Stalking the Sustainability Unicorn

What will be “the Uber of saving the planet?” (And, um, how do we get in on the ground floor?).

September 01, 2015

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
 — Gordon Gekko, fictional yet culturally enduring 1980s corporate raider

“We want to get to the point that using Uber is cheaper than owning a car.”
— Travis Kalanick, real-life founder and CEO of ride-sharing service Uber

Ask people to make more sustainable choices in their daily lives, and maybe they will—or then again, maybe they won’t. But build sustainability into something they feel like they can’t live without, and suddenly you’ll see positive changes on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

For the formula to work, however, you must become comfortable with two notions many environmentalists instinctively find unsavory. The first is that human beings are, when you get right down to it, pretty cheap and kind of lazy. The second is that untrammeled free-market capitalism can, in fact, be a force for the greater good—individuals, acting out of naked self-interest, can foster competition, encourage innovation, and propel (in Gordon Gekko’s words) “the upward surge of mankind.”

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was just 11 years old when Gekko, the mercenary stockbroker played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street, uttered the line that would go on to encapsulate the financial climate of the go-go 1980s. As many have noted elsewhere, the young entrepreneurial class currently lording over Silicon Valley tends to lean libertarian on economic and social issues. For his part, Kalanick cites as one of his favorite novels The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand—who might well be Grandma Gekko, the gray-haired matriarch of the greed-is-good ethos.

And recently, Kalanick has become something of a libertarian hero himself as he spars with city governments around the world over Uber’s “disruptive” business model—which threatens to send conventional taxi services the way of the horse and buggy. In the eyes of many (including, apparently, himself), Kalanick is a visionary entrepreneur, not unlike Howard Roark from Rand’s novel—someone who knows deep down that he can change the world for the better, not to mention make billions and billions of dollars, if all those timid naysayers and small-minded bureaucrats would simply get out of his way.

Politically speaking, I’m not what you’d call a laissez-faire libertarian. And for the most part, I believe that a great many Silicon Valley wunderkinds tend to overestimate their game-changing, paradigm-shifting capacities. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if those of us clamoring for a revolution in sustainable living have been ignoring the possibility that the combination of cutting-edge technology, consumer self-interest, and the capitalist profit motive might actually be the ticket that gets us there.

The key, it would seem, is tethering an environmentally friendly idea to a smart business plan that doesn’t necessarily trade on sustainability for its market appeal but does satisfy basic human desires to get something good while spending the least amount of money and energy as possible. If that business were to take off—as Uber, which currently brings in about $2 billion in revenue and is projected to make $5 billion next year, has done—then it would have the potential to seamlessly, invisibly, and inextricably build sustainability into our daily lives.

What Silicon Valley’s tyro titans all have in common is an understanding of which app-based services people casually or occasionally use and which would be used constantly, even habitually. What distinguishes them from each other is savings—measured in time, effort, money, or all three. Uber isn’t conquering the world because its cars are more luxurious or fuel-efficient than conventional cabs; the company is redefining urban transportation because it fulfills millennial expectations that one ought to be able to get whatever one wants, as quickly as one wants it, at the touch of a smartphone button.

Uber is hugely successful, in large part, because it wins the savings trifecta. It’s fast and effortless to use. But relative to the costs of buying, parking, insuring, and gassing up a car, it’s also cheap. And as Kalanick understands well, if he’s able to keep per-ride prices down so that the costs of regular Uber use remain lower than car ownership, the taxi industry isn’t the only one he’ll be disrupting. It’s not at all crazy to think that Uber and other ride-sharing services like it could put more than a fender bender–sized dent in future auto sales. (Many believe they already have.)

With urban transit thus disrupted, the next lifestyle frontier that Silicon Valley’s whiz kids and their venture-capitalist fanboys have their eyes on is food and dining. Sprig, a new app-based delivery service currently serving customers in Chicago and the Bay Area, managed to rake in $45 million during its last funding round from investors who liked its promise to deliver tasty, healthful chef-designed meals to customers in 15 minutes, for about $10 a pop. Munchery, a competitor, has contracts with chefs in local markets to create an array of cheap, restaurant-quality meals to be delivered to your door quickly and fully cooked but unheated. In May, after receiving $85 million in fund-raising, that San Francisco–based startup was valued at about $300 million.

Of these companies—all of which are aggressively jockeying to become (in the breathlessly clichéd parlance of Silicon Valley) “the Uber for food”—only one, Sprig, advertises its meals as being organic and sustainably sourced. But imagine, if you will, Sprig jumping ahead of the crowd. Imagine it easing its way into major urban and suburban markets, essentially becoming the failsafe lunchtime choice for literally millions of office workers. Imagine the copycats that would try to ride its coattails, knowing that Sprig’s sustainable branding was key to its success. Imagine the trickle-down effect that all this demand would have on organic agriculture and sustainable livestock production, as farmers aggressively compete with one another to become the primary supplier to their local Sprig operations.

It all adds up to a revolutionary vision of capitalism that old hippies and young billionaires would both be able to endorse—and one from which we’d all profit.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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