This past year has revealed with brutal clarity the intersection between a global health crisis, climate crisis, and systemic social injustice. It has also made clearer than ever the moral imperative not only to deploy all the tools in our arsenal, but also to seek out new solutions. We need discontinuous, ambitious, change and we need innovations that can help drive solutions at a systemic level. Dame Ellen MacArthur recently told us that her vision for a circular economy “is a much bigger idea than recycling,” she said. “This is about systemic change and restructuring the global economy.”
While innovation can sometimes come in the form of a flash of individual inspiration, it can also come from looking at problems in a new way, collaborating with new partners, and sometimes, using old-fashioned tools in new combinations. Take, for example, solutions like India’s SELCO, which bridges the need for light with education. Rural families receive LED lamps that use a pocket-sized rechargeable solar-powered battery in place of dirty kerosene lanterns. The central solar charging station for the batteries is intentionally located at the local school, creating incentives for families to send children to school to get the batteries recharged. Not only do families receive clean, safe light at home, but the school-based charging stations encourage school attendance and improved education outcomes.
In that spirit, the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing is sharing our people, our expertise and our network to lean into on the power of innovation and cooperation; the result is the Morgan Stanley Sustainable Solutions Collaborative. Our first cohort features five of the brightest, ground breaking concepts from around the world—representing industry, non-profits, and academia, as those selected bring forth innovations in health care, climate solutions, plastic waste reduction and ecosystem services, together with re-engineered distribution methods, technology platforms, and a new perspective on the value of nature.
One such company from our cohort is SunCulture. SunCulture brings together innovations in solar technology, sustainable agriculture practices and access to inclusive finance to help smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa address their biggest challenges: getting affordable, accessible, clean energy to electrify their homes and power irrigation to their farmland. By solving these problems in tandem, SunCulture can help farmers boost their crop yields between two to five times and increase their incomes by five and ten times.
Based in Kenya, the company offers a proven solution that is now aggressively scaling across Africa, with plans to take the idea global. They’re working hand-in-hand with local and national governments to promote the uptake of solar irrigation. They’ve recently launched a partnership with the government of Togo to offer thousands of solar irrigation systems across the country and have an ongoing project in Kenya through the World Bank. At a time when an existing global food crisis is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially doubling the number of people facing starvation globally to 265 million, SunCulture’s solutions are even more critical to ensuring smallholder farmers are productive and families are fed.
The collaborative mindset isn’t limited to startups. Clothier Eileen Fisher has created the Renew and Waste No More takeback program, reclaiming and reselling clothes as “second life” garments. And, for “third life” garments, the company takes damaged and old clothing, deconstruct the items, and remanufacture them as totally new garments. Even acrylic and nylon pants can be remade into a new pair. Since 2009, the brand has kept 1.24 million garments from going into the landfill and has opened its doors to collaborate with other designers, sharing and creating new systems with innovation and remanufacturing techniques.
For some corporate leaders, this may require a mindset shift. As IKEA’s CEO Jesper Brodin recently told me, “Before, we were thinking, ‘How do we protect the uniqueness of our company by locking others out of it?’ I think now we protect our companies by having speed, we protect our companies by being relevant for our customers and co-workers, and … [those that] work in your own funnel and [do] not collaborate with others, will also have a price to pay.”
Ultimately, we are excited to partner with innovators from all corners—those that have Eureka! moments of discovery as well as those who discover new ways of combining existing tools to meet the accelerating challenges we face. We draw great inspiration from a recent conversation with U.N. Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed who urged us, “Make each step count. If you do that, when you look back, you’ll appreciate those steps. You’ll know that your journey was rich, it was fruitful, and you made a difference in people’s lives. And hopefully your footprint was green”
Audrey Choi is chief sustainability officer and chief marketing officer at Morgan Stanley.