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How Do You Start a Business That Changes the World?

20/06/2016 13:25 | Updated 20 June 2016

Through Escape the City, I often met high-flying professionals who wanted to ditch their day-to-day routines in order to 'find more meaning' and 'change the world'. I must have talked to at least a thousand millennials who stated the same dream of owning a business that also improved society.

For a process that I thought would have increased my optimism, it had the opposite effect. I saw that it had become almost fashionable to start a 'do-gooder' business - all very well in theory, but when things actually got really tough, as they often do in startups - most of these high achievers demonstrated their allergy to failure and ended up folding away their ideas.

This prompted me to really question whether business could actually 'change the world' or improve economic and environmental systems for the better, or whether it was a utopian millennial dream.

This is why I was intrigued to meet Jeremy Moon, the founder of Icebreaker, an outdoor clothing company in New Zealand. There is a spiritual element in the way Moon does business, which I discerned from reading a chapter he authored in Deepak Chopra's The Soul of Leadership.

"For me, a dream starts as a possibility. Slowly, the possibility grows and turns into a wave of energy: a feeling of being aligned with the purpose of my life. This takes practice and trust," he wrote.

Even the founding of Icebreaker seemed cosmic. While backpacking around New Zealand with his American girlfriend, she introduced her boyfriend to the farmer couple she was staying with, who were merino wool farmers. This was 1994 and her boyfriend was 24-year-old Jeremy Moon.

That fateful introduction led to Moon locking himself away, quitting his research job and mortgaging his house to follow his passion for creating a beautiful, natural product from New Zealand.

Moon convinced his friend Michelle Mitchell to throw in her law career to join him, and they drove around New Zealand in a couple of beat-up Datsuns trying to persuade stores to buy the first ever Icebreaker range.

Over two decades later, Icebreaker sells in more than 50 countries in over 4,700 stores around the world, sticking to its principles of sustainability, natural fibres, environmental and social ethics, and animal welfare.

Upon studying the Icebreaker story, it is hard to discern which fact is more impressive: that company sales this year were over $200 million, that Icebreaker has pioneered the new retail category of merino outdoor clothing, or that it was conceived and designed around the philosophy of "profitable sustainability".

Early on, Moon stated his vision of building a company that doesn't deliver at the expense of the environment. He talked about his shift in awareness occurring when he saw Icebreaker as its own business model, balancing ecology, economy, and resources.

"Our objective is profitable sustainability," he says. "When you are truly aware, you see that the future has to be based on sustainable enterprises, which is what Icebreaker has been from the beginning."

"This idea of profitable sustainability is a healthy tension. The business has to be profitable. Money is like blood in a body," Moon explains. "If you have uncontrolled bleeding in the body, you die, right? You have to have a nutritious level of profitability to enable the organism to grow."

"We believe nature is a powerful force that is within us and around us," he continues. "When you live in the city, it's easy to feel distanced from nature. Icebreaker is a bridge that reconnects us with nature, and protects us in all climates and environments."

This seems to be the driving philosophy behind Icebreaker's company ethos, that nature is "an astonishing designer" creating what is "simple, efficient and beautiful". This was evident right from the beginning, when the company started out by specialising in the production of merino base layer long underwear.

While Moon didn't know much, he did know how to listen. He talked to experts, learned how to use a warehouse and how to deliver on time, and from the start, he focused on developing narrow and deep relationships with a small number of merino growers, manufacturers, retailer and staff.

"I wasn't an expert on anything so they taught me to rely on experts on everything. I found an expert in branding who helped us sharpen our brand's story. An expert designer, an expert at manufacturing and an expert in finance, because I was the ultimate generalist."

When I asked him about this magical element underpinning his business, I called it conscious capitalism.

"Conscious is very safe because it relates to the mind," he said. "Spirituality really isn't just the mind or the body. It's the heart. I constantly had this fear of looking for pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It just felt like this burning force in my gut, oh my god, this is what I have to do... how am I going to do that?"

I told him about the Escape members I often met, who often felt silly for not 'knowing' what it is they should begin as a business. He responded that his approach had come from a holistic intention.

"It was never like, 'Oh, that's a good idea, I might go do that,'" he says. "It was never actually a mind thing. It was always a heart and body thing. There was an urgency and relentlessness and emotion that came with that."

When I asked him if he had any advice for those at career crossroads, he said:

"A little thought experiment that I sometimes do just to freak myself out is imagine yourself at 70, reflecting back on your life, how happy are you with your choices? By the time you're 70, you're not really creating new paths. You're more harvesting the culmination of your decisions. You don't want to live a life of regrets. What does this current choice mean for the end game?"

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