Re-greening our world needs pragmatic hope from better interconnections and innovation.
When it comes to sustainability, most of us oscillate between seeming despair and optimism in the hope of action. But that hope is flimsy because every action, disconnected and uncoordinated - no matter how numerous - is not enough, not today.
However, it's hope that will get us out of our dire situation, not more data, science or groups of "experts" that overwhelm with fear and play on guilt. And this hope has to be anchored in collective actions that are interconnected to reverse, not just reduce, restore, not just repair, regenerate, not just reuse. In other words, let's strive for better innovation, please!
Not A Problem To Be "Fixed"
There’s a lot to be said about where we stand on sustainability, especially since life as usual got disrupted by COVID, and with the COP26 opening today. The level of consciousness about the dire state of our planet and climate is so much on everyone’s mind that it means we have an opportunity to leverage this moment to act and build momentum together.
However, there’s also a very real sense of overwhelm and hopelessness in some quarters that is debilitating and needs to be acknowledged. As a society, we constantly switch between a mode of "fight, flight or freeze" response. No one is living this more intensively than our younger generation at present. Eco-anxiety is a very real thing as this BBC article shows. True, some good is coming out of it, as a generational shift in eco-friendlier behaviour is emerging - mostly from militant activities.
But does it help us to "fix" something that's beyond fixable in a system that's failed in many ways? Is it going to clean up all the plastic waste in the ocean that is already killing wildlife and poisoning our seafood chain? Will it draw down enough greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere to radically bring global warming below 1.5°C? More importantly, how will it help us flourish and thrive sustainably if these changes are founded on idealogical rejections or polarizing perspectives?
This is a hyper-stressful way of functioning and is also dividing societies, further segregating poor from rich, young from old, rural from urban, small from big and so forth - not necessarily the most effective way of re-greening our planet. Such sentiments accumulate mainly because of two things: the information and data obsession about how “bad” our global situation is (and who the biggest "culprits" are), and the “top-down” blanketed tones of fear-mongering that propagate our media airwaves, laying on pressure to do more... and give more … and feel more guilty.
The issue is that when fear and anxiety take over, there is no room for constructive sense-making and certainly, less appetite for dialogue to help context-specific grounding and solutioning. Yet, what we need more of, are innovative ways to do both these and change our relationships and interactions with each other and with mother earth as a whole. Otherwise, sustainability will be considered an added-on burden and yet another "problem" to be fixed.
It isn't and here's why.
Sustainability: The Part of Our DNA We Forgot
Sustainability is the natural way of life, part of our DNA that we forgot along the way, and should be aspiring to reconnect with and enhance, leveraging our advanced knowledge, technology and creativity.
Some sustainability practices have been around for as long as human civilizations existed. They are the reasons modern society is cleaner, healthier, more efficient, and productive in many regards. They are part of our ability to innovate and develop intelligently. They emerged as we learnt to live and interact with our surroundings, creating opportunities and new value while overcoming obstacles and working around constraints.
I remembered growing up with the “right things” passed on through word of mouth and ingrained into our knowledge system without necessarily remembering why. They were never referred to as sustainable practices but in retrospect, they were. You might have done these too, for example:
Collecting rainwater in a big urn meant saving water for use on drier days. Less talked about was how it also prevented soil run-off.
Repurposing clothes into hand-me-downs for the younger ones in the family or as scraps made into quilt covers, cleaning rags, furniture covering, etc. Less talked about was how this reduced waste, water usage, production resources and more CO2 emissions overall.
Turning leftover food into new recipes and conserving them while those that could not be converted was spread into garden beds. Less talked about was how the latter led to a natural decomposition that feeds soil fertility.
Even older practices exist to do with architectural design that showed the respect and awareness of living with nature, and not dominating it. This article from Rethinking The Future depicts amazing examples of ancient architectural design and construction that optimized natural resources and reduced waste, all while providing comfort and respite from harsher external conditions.
So, when did sustainability start to sound like something to contend with, a new rule for controlling abuses or a criteria of reporting for evaluating and mitigating investment risks? Was it when we started to address anticipated risks and threats through the lens of economic wins and material gains, and forgot that we are part of mother nature and our planet ...?
The Missed Opportunity of Pragmatism and Nimbleness
When I first started working on company annual reports more than two decades ago, CSR seemed to be the remit of large public-listed multinationals that had shareholders to appease and resources to leverage. Their scale and impact made them more visible, and therefore, the subject of more scrutiny. It consoled the market to see that some portion of gains went into giving back and this transparency made it seem like big business were the ones to set the example for the rest of the industry. It also seemed to send the message that as long as companies were able to “fix” a problem and pay back, they could do whatever they wanted.
Unfortunately, we're past that now and have been for awhile. Paying back won't fix the problems of our planet and our systems, and certain scientists, economists and policy-makers who bothered to "listen" to the natural ways of our planet, understood this.
The definition of sustainable development from the Brundtland Report on Our Common Future since 1987 was part of this understanding and has been useful as a social construct to get behind a shared meaning and raise the alarm for a common purpose. The SDGs have been helpful in breaking it down further but the details remain elusive to realities on the ground, and even exclusive for they were made by policymakers for policymakers. Numerous new rules and standards have also been added on for more ethical governance and transparency in management but they largely apply to public-listed corporations.
This focus on BIG has made us overlook the smaller players toiling away in the shadows, for better or for worse. Smaller companies were also given a general “pass”, either because they didn’t matter enough individually, or because they didn’t have the means to matter. This has all led to our dire situation today in which we are playing catch up.
Today, over 400 sustainability standards and eco-labels exist as guidelines and for certification, as though we are hellbent on creating more confusion and complexity. On top of that, they are no better for including smaller players into the fold, being just as disconnected from everyday operational and business realities as ever. It's not surprising that most SMEs see sustainability compliance and transparency reporting as an added burden they can't afford to deal with.
However, not connecting and including them is a missed opportunity for three non-negligible reasons.
SMEs are 90% of our global economy. In Europe, they make up 99% of companies. They employ almost 60 to 70% of the workforce, contribute more than 40 to 50% of production wealth, and to over 40% of industrial pollution. Currently, the CSRD of EU, revised from the NFRD that only applied to 11,000 largest companies or 1%, will expand in the next two years to almost 50,000 companies. That touches at best, 6% of all European companies.
SMEs can be low hanging fruits of hope because many already practice sustainability out of necessity, such as waste reduction, operational frugality, employee support or local community outreach. They just don't think of it in terms of sustainability reporting because it's part of doing good business. If supported to uncover exemplary practices that correspond to reporting standards, they can serve as examples and beacons of hope for others, while encouraging them to adopt better transparency.
SMEs have the propensity to change in agile ways because most come down to the owner(s) and a smaller number of decision-makers. If their day-to-day operational challenges can be eased practically, their administered turnaround can be much faster and easier to observe - so critical in the urgency of our times.
It's rather arrogant and diminishing to think only the big know what’s best to help the small. Startup innovation in information technology and digital has shown us how small can be beautifully disruptive. Effective measures in some small countries have demonstrated practical good sense. If anything, pragmatism and nimbleness are the biggest strengths of small, and these might just be what we need most for sustainability.
Reconnecting With Our Natural Ways
Turning our planet around is not about charity and altruism. As part of its whole biodiversity, every living thing, including each of us and our smaller organizations, play a role in its collective prosperity, the same as ours. Mother nature does not discriminate by size or status. An army of ants in the tropical forest is just powerfully different from a family of mongoose and from a lone leopard, not less important. Even an earthworm has “magical powers” to give new life and health to soil.
Almost everything that is organic belongs to a complex web of interdependencies and complementarities because no matter how small, it has its own strength, and when exercised, it contributes to a regenerative ecosystem. It seems rather odd that, as organic beings ourselves, including the organizational systems we create, we forget this and choose to fashion our world on the siloed processes of mechanics and machines rather than those of nature.
All this is to say that we are a lot more resourceful and creative than we give ourselves credit for, if only we make time to look around and appreciate what’s good and working in the small as much as in the big from, taking a leaf or two from mother nature herself. Imagine replacing the feeling of overwhelm and guilt with the awe and wonder of discovery by including even the smallest of actors in our systems. Here are just a few examples of what smaller actors can do in emerging sustainability innovations. The question is how can their ingenuity be put to better use to reach meaningful scale? How do we interconnect to learn from each other and adjust the imbalances so we can create a groundswell of good practices to flood out the bad?
Part of that is about heightening our mindfulness of getting beyond the paralysis of negative data, clickbait headlines and sensational fear-mongering, to broadening dialogue with unconventional individuals and unlikely players to uncover, value, learn and encourage regenerative insights and inspiration. It's truly time for all hands on deck to dream big, start small, act together and change now.
Are you with me? Where would you start?
I host New World Leader Conversations (NWLC) for this purpose. Join us for the 3rd and last in the series on Our Green Dream! It's free, it's inclusive and it's filled with a diversity of perspectives to open us up to new possibilities that are grounded in realities.
Kate Raworth: Doughnut Economics