Can business save the planet? One man is cycling around the world for three years to find out

Ben Parent is an MBA-slicker turned eco-warrior. He tells us how and why he's circumnavigating the world by bike

Clock12:10, Wednesday 20th September 2023
Parent and his bike

© Ben Parent

Parent and his bike

The two sides of Ben Parent’s personality are in conflict.

In one sense, the 35-year-old Frenchman is a business school graduate with a clean haircut and a slick LinkedIn profile. On our video call, he appears to be wearing anti-blue-glare spectacles inside his Scandi-inspired apartment. His speech is tinged with boardroom-speak; he talks of 'dimensions', 'practices' and 'values'.

Yet there is a selfless, green-fingered, drum-beating activist stirring behind Parent’s cool exterior. He’s concerned, like many of his generation, about the issues facing the climate, and now he has decided to dedicate the next few years of his life to finding solutions.

On Friday, Parent is embarking on a three-year circumnavigation of the world on a bicycle. Rather than eyeing up any speed records, he’s using the bicycle to facilitate a worldwide research trip. He is leaving France on September 22, International Car-Free Day, and heading east in pursuit of an answer to a simple question: can businesses be built around the needs of the planet, and if so, how? A few days before he departed, GCN spoke to Parent to find out more.

Read more: Kate Strong completes Climate Cycle: a 5,000km lap of Britain for the planet

From MBA-slicker to eco-warrior

Ben Parent, an MBA from France, was an entrepreneurially-minded car guy. After business school, he moved to Monaco, where, as a young project manager and consultant, he spent his weekends driving other people’s classic Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches along the coastal roads of the French Riviera.

But on a trip to Australia and New Zealand in his 20s, Parent’s perspective underwent a seismic shift.

As Parent puts it, “I realised the beauty of nature, very deeply. Very, very deeply. And I was in love with nature.”

When he returned to Monaco, the champagne glitter of the Riviera had turned to tinsel. Where once he had seen luxury, he saw emissions and waste.

"Most of the time, people who have got a lot of money consume a lot of carbon," he says.

Ever since, Parent has tried to reconcile his old passions – entrepreneurship and cars – with the environment, and it hasn’t been easy. He took a job at Tesla, and was instrumental in introducing electric cars to Dubai and the Middle East.

But it wasn’t enough. Watching Teslas roll out of showrooms, one after another, Parent realised that this was just another form of that planet-killing consumerism he’d seen in Monaco.

“I was seeing all of these cars, and I was like, ‘how do we sustain all these things?’”

In search of answers

Clearly, the answer to sustainable business is far more complex than simply chucking an electric motor and half a ton of lithium into a saloon car. But what that answer is, Parent is unsure.

As he says, “a lot of companies are selling sustainable development, but what does that really mean?"

Seeking a more nuanced understanding of how businesses can be built around the needs of the planet, Parent is setting off around the world on his bike. He plans to meet with business leaders everywhere from Bhutan to Boston, and won’t return to France until 2026.

“My plan is to do a world tour in three steps. The first objective is to go to the Middle East, then to the East - Southeast Asia - and then America - South America, North America - and going back through Norway”, Parent tells GCN.

On his journey, he plans to meet key minds behind businesses that are going beyond net zero, and actually repairing the environment. Not only that, he wants to see them first-hand. “I wanted to learn from the field because I didn't want to be theoretical about entrepreneurship. I wanted to meet real entrepreneurs.”

He plans to share what he finds with the world, both through a book and a series of documentary films. Included in the 30kg of luggage affixed to Parent’s steel touring bike, consequently, is a laptop and all the camera gear he needs to document what he finds.

He’s planning to ride around 80km a day, five days a week, then stop for two days, either meeting people or resting. All in all, Parent expects the ride to be around 50,000km – almost twice the distance of the normal ‘around the world’ route. In terms of funding, he has set himself a budget of €115,000, inputting €15,000 himself, raising €70,000 from sponsors, and hoping to add €30,000 from crowdfunding.

To give the trip a further boost of green credentials, Parent will pay to plant a tree for every 5km he rides, which he says will work out at about three square kilometres of woodland. Ultimately, it means that the trip will be carbon-negative.

Difficulties with family

Logistically, putting your ‘normal’ life on ice for three years is difficult, but for Parent, the hardest part has been the strain that this trip has placed on his relationship with his family.

“The hardest part was people trying to demotivate me, trying to tell me, ‘you're crazy, you don't want to work’, because, you know, you can have a good salary and a good house and blah, blah, blah, you know, and a nice life.”

Retreating from his confident, well-presented self a little, he goes on: “Of course my father was a bit… very against, and he told me, ‘blah, blah, blah…’ And I prefer to stop talking to him from that point, you know? Because I wanted to follow my route. So that was the hardest part, I would say.”

Despite the family difficulties, with just nine days left before his departure, Parent was cool, calm and collected – typical for a pragmatist like himself.

Explaining why he isn’t more stressed, he said: “I have the tendency to be a bit like a soldier, going task by task without emotion."

He turned the camera to show a large A1 pad on an aisle. The object would have looked more fitting in a conference centre than an apartment. On it, in black marker pen, was a long list.

“I’ve got about 42 tasks, and 10 days to realise the tasks. So it’s a bit hectic, but I don’t have to think about stress or whatever."

Reconciling his passions

It’s clear that Parent is doing his best to reconcile the business world with the natural world. He spoke of a metaphor he’d constructed comparing the world of business to the trees in a forest; lots of seeds are planted, some are non-starters, others spurt up then die, and some grow to be big and strong.

“So for me, the metaphor between trees and an entrepreneur is very close.”

Analogies like this can reassure. As he turns his cranks for the first time in this trip, Parent's belief that the planet can be saved within a capitalist society appears unwavered. But only time will tell whether this belief will survive three years of bike-bound research.

Perhaps this trip will help Parent slot the two sides of himself together, or perhaps it will cause further reflection, and more difficult questions. Either way, Parent is doing everything in his power to find practical solutions to climate change. For that, he should be praised.

For more information on Ben's ride, you can visit his website.

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