The Great Transition: Are you ready for the next big thing?

The sustainability transition is going to be even more disruptive than digital transformation. EdenLab CEO Leo Rayman explains how leaders can confidently tackle the new frontier.

by Leo Rayman
Last Updated: 31 Jul 2023

The transition to a net zero economy, known as 'The Great Transition', is poised to be even more disruptive than the digital transformation of the past two decades. McKinsey estimates that the global spending on physical assets alone in this transition will reach a staggering $275 trillion by 2050.

Net zero more disruptive than digital

Digital transformation changed our way of life and disrupted dozens of companies in the process.  

But the net zero transition goes way beyond the digital revolution in its transformative impact. It touches upon every aspect of our lives, from energy sources to food production, manufacturing processes, regulations, financing, taxes, consumption patterns, and even our political choices.

Similar to digital transformation, the transition to a net zero world will open doors to new industries and opportunities. We are already witnessing exponential growth in sectors like solar power installations, seaweed farming, regenerative agriculture and carbon accounting, creating jobs that didn't exist just five years ago.

The transition also requires us to develop new technologies and new ways of thinking. The ClimateTech sector is buzzing. In the UK alone there are over 5,200 climate tech pioneers currently in operation, ranking second only to the United States.

Gigacorns the new darlings

If unicorns were the Silicon Valley darlings of the last twenty years, ‘gigacorns’ will define the next thirty. These are companies that will remove a billion tonnes of greenhouse gas a year. We desperately need them and they’re being born in garages today.

The truth is that all sustainability issues are really people issues and while technological innovation is needed, it’s social innovation that will ultimately save us.

In your lifetime you’ll see a significant reframing of what we all aspire to - more meaning beating more stuff - accelerating changes to our buying and binning habits, the birth of a new repair culture, fashionable frugalism, the end of planned obsolescence, a rebalancing of the role of the corporation in favour of people, planet and profit and a rethinking of who our real shareholders are.

The depletion of Earth's resources and increasing climate stress on customers will no longer be external factors to be managed; instead, they will be the core challenges faced by businesses across the board.

It might all sound a bit crazy but we can safely assume the Blockbuster board felt the same way at first when someone mentioned streaming video.

From fringe to mainstream

Sustainability is following a path similar to that of digital adoption. From being initially perceived as a fringe interest, it gradually became integrated into various departments and eventually reached board-level roles.

Similarly, sustainability today often exists as a side project with limited resources and buy-in from executives. To bridge this gap, organisations like EdenLab are dedicated to fostering collaboration between commercial teams and sustainability leads. We often use the language of ‘green growth’ to signal to executives that this is a commercial conversation.

You may not know the difference between Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions today, but then there was a time when people hadn’t heard of HTML either. Just like digital, those that go in hard, accept that change is coming and adopt it swiftly will be agile enough to lead the transition and build thriving post-carbon businesses.

For people who don't get ahead of the transition and start to build their knowledge and confidence now, there's a risk that just as with digital, they will find themselves on the wrong side of the divide, unable to get work in the years ahead.

Where to start

So how can you ensure you don’t get left behind? Here are five things you can start doing right now.

1. Be curious and get informed

The information is out there and there are so many people willing to share what they know, and simplify the jargon. Follow them on LinkedIn or subscribe to this newsletter. Climate change is fear-inducing but knowledge is power.

2. Know your sustainability team

Spend time getting to know the sustainability specialists in your organisation or industry association. People in different functions are often siloed, so a lot of our work is simply building a bridge between them. Sustainability isn’t a silo, it’s (about to be) your job.

3. Experiment

Most people want to do something but don’t know where to start. Don’t boil the ocean, it’s smarter to design and run a small scale pilot e.g. a greener offer for customers, and use that to create the positive data that gives you licence to take bigger bets. 

4. Embed sustainability into managers’ objectives

If your organisation has a Net Zero target, you’ll never hit it unless it’s written into the OKRs of senior leaders. People take their personal objectives to heart. Some businesses now have internal carbon budgets.

5. Find role models

Most people list Patagonia and Oatly and then run out of examples of what ‘good’ looks like. We need more examples at our fingertips. In every sector and category there are amazing efforts being made, from start-ups to big organisations making change happen. A lot of what we do is simply giving people lots of examples they can play with.

Leo Rayman is the CEO of EdenLab, a sustainability innovation firm.

Picture from Getty Images