Interview with futurologist and business activist Jule Bosch

How sustainable is the bicycle industry? Will customers make their purchasing decisions based on a new value system? Jule Bosch shows that you can also define sustainability in a more relaxed way and build a business model that is attractive not only to customers but also to young employees.

Ms. Bosch, your title for the presentation at Bike Biz Revolution is: Saving the World as a Business Model. What does that mean?

Many crises lead to the fact that many people think a lot. Many ask themselves whether they should start new things today or whether they would rather continue as before. I believe that crises always lead to things being rearranged. More rather than fewer people go out and think, what can I actually do?

There are more and more companies that address a problem that exists in the world, whether it's a social problem or an environmental problem, and they say, I want to solve that now. And I also want to earn money with how I change the world.

Are the challenges so great that companies really take a step back and redefine their strategy, or do they rather look for the low hanging fruit, i.e.: what can I optimize in my existing trade?

Always both. Today, you no longer make a product and sell that for 40 years. It's more of a continuous process. This is easier for entrepreneurs than for managers, who don't have this way of thinking and don't necessarily assume that they have to keep learning. You can't manage change.

So it makes sense both to fish for the low hanging fruit and to look at how I as a company am fit for the future. And it is becoming apparent that a lot will change because it is clear that business cannot go on like this. The system is obviously destroying itself. So the question is how can we create value in the future without destroying our own foundations. On the contrary: Ideally, you even have a positive impact and build something instead of destroying it.

How can you create value in the future without destroying your own foundations? [...] Ideally, you even have a positive impact and build something instead of destroying

What would be low hanging fruit?

I build a photovoltaic system, I avoid waste, I convert my fleet to electricity. These are often things that cost a lot of money, but can have a quick effect. And they don't always cost a lot: I can simply switch to a green electricity provider.

And then it's a matter of what does it all have to do with innovation. What products can I develop that serve a similar purpose. It's foreseeable that people will pay more and more attention to how sustainably something was produced. And the bicycle industry in particular could be very much at the forefront of this, but it's not. The bicycle industry is not concerned with the issue at all. It takes it for granted.

Where do you see problems?

This starts at the very beginning with production, namely with manufacturing in and delivery from China. Then there is the issue of recyclability. Composite materials are rather poor in this respect. The bicycle industry should take a closer look.

The question of whether sustainability actually affects consumer choices is a controversial one. What time horizon are we talking about?

There is a study from last year by Appinio that 60 to 70 percent of consumers want to bring about change with their purchasing decisions. And they also see companies as having a responsibility to give them this opportunity. Today, after all, there is the trade off between: I buy a great product and destroy the environment, or I buy nothing and then I'm good. This trade off has to be resolved. That holds enormous business potential.

Doesn't the customer do the same: he demands a sustainable product at the best price.

That's always the excuse companies use. They say: The customer wants to buy cheap. In fact, the customer has less influence on the offer than they are given credit for. That has to come from the companies. And it can. We can even see that it works in the automotive sector. There are sustainable solutions that are even cheaper.

There's this automatism that you always demand higher margins for innovations. But often you don't have to. If you look at oat milk, for example, it is produced much more cheaply than cow's milk. And it costs twice as much. Of course, it doesn't have the same scaling level, but it is possible.

If there is a recession now, will the change in values you are talking about be interrupted?   

I think so, because most sustainable products are more expensive. But it wouldn't have to be. That brings me back to corporate responsibility: You don't have to keep up with inflation on everything.

In the U.S., for example, there's Arizona Iced Tea. It's very popular with children and young people, but the price is left somewhere around one euro. They are happy with it.

Is Arizona ice tea sustainable?

No, probably not. But it's not just about the raw materials that go into a product. After all, the sustainability idea is much bigger than that.

Is offsetting allowed?

Only in conjunction with the idea of what can be done to eliminate the need for offsets.

There is a third party in the economic game. What about investors? Are they ready?

You can see that more and more investment organizations are moving in the green direction. For example, many family offices. Here, the calculations are different. Longer maturities, for example, or other reporting systems. I think you can see that a lot is developing there. But I couldn't conclusively judge whether established funders and funds are moving in this direction in larger numbers.

But of course: Sustainable business models can be profitable in the long term, and we are not living in a time of short-term liquidity bottlenecks; on the contrary, there is far too much money.

Opportunities definitely exist in the financial market.

First steps by companies are often criticized as greenwashing. Adidas has taken a lot of criticism for working with Parley because it is such a small part of the business.

There will always be people who bash everywhere. One way to avoid these greenwashing accusations is to start with the core business. Adidas is already doing that. I think they are really thinking about how to completely rebuild their supply chains. But you also have to realize that this is not yet possible in a comprehensive way. We're talking about markets that don't even exist yet. But Adidas is getting to the heart of the problem, and I would say that's not greenwashing.

And then, of course, it's about communicating that it's a path that starts small and gets bigger and bigger. That includes communicating things that haven't worked.

You can't get that kind of news through the press department.

Only if they understand the thinking behind it. The Veja brand has a section on its website called Limits. It says where the glue is not yet working, where the dyes are not yet sustainable. When the customer is informed that the sneaker he is wearing is the most sustainable one you can get. But it is not perfect, at that moment I will buy that sneaker because I want the company to continue on that path. The brand seems trustworthy, even though it's not perfect yet.

One way to avoid these greenwashing accusations is to start with the core business.

How does Jule Bosch define sustainability?

Sustainability refers to everything that has to do with us humans living happily together with our ecosystems for a long time. It includes the ecological component, social issues, how much employees are involved, does the company exploit anyone, animals, people, plants, and so on.

From the perspective of a futurologist, I would say that the term is changing. Sustainability is a word from yesterday. In forestry, for example, it has long been the case that you plant as many trees as you harvest. The fact that you cause other damage in the process is not taken into account. It is an economic perspective. And that is not enough. It doesn't even include the perspective of a living forest ecosystem.

We are moving away from the economic concept of sustainability to a regenerative concept.

How can I convince the economists in the company? There's a lot riding on it, right down to the commissions paid to individual employees.

I have not yet figured out exactly how to convince people of this. Maybe it has to speak to them intuitively, so that you can get them out of their number-focusedness. One should ask oneself the questions: To what extent is my life made better by the work, to what extent that of my employees and that of my customers?

Then, of course, the regenerative paradigm can solve problems. Yesterday I was with logisticians in a production hall, and one glaring problem in logistics is the shortage of skilled workers. And if you look around the hall, you can see why: This place is not made for humans. It's made for small robots, and they feel at home there.

If you were to fundamentally change the ambience and make it more people-friendly, that would not only be an investment against the shortage of skilled workers. It can also increase productivity if people feel comfortable in the workplace. Or loyalty to the employer. And there you have the numbers.

Against this backdrop, how do you deal with digitization? On the face of it, digitalization has ecological advantages, such as the home office. But it also brings problems with it.

In fact, the problems of digitization are basically problems at a higher level. When we talk about CO2 consumption through the blockchain, the main reason is that the energy transition has not yet succeeded. But in many areas, digitization can help save resources and make things more efficient.

From the perspective that we view the entire ecosystem as a living being, digitization helps, so to speak, by providing key figures and measured values. But a topic like biodiversity is hardly measurable. The point is to measure something that is created, not what is there. It's more about target-based innovation.

Aber in vielen Bereichen kann die Digitalisierung dabei helfen, Ressourcen zu sparen und Dinge effizienter zu machen.

It is commonly said that sustainability is a generational issue. Is that how you perceive it?

Totally. It's a blatant generational issue. The older generation grew up when there was a lot of scarcity. Materialism was the logical consequence. For me, who grew up in a world where there was always everything, it no longer has any meaning. If you look at this from the point of view of Maslow's pyramid of needs, it is exciting to see that we are not talking about the highest level of self-realization in isolation, but rather asking ourselves how this self-realization possibly destroys the basis of existence, that is, the most fundamental of all needs.

In our generation, there are very many who seek a charitable task that has to do with redistribution, for example. Maintaining livelihoods is our form of self-actualization. Green transformation can also be a totally cool project for employees.

How do I approach this change in values when I am a bicycle brand?

Many bicycle brands have real fan communities. You have to talk to these people, involve them in development processes. You can also involve them in crowdfunding if you communicate that you need money for a sustainable project.

And here again we find an economic approach: good customer loyalty reduces customer acquisition costs. Sono Motors says they have 60 euros in customer acquisition costs. At Volkswagen it's a few hundred euros, at Porsche a few thousand.

With startups, I often talk about the "what the fuck" moment. That's the moment when you realize that something is going really badly and that creates the impulse to want to change something.

What does Jule Bosch experience when she gets off the stage at a logistics company after giving a presentation on sustainable visions?

A lot of self-defense. Reflexively, the people I talk to point to the solar panels they've installed or the trees they've planted. Maybe I'm their guilty conscience personified.  

With startups, I often talk about the "what the fuck" moment. That's when you realize that something is going really bad and that creates the impulse to want to change something. Many founders come up to me after talks and say that's exactly how they developed their business idea.

And what is the WTF moment of the bicycle industry?

There are probably millions, but one I see is the lack of integration between urban planning and bicycle infrastructure. This is where companies should be more proactive and really demand it.