I believe in starting a conversation with fellow leaders and learning from their experiences. Making their perspectives available to the whole community is one step forward in spreading the message about the importance of UX. That’s why I have started a project of #UXFika – lightweight conversations with inspiring UX leaders, creators, and people who make a change through design.

This week’s special UXFika guest is Gustav Stenbeck – an entrepreneur and a business angel, curious capitalist and innate ecologist. Gustav has 15 years of experience in areas where business and sustainability intersect, investing his energy on how the companies of tomorrow need to change the way they make money to stay relevant.

That’s why I wanted to discuss his view on sustainability in business so that every UX Designer has it at the backbone when building products, ideating and creating experiences for a changing world. Why? Because products and companies are built on new paradigms of sustainability.

You call yourself a business and sustainability combo. Tell me how did you start combining these two areas and why?

My story begins in 1989, when I started my first web design company. Quite quickly I was contacted by Greenpeace in the Nordics – they were looking for someone to help bring their web presence to the next level. I took the challenge. That also meant being on a boat looking for whale hunters, barricading in a hotel room in Denmark, protesting against toxic imports. This experience got me. Sustainability became part of me since then.

Since then I have been working in sustainability for more than 15 years: combining computer science, data and business. That has been a big advantage for me because I always approached things from the business side. There are so few people that work with business and understand sustainability even on a fundamental level. So I want to get sustainability and business intertwined essentially. When you have it intertwined you cannot say that sustainability isn’t that important and just get rid of it. At that point – it is part of what you are doing. It is part of your business strategy.

What does sustainability in business mean to you?

If you ask your customer what’s important for them – many people will say that sustainability is crucial. That’s why many businesses think if consumers say so – it is crucial. The problem is that customers generally don’t care. Not when money comes into play. Customers think it’s important as long as they don’t have to pay for it. So as soon as someone makes a product 5% more expensive, because of sustainability, people are in general not willing to pay. Sustainability will always stick out as one of the most untrue answers in between what you say and what you actually do.

“In one recent survey, 65% said they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, yet only about 26% actually do so.”

Therefore it is important that companies play two roles. Firstly, make people’s lives better. Secondly – make people’s lives more sustainable. And you need to combine these two. Today too few companies are doing that.

It is the role of companies to do both: make life better and more sustainable. And if you can’t do both: you cannot be in the business world tomorrow.

How do you build both: better and more sustainable lifestyle?

It is a business journey. You have to understand that a 100% sustainable solution does not exist yet. Just because you bought a Tesla does not mean you own a fully sustainable car. You just bought a more sustainable car than your standard internal combustion-engined counterpart.

I think that we have to educate 7 billion people living on this planet, instead of telling them that in order to survive, they have to make their life worse. If that will be a plan of action for the next 10 years – we are doomed. Therefore – little steps mean we can take larger steps eventually and companies are very good at it – exponential growth.

Typically, what are the biggest hurdles to sustainability on a business level and why?

Primarily technology – it doesn’t exist yet. Another reason is living in false realities. Many companies claim that sustainability is important, but don’t act like it is. They don’t understand how important it is.

Third – we do not have next-level decision-makers that have sustainability at the forefront of their decision-making process and understand how to embed it in the core values of the business.

Fourth – who can make the biggest difference? Many people think that the largest companies are the best at sustainability when it is exactly the opposite, because many big companies were founded 100 years ago, solving a problem that is 100 years old. Small companies do not have this legacy. They are made to solve current problems, current challenges.

How could consumers (users) impact businesses to make more sustainable choices in their strategy?

One thing that I love nowadays is that major societal changes come from the citizens and through that little guy or girl. The politicians still have the idea that they are in control of society, which I think is ridiculous – they don’t. Change is the most powerful when it comes from consumers, users – and that is what will drive the sustainability movement forward – our decisions, our initiatives, our wallet power.

Sometimes it’s not a question of knowing, but doing. Consumers know what is more sustainable, but when they are standing in the store most aren’t going to pay twice the amount for organic meat. Well, it is not a question of knowing it’s about economic incentives that are there. As consumers, we are not 100% ready to make those changes, because it is more expensive. Businesses need to make it more accessible and affordable for users to shift behaviors and choices. The legacy companies that will thrive are those that accept this shift and are willing to pivot.

What is the best way to measure business sustainability according to you?

CO2 emissions is a good start, considering the main problem we have – global warming, but I also think you need to look at the profit you make and employee happiness. These are very important factors too. For example, in my company, if an employee needs to take a business trip that is less than three hours by train, they cannot fly. If the trip is longer than three hours by train and they still choose the train, we will compensate you for your time. We create real incentive to change. We practice what we preach with our mission to create a more sustainable world and make employees happy too.

If you have one piece of advice for someone looking to make their business greener, what is it? How could they start?

Do a basic analysis of the impact you have within your industry. One of the key problems businesses have is that they start working with easy things (like changing cups, etc). Working on big things is hard and it’s important. You need to look at all the aspects of your business from two perspectives: how much do we do it and how heavy is the impact on the environment?

You have to start with things that you do often and have a big impact.

There are still many businesses using sustainability only for marketing purposes – how could consumers differentiate the real efforts from greenwashing?

As a consumer you need to stop and to think: does this make logical sense? Most people generally understand what is good and what is worse. Good old common sense works if it is greenwashing or not.

And if you’re unsure – the answer is never further than Google. But don’t be afraid of making sustainable choices on your own gut, more often than not it will get you to the right place.

What are your favourite examples of a business journey towards being more sustainable?

I think that one entire industry that does not get enough credit is the car industry – because in order to be sold in the EU today cars have to be 95% recyclable. A lot of people do not know that. That means a lot of auto manufacturers had to change the way they do business and they haven’t told anyone about this.

What does the future look like for sustainability among businesses, especially small businesses? In what ways will sustainability grow and develop?

We will rent more things than we will own. The definition of a wealthy person is going to shift. Today a wealthy person is someone who has a lot of worth in their balance sheet, so you own a lot.

However, I think it will be about having access to things, it will be more democratized. We’ve seen it since forever in the auto industry and housing – you don’t need to own your car or house. But it’s going so much farther now. You can rent clothes, dogs, cakes, bridesmaids, you name it. Technology is democratizing and balancing things. So rentals will become more important according to me.

Extra bits

Your favorite recent read:

Newsletter called oversharing – it writes about the access economy and has so many interesting insights. Definitely worth subscribing for.

One item you would get rid of on the planet completely?

I would also get rid of the idea that we have to make our lives worse in order to be more sustainable. We can live sustainably and also happily.

Skill you would like to master?

Every year I have a “project” – learning something new every year since 3 years ago. First year I tried to study italian cheeses. A year afterwards I learnt to be left-handed. The following year I learnt playing pool! And this year’s project is drawing!

About the UX Fika Series

In UX Fika series of blog posts, I talk with people that inspire me and whom I look up to as my role-models. The motivation behind doing this is, you might see some patterns and hopefully you’d be able to learn from the amazing people that I have had a chance of learning from.

For my international friends, FIKA is a Swedish concept, a state of mind, an attitude and an important part of Swedish culture. It means making time for friends and colleagues to share a cup of coffee (or tea). With no rush, full immersion and being present in the moment. That’s why I thought “UXFika” is a perfect name for meaningful conversation with UX leaders I look up to.

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