InnoKOL | Richard Brubaker: Sustainability is A Lens through which We Look at the Inter-play among Environment, Society, Economy, and Community

2022/08/02 Innoverview Read

On Aug.2nd (GMT+8), InnoKOL had a fascinating conversation with Mr. Richard Brubaker, the Managing Director of Collective Responsibility, Founder of HandsOn China and an Adjunct Professor of Sustainability and Social Innovation at Southern Methodist University, talking about his unique work experience and the profound insights on driving sustainability.


Jokia: How would you describe yourself in three words? What’s your motto?


Mission driven entrepreneur.

Stop Complaining.  Start Something. I even have stickers and merch with that motto.


Jokia: Can you please share more about your educational and professional background? And we’d love to hear what brought you into business sustainability& social innovation domain.


In short.  I'm trying to solve big problems of environment, society, community, and economy using entrepreneurship models. For profit and non.


And I am building a community of like-minded entrepreneurs, corporate, and government leaders as part of the journey. And I also teach at leading business schools, and manage three YouTube channels in my free time.


For background.


- Born and raised in US (Missouri).

- Went to University of Missouri (MIZZOU) for Business/ economics

- Moved to SF for 3 years in late 90s to work in tech/ supply chain

- Attended Thunderbird (Phoenix) and got MBA + International Management


- Moved to Beijing in '02, and then Shanghai '03 as Beijing was too slow for me.   City was full of expats, diplomates, teachers, and students.


Shanghai vibe was young, dynamic, and hustle... so, fit was much better for me. From there...  I started several firms for China research and sourcing, where I helped large companies understand China entry strategies, investment decisions, etc.


At same time, I started first charity (HandsOn Shanghai), and in '08 when earthquake happened, I founded second one in Chengdu.


I was still managing consulting / sourcing businesses, but at end of that year, I decided to shift to sustainability.


I did so not to save the world, or to save China. I did it because I saw sustainability as both a supply chain problem for China and an economics problem through externalities. Around that time, CEIBS asked me to begin teaching a course called Sustainability and Responsible Leadership.


So, I was entrepreneur, academic, and charity... and it was AWESOME because that was the opportunity for being in Shanghai.


Jokia: Why sustainability is the future for all businesses?


Sustainability for me is not a strategy or a problem to be solved.  It's a lens through which we look at the inter-play between environment, society, economy, and community.


It's far more than "carbon", and for many, the challenges are different.


But, broadly speaking, the reason why it is important to business is leaders who understand the challenges faced are better positions to traverse them.


So, if you are a food executive who takes "sustainability" seriously, you will position your products to have less packaging, you will develop new products, and you will work with your supply chain to improve resilience to (drought, labor, etc.).


If you are an executive who ignores the issues. well, your business is exposed to those challenges and you don't have any control when things change.


For me, that's where the "future of business" exists, and there is a LOT of money for those businesses.


Jokia: To date, you have overseen the development and execution of more than 250 projects focused on solving the social, environmental and economic challenges that are faced in Asia, could you share 2-3 cases impressed you most?  


One of my most interesting projects was working with large athletic brand who wanted to create a takeback/ recycle program for their clothing/ shoes/ hardware.


They have a very big commitment, and through that project we identified several key vendors who were well positioned to support the consolidation, sorting, and processing of materials.


Another was with Target (US retailer), who have 2000+ suppliers in China. About 5-6 years ago they asked for help to create a program focused on left-behind children in their supply chain, and to create a tech solution for them.It was an incredible project as we were able to work with 5,000 families to understand the challenges they faced, and then solve them.


Solution was through children's watches and a parent-facing APP, and within 3 months of entering the project, parents saw a massive increase in their relationship with children.Which, on the factory floor, resulted in less conflict with management, higher productivity, higher retention, etc.So, we solved a business problem, by solving a human problem first.


Last one was when we worked with Kohler to design a bathtub for elderly.The purpose is that many Chinese families are being asked to care for elderly, but their bathrooms are not safe... and the products that improve safety often reduce appearance of bathroom.Platform of engagement was a hackathon, and we had 6 university teams from all over China. It was a month-long hack, with dedicated research time, factory visits, field visits, and then 36 hours sleeping inside Kohler showroom.


In the end, one team killed it and designed a bathtub that had a platform built into it. It led to actual product in the market. Again, it solved a business problem through human problem. Here is hackathon video: .


Jokia: How will you foresee the opportunities of tech& innovation helping sustainability initiative thrive?


Tech opportunities are massive.


Food tech (new products / supply chain efficiency/ new growing platforms) ... HUGE


Healthcare (robots, home care APPS, wearables, hospital efficiency, elderly care) ... HUGE


Environmental (water, energy, building systems, etc.) .... HUGE


Education (virtual learning, hybrid applications, in-class experience, etc.) ... HUGE


The key to all of them is understand the problem that you are solving for,not something that many companies do well.


Jokia: What are the keys to designing funding sustainability for helping SMEs make their manufacturing practices eco-sustainable?


That's hard. Especially when the market is so tough. If your goal is to be 100% green, great. Do that. But, at this point, if you are trying to stay alive, then just find little ways to do better.  Improve efficiency.  Improve labor conditions.  Improve materials.

To make this a bit easier, get your team excited and ask them to bring ideas.  This helps generate a lot of the ideas needed in the early days.Over time, ask a consultant to come in, work with competitors, etc. to help elevate.

Jokia: In China, sustainability is seen as a decision-forming purchase criterion and as a topic that is meant to stay. How to boost sustainable consumption in times of pandemic from your experience?


At the macro level picture, no.  Sustainability is not a main driver for consumer behavior, and it likely will not be for a long time as the value proposition for "sustainability" is still unclear to the wider market.


However, as we have seen with organic food (and imported food), the growth in vegan products, and the number of "healthy food" categories that have developed over the last 5 years, there is a growing market that is quite significant in size.


Same is true for electronic cars, which have been subsidized to aid the transition, but over the last 10 years as the cars have gone from meh to wow, more consumers are choosing to purchase them because they are better products than ITC.


From a social perspective, the demand for affordable access to high quality healthcare, education, and elderly care are massive markets that aren't traditionally considered "sustainability", but are in fact tied to the social aspects of "sustainability".


Going forward, and assuming China’s economic growth/ stability continues, I expect the opportunities to grow. 


We are already seeing consumers who are tired of fast fashion, are concerned about plastic in the ocean, want clean skies, and are willing to spend more.


Every market just requires a different approach, and a lot of patience.

Jokia: How should leaders at multinational companies respond to the globalization retreat?


Start by accepting that peak globalization happened pre-COVID, and the implications for business are quite large if ignored.


For me, I have seen this coming for many years as markets around the world have developed, and the need for reliance on one country was always risky (from supply chain).


So, as far as I see it, we will break into three regions (Asia/ EMEA/ NA&SA) and global firms will create localized supply chain / products to meet that region.


At same time, things are going to get more expensive, and consumers will learn that 70s-2010s was a special time in history for Western consumers... but the gig is up.


Costs that were once externalized (i.e., labor, environmental, etc.) will all return to business models, and there is little your VC backed coffee shop can do about it.


SMEs will continue to get pounded by large businesses/ governments.



Mr. Richard Brubaker is the Managing Director of Collective Responsibility, Founder of HandsOn China and an Adjunct Professor of Sustainability and Social Innovation at Southern Methodist University.

Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 20 years in Asia working to engage, inspire and equip those around him to take their first step.

Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, to bring about the changes in leadership and business models, and to recalibrate old models so that new opportunities can be captured, Brubaker’s work is centered around building foundations of knowledge, understanding core issues, engaging stakeholders, and doing what it takes to move forward.

To date, Richard have overseen the development and execution of more than 200 projects focused on solving the social, environmental and economic challenges that are faced in Asia.

Richard holds a Masters in International Management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, and serves as the Vice Chairman of the Corporate Social Responsibility Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.



Ms. Jokia Yin is the Founder of Innoverview and InnoKOL, the Vice Chairman of HK International Blockchain Finance Association as well as the Head of Media at United States of America-China Chamber of Commerce. Jokia has over 10 years of marketing and management experience, much of which has been in the Asia Pacific Region within events and PR industry. She has held key leadership roles executing market research and entry, developing sales channels and revenue generation, building marketing, finance and Operations related infrastructure for a more than 20 events related to retail, tourism, energy storage, blockchain, cosmetics domains.