it’s going.

And then just as a reminder, let’s look at the concept of the GDP as it was designed, in the 1930s, roughly, for the US Congress. Simon Kuznets, who was the person that worked with the US government on that himself said, this is not about measuring societal progress.

If you embed economy inside ecological systems and in our society, everybody wins. That's an key piece of the Sustainability Puzzle, according to Claudia WInkler!

It’s about measuring economic output and that’s it. But somehow, sometimes along this way, we’ve started equating societal progress with economic progress and that’s just absurd. I think that’s really absurd.

It really comes back to making us understand that we all are all much better off when everyone is happy, and everyone is peaceful. And when we have a planet that is able to continue to deliver the services that we depend on.

Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals is an incredible economic opportunity

Antoine Walter:

Regarding this element of growth, and the way we use the Planet’s services. You speak in the Sustainability Puzzle about the doughnut model, going to the boundaries of the donut and maybe passing those boundaries. Then we’re in big trouble!

You share a figure about how much it would bring, to the world economy, if we were to fulfill the United Nations, sustainable development goals, (UN SDGs) and you give that figure of $12 trillion.

This an angle and a system thinking, which is not that often put forward. At least, from the water side of things. Every single pitch of a water startup nowadays may well start with those billions of people who don’t have access to water. So we speak about that and say, we have to do good and to solve that, but we never go the next step and say, “Hey, by the way, if we achieve all of that, we are doing good on an even fully different scale.” So how do you put that under the spot?

Let's face it, sustainability is not enough. Now it's about regeneration!

Claudia Winkler:

I came across this figure about two years ago, I think it was the United nations publishing it and it says that the business opportunity fulfilling the 17 sustainable development goals is $12 trillion.

I was like, you know, wow, this is cool. I’m a business person, so now, you know, we talk business. Now I get it. I get Why I should do this. You could do it for moral reasons, which is nice. You could do it to make your employees or your customers happy, but this is a huge business opportunity.

Enabling the Future creates Value

Additionally, I came across today some interesting quotes and I just want to read it to you. It’s like, what would be if the products and services we create do not destroy the future, but enable them? Like looking at business opportunities, what can we do to contribute to your future, to make a better future possible possible for all of us?

I like this positive thinking of it, this positive look. Hey, we humans are creative! We have all it takes. We have the creative behavior it takes, but we just need to change the outcome. Where do we want to use our creativity for? We could, at the same level, as we could use it to harm the planet, we could use it to save the planet.

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Water is a good example. Energy is a great example. Food is an example, health care. There are a lot of things that we could do differently that opened up new opportunities that would make people and investing in this field thrive. And additionally, the planet or the other way around the planet would strive and the people with it. It goes back to the thing I mentioned, a sustainable economy should be embedded in the society and in our ecological system of the planet.

If we achieve that, it’s a win, win, win, win, win, win, win, you know, like everybody wins.

This is the spirit. if we get there and get the positive vibes of it, then it changes. The world changes. The whole picture. It’s not doom stays near and everything is doomed to fail and we’re going to die. But it’s like, “wow, look at the opportunities. What could we do?” We are so creative.

It’s about telling the positive AND negative stories that shape the Sustainability Puzzle

We’re 7 billion creative people on this planet. What could we do to make it a better world for all of us? It might sound naive, but it’s not. It’s like the stories we need to tell and the stories we miss, every day that people like to listen to positive stories. So let’s tell them the positive stories. Let’s tell them the nice, beautiful, shiny stories without being naive.

Alice Schmidt:

Well, not just those stories. I think it’s also about identifying those stories where actually this win, win, win, win, win can be created. Right.

In the Sustainability Puzzle book, we call it, multi-sourcing along with some people from the MIT. And that’s really the idea to show people what’s in it for them economically, socially, for the wellbeing, whatever.

Companies shall walk the talk before they tweet the tweet! A strong quote Alice Schmidt and Claudia Winkler share in the Sustainability Puzzle book.

Obviously there’s a clear tension between businesses and the environment, let’s face it, that’s there. That’s partly why, we’re sometimes being challenged by great people, including from the extinction rebellion that same way.

It’s not just about, ensuring sustainability. Sustainability is not enough. If we sustain what we have today, that’s actually wrong. It’s about regenerating things too.

In a way, we have to be even more ambitious. We want businesses to regenerate the planet.

Let’s not fall victim of Green Washing…

Antoine Walter:

I don’t get what you just said (let me be ironic!). Tensions between business and environment? Come on each time there is a green day, everybody changes their Twitter picture and puts a green banner. So how could it be, that there’s a tension between businesses and the environment?

Claudia Winkler:

I think you liked this quote in the book, it’s like “walk the talk and not tweet the tweet”.

There’s a negative part of that there is a lot of awareness on ecological thinking. Currently, unfortunately, sustainability, at least in the region where we come from is mainly defined as ecological sustainability. Okay. Diversity is maybe another topic, but inequality for example, is not there anymore in the political discussions in the countries where we come from.

We need different messages to target different people. A key marketing insight by Claudia Winkler.

But now when we talk about sustainability and ecological greenwashing I may show that my CEO is riding a bike or whatever. You can do that. It’s okay. But only if you first do your work, if you first, like managed your emissions, if you first manage the social duties that you have towards society.

Just because you put your CEO on a bike doesn’t mean you’re green

And then if you say “You know what? I’ll put my CEO on a bike and he rides on his bike to work!” then you can do it. It’s not a problem, but I think the problem comes in when you start communicating how green you are without even knowing your ecological or social balance, then you have a problem.

Maybe it’s accepted still now, but consumers and employees and everybody involved in society gets more intelligent at the whole topic, and you will not get through with this anymore.

Additionally, and that’s the good part, there are also loud calls for regulation because I come from the company side and companies normally don’t do this just because they’re nice. They need to have a benefit out of it or they need to be punished.

To be successful, we have to pick people where they are. So thinks Alice Schmidt, co-author of the Sustainability Puzzle book.

So I think one thing that we should also do all of us, either in our business functions or in our civil society, roles is call for regulation. Businesses probably will not call for regulation, but we, as people living in our countries should call for strict regulations to force people, to force companies to fulfill. And not only talk the walk, but walk the talk. So I think that’s very important.

Alice Schmidt:

Greenwashing is probably one of the points where there’s a bit of tension between Claudia and me. No bad tension, don’t worry, constructive tension. Because what I’ve definitely observed with this renewed interest in climate action and environmental action by, or I’d say renewed interest after a first wave in the early nineties, right when we went to school.

There’s a really important, big wave led by young people facilitated by social media, et cetera nowadays. And this is great, but it also means that even sort of companies that really never really cared about sustainability or didn’t even make attempts to understand it now wants to ride the train.

Green Washing comes in many shapes

So I do think there’s much more green washing. There’s much more absurd forms of green communication.

There are some ridiculous examples that, you know, we can show visually, but perhaps the script describing them is not so easy. And I think there’s some very obvious forms of greenwashing, right? When, when you know, oil companies boast about clearing the air.

But there’s also much more subtle forms of greenwashing, right? When they deliberately leave out the social vis-a-vis the environmental when they count their emissions, but actually forget to include the flights.

It is all about buying what you love, and stop thinking what more is more, according to Alice Schmidt.

By the way, it’s not just companies that do that. It’s also universities. I think they’re coming from a different angle, but this is happening across all institutions. It’s the sort of national calculations, that just leave a few sectors out. This is why I think it’s really something we need to be very careful about.

We need to regulate, we need to call out and we need to really well basically find ways to create backlashes for greenwashers.

It’s also about mentioning when companies do great!

Claudia Winkler:

But on the other hand, also, you know, we should celebrate successful moves in this direction. We are on a global transition. Companies have to change themselves to transition. And if they make important moves, let’s not kill them. “You’re not green enough.”

If they’re really doing significant progress, then let’s celebrate and say, great, you’re doing great stuff. Let’s talk about it to be an example for others. And I think that’s the line we need to keep not bashing everything for greenwashing, but not letting everybody be allowed to talk green and not doing anything. And that’s the role we as communities in our countries have,

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Antoine Walter:

It’s about managing the incentive. It’s another topic I discussed with Florian Heeb and Julian Kölbel. They were giving the example of the tobacco industry, which is a Sin stock by excellence. And if you’re a tobacco company and you do slightly better, you have no reward because you’re still part of the tobacco industry.

You need to tell the right story to the right target to solve the Sustainability Puzzle

So you have no chance that someone sees that positive aspect. I know that good enough is not going to save us, but sometimes the big changes are made of small steps. In what you just said, not that I tried to oppose you, but I see kind of a disconnect. Claudia, you said that people want to listen to positive stories. And I’m not sure about that in terms of brain wiring. You know, we tend to remember much more the trains, which are late than the trains that arrive on time.

We love the stories, but maybe they don’t get imprinted. And on the other end of that circle, I see the approach of extinction rebellion. If I get it right, each time it comes in the news, it’s because they were pointing out the doom and gloom a bit, because you have to impress people. So are these two approaches, antagonist or complimentary?

You have a power to influence your peers. Use it to solve the Sustainability Puzzle! That's Alice Schmidt's advice.

Claudia Winkler:

It has to be both! You know, I’m doing marketing for 20 years, it’s all about target groups. Different people get attracted by different things. If you tell me the world is going down, I will not do a single thing because I might die.

Anyway, if you tell me, Hey, we can do it! I’m on board.

You need to come at it from all the angles

Alice is maybe somewhere in the middle, and you’re coming from a totally different angle. So we have to have the right messages for the right groups. And one message doesn’t fit all. As we explained in the Sustainability Puzzle book one measure will not solve all our problems.

We need a silver packshot, not a silver bullet to solve all things. And for me, it’s exactly the same with communications, but it’s my side. So I’ll also give Alice the side and I love the tension we have in our discussions because these tensions are actually bringing us forward!

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Alice Schmidt:

Exactly! I think that’s true for the two of us. Or the three of us right now, but it’s true also for society. I mean, we need this engagement that we need to discuss the wicked issues and the big problems.

One thing I learned when working with Claudia is because, for me, who’s been working in sustainability for over 20 years and very early on renounced to sort of the classical business side. I mean, I’m sometimes blinded to other people’s reality, obviously, right?

… and you have to pick people where they are on their path to understanding the Sustainability Puzzle

Like we all are, even though I try to keep the bigger picture in mind. What I really learned is we need to pick – as we say in German – we have to pick people up where they are.

This is something we’ve learned now in this period that we’ve actually been through, writing the Sustainability Puzzle book and getting feedback. It needs to resonate with people where they currently are. If you bash them if you say “you’re bad”, because you’re driving a car or even two, or you’re flying on holiday, you lose them. You really lose them.

I do think it’s really important to keep this balance and to make sure that these very uncomfortable truths are heard and seen. Some people refer to this as, you know, apocalypse porn. This can also then of course, lead to certain fatigue.

There’s also of course the saying, you know, good news is bad news and only bad news is good news. I think that’s true to an extent extent, but then in terms of what motivates people, we all love praise, right?

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We all love reinforcement of positive action. So that’s why I think we really need to be better. That we need to start very, very early on at school. Coming back to nature and nature’s role and how we’ve lost it and how some kids basically only know it from the internet or their gadgets.

I think that this basic ecology has to make its way back in. And I think that will sensitize people to things like greenwashing and many of the other things that we talked about before.

Sustainability does not mean Business Bashing!

Lastly, because you know, well, Claudia is certainly not business bashing, but perhaps some of us sometimes are. One thing that has been interesting is, that I asked my students a lots of what’s the economic contribution that businesses make.

Often, it takes a while for them to realize that actually they’re paying taxes and providing jobs. And these are of course, really important aspects functions in society that sometimes are forgotten when we talk about economic sustainability.

Economic sustainability isn’t the same as financial sustainability in terms of enduring and, you know, keeping the business up and running. And we keep coming back to this, all of these being connected to those three bottom lines.

Some people would actually argue that there’s a fourth one that’s culture too. Which of course then links with these other bits. So still, lots to do really!

Antoine Walter

Regarding this element of taxes and jobs – and I promise you, I’m not sidetracking here again. I encourage people to read that in the Sustainability Puzzle book, but you have a full part of the book where you explain if we invest so much in such an industry, how many full-time employees do you gain out of that? What is the return on investment?

Of course, it should favor sustainable approaches. So leaving that as an Easter egg, for people that read the book, when you come to that, think of me.

How can we all contribute to solving the Sustainability Puzzle?

I have a last question for you in this deep dive, and it has to do with the butterfly effect. We’ve discussed about the systemic approach, how regulation shall help, how businesses should change, how all of that on the macro level, there is something to do. I’d like to look at the totally other end of the spectrum. Myself, going to buy my groceries or making the simple stuffs of my life everyday.

What is the message to us every day? How can we contribute to that big movement? You, you show some elements in the Sustainability Puzzle book, but I’d like to have your personal, almost gut feeling.

Claudia Winkler:

I’d say, start thinking, start opening up and you know, just make conscious decisions. It will be step by step, maybe first look at what kind of chocolate you buy next time. Like what kind of bag of tea, it’s small steps.

We can contribute to the Sustainability Puzzle pieces with the way we buy and consume

We cannot change our behavior at once, but we can change day by day and the small steps in the long run. If many of us do them, we all contribute. If on the other side regulation kicks in and also doesn’t allow that a lot of things happen that are out there and are still choices for us, that shouldn’t be.

What we try to do in the Sustainability Puzzle book is in every chapter we have: what can you do? What can organizations do and what governments can do in order to contribute to one of our sustainability puzzle pieces.

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The puzzle piece the closest to most of us is sustainable consumption. So I think that’s the one where you could start. And the first thing is if you buy things, think of if you really need them.

Don’t buy at all, if you don’t need it, and then if you buy, change to sustainable choices. Then, if you, needed, repair it, reduce all this stuff out there. This mantra helps you and it makes it easy. But the first and most important step is what do you need to be happy too? You need all the stuff you have and you buy.

Antoine Walter:

Before leaving you the floor Alice, just to pick what you said, Claudia, about what you can do, what organizations can do, what governments can do. That’s the first page of every chapter of the Sustainability Puzzle book. So really, you don’t even need to read the book, just read the first page of each chapter. And you have already some, some matter.

Alice Schmidt:

Thank you for mentioning that, and let’s shout out to our graphic designer. We worked with Franziska Viviane Zobel in Berlin. She did a great job. She helped us to draw this basically, and summarize something rather complex and big into something that’s quite accessible.

Quality is Cheaper than Cheap (over time)

Then, linking with what Claudia said, I think in times of consumption, it’s really buying only what you love. And stopping to think that more is more right. These days, there’s a lot of people that aren’t happy with all this stuff piling up in their homes that they then have to get rid of, recycle or put, you know, wherever. Because recycling, isn’t the answer, right?

Recycling is one of many tools, many Rs, right? Like the reuse, repair, redesign, et cetera that we have. But it’s really buying quality. Invest in quality. Because the moment this kicks in, this whole argument of, I can’t afford a better shirt because I’m a student doesn’t hold anymore.

Just buy one or two or three shirts rather than 10 in a season. The same applies to buying shoes. I mean, just buy some shoes, try to buy shoes that don’t break easily. You’ll be much happier. You won’t have to have them fixed. And they’ll make you feel much better. I think this is a key one.

Then, of course, one of the elements that people usually already know, is that meat consumption is a big deal. But food waste is also really, really big deal. I think that’s perhaps not known so widely.

Our footprint comes in many shapes

What people don’t always know is that building insulation, that really makes a difference. And quite a lot of people, at some point in life build or renovate, and this makes a big difference. Then of course the biggest lever, right, that we all have is to, is to keep those fossil fuels in the ground. Plus not fall a victim to greenwashing, when someone tells you that gas is green.

And then finally, I think also not falling victim to this thinking that technology is going to save us. I mean, technology is a hugely important part of the sustainability puzzle and always has been, right. But not every technology is good just because it’s a technology. And what is technology anyway?

So here’s the keyword I would leave with people: invest in quality and buy only what you love and will last.

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You shall also recognize your power to influence others. To influence your peers. I think this is huge. This is really, really important. You, you can do this individually privately, but you can also do that in the way you choose your job.

People sometimes ask me, “how do you get this job in sustainability?” and then ask them, well, there’s about a hundred different, a thousand different types of jobs in sustainability, which one do you want? So I think it’s really just like Claudia said to start thinking about sustainability and regeneration. Regeneration, and resilience in whatever you do.

Antoine Walter:

So that’s somehow the fourth pillar you were alluding to before with this cultural element. Not that we all may become minimalists, but I mean, watch Marie Kondo on Netflix, it’s going to help maybe, I don’t know. I guess you have to start somewhere. And if we, if we embed that in all of us, then probably we are a step further.

I wish you write a second book because that will give me another opportunity to ask you the other 2000 questions I couldn’t today. I propose you to switch to the very rapid questions, which is an adaptation of my, usually rapid fire questions.

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Rapid fire questions:

These will be even shorter than usual. So you can have very short answers. Here’s my first question: what is the most exciting project you’ve been working on and why?

Alice Schmidt:

I had sort of this project in my mind, I’ve been writing for years. But it was actually when Claudia came in, when these collaborations started between us, that it started to become really fun and exciting so that this sparring partnership, with both of us coming at it from different angles was, really important.

And so I just leave out the other project that I wanted to talk about it because the Sustainability Puzzle book is actually really key.

Claudia Winkler:

For me, it’s everything. I kind of short everything where I can contribute to shaping a meaningful future, whatever it is. And I, I’m lucky and happy that I find a lot of these projects along my way.

What’s the favorite part of your current job?

Claudia Winkler:

Actually, you know, that there are so many opportunities. We have to look at sustainable reverse logistics chains. Now I never thought that this is something I’m into, but after talking with Alice, understanding circularity better, I see my tech startups actually taking it from a different angle. I can really make a change. And this is what I love putting the pieces together. The sustainability puzzle pieces, and then saying, oh, I learned something about circularity. I’m a tech person. How can I produce better? And, you know, like make a venture out of it. This is what I love.

Alice Schmidt:

And for me, it’s the mix it’s cause I always wear several hats at the same time and it’s just like we started Antoine, right? This mix between the morals of the activist’s side, the policy side, the big picture, thinking side, also the very high-powered influence that you can have with a political party, like the European Commission.

But then at the same time, talking to someone in a, in a developing country that may not have had any education, for example, and understanding what you have in common. So it’s really this mix that I think I like the most. That’s my favorite part of my jobs.

Antoine Walter:

And I’m going to take a shortcut to my last question!

Would have someone to recommend me to come on that microphone?

Claudia Winkler:

Take John Elkington and ask him for his triple bottom line and why he discarded it. I love the story of this book. Greenspan’s if, if you haven’t read it a total recommendation and he’s very responsive on LinkedIn.

I got in touch with him on LinkedIn, and it’s really interesting. He’s a great person to tell you the whole sustainability story. So if you have the opportunity to try to get him…

Antoine Walter:

I haven’t had a chance yet, but I’ll try!

Alice Schmidt:

I’ll actually mention women. I think there are so many, one could mention that and I’d be very happy to send you some suggestions, but I mean, start with the three ones that we mentioned in the Sustainability Puzzle book.

Antoine Walter:

Well, thanks for the recommendations, and thanks a lot for your time. Both of you. Usually, I tell people where to follow you, but I would say that here, the obvious is to have a look at your Sustainability Puzzle book, I think it’s available on Lulu and on all the good platforms. I think that’s the usual saying to say it’s quite everywhere.

I’ll repeat myself the last time, the Sustainability Puzzle is a page turner and it’s an eye-opener. So thank you both.

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