E07: Purpose, Impact, and Building a Business
Welcome to our Green New Perspective podcast episode featuring Simon Schillebeeckx, co founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Handprint, a SaaS company that prefers to call itself "Impact as a Service."
As the world continues to face unprecedented environmental challenges, consumers are increasingly demanding that businesses take action to mitigate their impact and contribute to solutions. That's where Handprint comes in: it’s a platform that connects companies with impactful projects that align with their values. From forestry and coral reef reconstruction to plastic removal, targeted education, and disaster relief, Handprint offers a diverse range of initiatives that companies can support to make a tangible difference.
Simon is also Assistant Professor of Strategic Management at Singapore Management University and specializes in digital sustainability.
We talked to Simon about how to create a business that makes a difference in the world — but is still a business, and his experience as an academic entrepreneur.
Handprint Tech on Social Media
- Instagram: @handprint.tech
- LinkedIn: @handprint-tech-pte-ltd
- Twitter: @handprint_tech
Dunja Jovanović: Simon, it's great to have you with us today. Would you mind sharing some info about your background with our audience?
Simon Schillebeeckx: I’m originally from Belgium and studied there before majoring in business ethics and corporate social responsibility at the University of Nottingham in the UK. After that, I traveled for a year through South America and returned to the UK at the start of the 2008 financial crisis. I wanted to work in sustainability, but it was difficult to find a job in that field, so I worked in bars for a year while searching. Eventually, I landed a job in sustainability innovation consulting, which I did for about 2 years. But I found it frustrating that I couldn't study problems in-depth and only ended up delivering a PowerPoint or PDF. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. to have more time to study issues that interested me, and ended up at Imperial College in London, where I completed my Ph.D. under the mentorship of Professor Gerard George.
During my studies, he [Professor George] moved to Singapore and asked me to finish my Ph.D. in six weeks instead of the usual fourteen months, and if I passed, he would take me to Singapore for a year and a half as a postdoctoral fellow. I passed, and we moved to Singapore in January 2015. I ended up liking it a lot and eventually became a professor at Singapore Management University in July 2016, where I am still today.
Dunja Jovanović: How did you come to co-found Handprint?
Simon Schillebeeckx: Handprint is a regeneration and nature tech company that I co-founded at the end of 2019. It grew out of two different things I did before. One of the cofounders of Handprint, Ryan Merill and I founded a nonprofit organization called Global Mangrove Trust in 2018. Our purpose is to help small-scale mangrove restoration and conservation NGOs in Southeast and South Asia, particularly in Myanmar, to access international climate financing. We developed technology for remote sensing, which uses satellite images to understand forest changes over time, and blockchain technology to improve financial transparency.
After two years of operating with the non-profit, we started working on a grant proposal to improve our blockchain technology with Mathias Boissonot, now our third co-founder and CEO of Handprint. While the proposal didn't go anywhere, we realized that we enjoyed working together and decided to set up a social enterprise using some of the technology we developed at Global Mangrove Trust. That became Handprint, which had a clearer commercial purpose than the non-profit.
Dunja Jovanović: How did Handprint perform during the pandemic? Did your company face favorable or difficult circumstances during that time?
Simon Schillebeeckx: I think it was both. In the beginning, we had nothing else to do since we were in Singapore during the lockdown period. We decided to focus on e-commerce since we wanted to create a tool that would make it easier for someone to plant trees and contribute to reforestation. We developed a product that enabled companies to integrate mangrove restoration into their transactions and sales. While it was challenging to make a scaling business out of that, we learned a lot, and many of those capabilities are still essential to what Handprint is doing now.
Dunja Jovanović: As an expert in environmental sustainability, how would you evaluate the efforts made by companies in the past decade to lessen their adverse effects on the planet?
Simon Schillebeeckx: Overall, I am disappointed with the progress that has been made in environmental sustainability over the past ten years. As someone who specializes in this area, I believe that we are currently transgressing against planetary boundaries for climate change, biodiversity loss, and other environmental factors. This situation was entirely avoidable, as demonstrated by the success of the Montreal Protocol, which halted the emissions of CFCs and effectively prevented the depletion of the ozone layer. While there have been other global agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accord, they have not been as successful as the Montreal Protocol.
Despite the missed opportunities of the past, I remain cautiously optimistic that we can still avoid the worst of climate change. The projections of the IPCC have consistently underestimated the velocity of climate change, but we have also seen that policies put in place in the last few years have narrowed the forecasted path of where we are headed. While companies and governments must do more work to achieve sustainability, there is still a chance that we can avert catastrophic consequences. However, this will likely require temporary limitations on consumption behavior to stay within reach of our goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Dunja Jovanović: Do you think we will be able to achieve the 1.5-degree goal?
Simon Schillebeeckx: Based on the latest forecasts, I think it's very challenging and unlikely. However, there is still hope. Most climate models focus on reducing negative impacts through decarbonization, but they often overlook the resilience and feedback loops of natural ecosystems. This double-edged sword can lead to sudden acceleration of climate change if we hit certain tipping points, such as the melting of specific parts of the Arctic or Greenland, which would release methane and significantly increase greenhouse gas concentration. These tipping points have negative feedback loops, which are difficult to reverse within a normal human lifespan.
On the other hand, pursuing aggressive regeneration of the planet through reforestation and oceanic kelp farming can achieve positive feedback loops that can have unforeseen positive effects on the planet's ecosystem. For example, kelp absorbs carbon much faster than trees and can be used as animal feed, which reduces methane emissions from cows. Similarly, whales are an important animal in the fight against climate change as they absorb carbon in their bones and move Krill through various oceanic layers, which is the primary source of carbon absorption in the oceans. By increasing the whale population, we can create a positive cycle that will absorb more carbon from the oceans.
Overall, there is room for human ingenuity to work with nature and improve our chances of having a healthy planet for the next thousands of generations.
Dunja Jovanović: Does greenwashing have an adverse effect in this context, particularly when discussing the carbon offset sector?
Simon Schillebeeckx: I have a somewhat controversial opinion on greenwashing. While I do not think it is good for companies to make false claims about their social or environmental responsibility, the fact that greenwashing exists is proof that there is consumer and customer demand for more sustainable products. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly difficult for companies to hide bad behavior, especially with the use of the internet and independent organizations that can verify claims about carbon emissions. Many countries are moving towards mandatory disclosures of ESG performance, and companies will need to have their emissions externally verified by an external auditor, which will make false claims harder. However, if individuals are tricked into believing that a company is more sustainable than it is, this may affect their purchasing decisions.
Overall, I believe that greenwashing may have some positive effects, especially when it comes to promoting sustainable practices. The trends we are seeing at the employee and customer levels show that people are increasingly aware and interested in environmental issues and are willing to make purchasing and employment decisions based on a company's values and commitment to sustainability.
Dunja Jovanović: It’s important for companies to be transparent and honest about their environmental impact.
Simon Schillebeeckx: The difficulty with greenwashing is also that it is hard to define because it is mostly related to perception. For example, if I plant a hundred trees every month or pay for their planting, it may seem sustainable and green. However, if a company like Chevron does the same and builds an advertising campaign around it, they are greenwashing at the ecosystem level. The two actions are equivalent, but the messaging is different, and the expectations of organizations like Chevron are higher. This is why greenwashing is complex because no standard has been set to make legitimate claims about being a sustainable or regenerative organization. There are voluntary systems, but there is no global agreement.
Dunja Jovanović: Can you tell me more about Handprint’s approach to sustainability?
Simon Schillebeeckx: Handprint encourages companies to make micro investments to embed positive impacts in their interactions with key stakeholders. By doing so, companies can improve their business outcomes and achieve strategic growth success. For example, Handprint developed a plugin for e-commerce that, when implemented, showed customers that a tree would be planted with their purchase. This simple act can increase sales by up to 16%. Handprint is also exploring ways to incentivize individuals to register their email addresses by offering positive impacts, such as planting trees or providing coral, instead of discounts. In advertising, Handprint found that embedding impacts in advertising units had a positive effect on brand recall, attention, and the value of the brand.
One of the most successful examples of this approach is AliPay, the Chinese mobile payments app. In 2016, AliPay created a Ant Forest, a tool that enabled users to earn energy points by engaging in sustainable behaviors, such as paying bills online or walking instead of driving. Once enough energy points were earned, a virtual tree could be planted, and AliPay would plant a real tree in the Gobi Desert in Northwest China. This gamification of sustainability was highly successful, with all of my Chinese students using the app daily!
Dunja Jovanović: You're very active on social media. You regularly post blogs, and videos, and speak about the problem of carbon tunnel vision. Can you tell me more about the content you're producing and your point of view on this issue?
Simon Schillebeeckx: As an entrepreneur, being active on LinkedIn is very useful. It can create a lot of attention, and you can meet kindred spirits, and, if you're very lucky, you can do something that kind of touches the right nerve and goes viral. One of the things that are really at the essence of Handprint Tech is that while we started as an organization that was focused specifically on mangrove restoration, we've expanded our scope into any type of positive impact that's aligned with sustainable development.
We realized that, in the current sustainability narrative, the only currency companies understand is carbon. This leads to a lot of problems. The main problem is that biodiversity, from an environmental aspect, is overlooked. As a smarter person than me once said (and I'm sorry I can't remember the name), if we look at climate change as an existential threat, it is because it will force us to change the way we organize human life. Travel will become more difficult, environmental disasters might become much more costly, and producing energy will change. But the biodiversity crisis is an existential crisis, it is not about changing the way we organize; it is fundamentally changing and/or challenging the fact that we are alive. So, in many ways, the biodiversity crisis is a much more serious existential threat to humanity and human life as we know it, than climate change.
The problem with carbon tunnel vision is that right now companies and countries might be forced into making a tradeoff that is typically about, "Okay, is it more environmental or more economic?" But the reality is that the tradeoff is false. There is no economic growth without a planet. When people say: 'Oh, but we have to balance these things,' no, you don't have to balance them. We can't have economic growth in a world where there is no air to breathe or where there's no clean air or where everyone is sick because of air pollution. That balancing logic requires two systems to be independent, and today our economic system is entirely dependent on the environmental system. We have to realize that. But we have to realize as well that when it comes to making decisions, purely considering the carbon avoidance or the carbon sequestration potential at the expense of the biodiversity potential might be a short-term patch that eventually leads to much more bleeding.
Here’s one example that can illustrate what I’m talking about: we know that bamboo is a very fast-growing tree, which is useful because it means it absorbs carbon very quickly. Does that mean that it would make sense to do every reforestation project in the world globally with bamboo from a carbon perspective? You might argue, "Yes," but from an eco-to perspective and a biodiversity perspective, this would be terrible. You don't necessarily want to introduce non-native species in areas where they are not native because this creates harm to the local biomes. Secondly, bamboo might be good at capturing carbon, but it might not be very good at storing carbon in the long run. Mangroves are much better at this because they store a lot of carbon in the soil.
Dunja Jovanović: Simon, we don't have much time left, so I would like to ask you two questions that don’t require much time to answer. Firstly, what advice would you give to your students and young professionals who are interested in sustainability, and climate change?
Simon Schillebeeckx: As a professor, I would advise anyone interested in sustainability to get involved in this space. You don't necessarily need experience, as everything you need to know can be learned online. Climate tech, Nature tech, AI, and Blockchain are the most exciting spaces to be in right now, and all the big companies and venture capitalists are investing in these areas. It's a challenging but exciting time to be in this space, and there's a significant need for more talent, knowledge, and ideas. Anyone interested in an internship in this area is welcome to reach out, and we'll try to facilitate that irrespective of their location.
Dunja Jovanović: Secondly, where do you see the future of Handprint?
Simon Schillebeeckx: As a startup, we are always in between greatness and complete annihilation, so it's hard to say. I'm optimistic about the future, as we've received positive signals from the market that we're on the right track. However, convincing larger companies to experiment with new ways of thinking remains challenging, especially in the current global scenario.
We are bullish about launching our banking products, which will enable any bank to issue a bank card that rewards customers for specific green behaviors. We're also advancing our voucher capabilities, which will enable companies to crowdsource their CSR strategy and engage their employees and other stakeholders. Additionally, we're developing monitoring capabilities for reforestation, coral reef reconstruction, and biodiversity assessments to help large companies collect data at scale and make it easily accessible and auditable.
Our goal is to increase our impact in such a way that, hopefully, in the next two or three years, we'll have a successful series A launch.
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