The deep, transformational change required to reach sustainability goals requires businesses to deploy fresh approaches to tackle old challenges, writes Forum for the Future’s Sally Uren
World Environment Day first launched in 1974. Fast forward almost 50 years and it’s clear that decades of sustainability efforts have not gotten us to where we need to be. With our social, economic and environmental crises intensifying every second, the stakes have never been higher – yet the sustainability movement and the world still finds itself firmly on a treacherous climate-warming path.
My entire career has focused on sustainability, and so it is tough terrain to reflect on what we could or should have done differently. It makes me realise that unwittingly, I have played a role in the past in legitimizing being slightly less bad, when we now know it is not enough. But at least the value of hindsight, coupled with an innate optimism, means that even though it’s bad – really bad – I can see glimpses of a way forward.
While I could add to the list of what is holding us back – vested interests and resisting forces; short-termism; vanilla versions of ‘CSR’ that act as smokescreens for deeply unsustainable practices – I won’t. Instead, as we mark yet another World Environment Day, I want to hone in on one message to businesses: the radical change we so urgently need all starts in the mind. Put another way, what mindset we choose to apply in facing up to our challenges, and then in how we address them, is the one thing that really matters.
Shifting mindsets for a just and regenerative future
Our mindsets, values and narratives, are the deepest lever for systemic change. I have learned this the hard way in my career, co-creating some truly ambitious sustainability strategies only for them to wither away in the face of internal ambivalence. Likewise, I have co-created some ambitious collaborations with clear and precise diagnostics as to which systemic lever for change to pull, why and how, only to watch industry actors turn their heads the other way.
Deep transformation is a very human story, and if someone hasn’t experienced the need for change and isn’t willing to do something differently as a result, nothing will in fact change. If we’re to tackle the world’s environmental and social crises, it is Time we apply a different mindset and adopt a just and regenerative approach – one that embraces the power of nature to renew and regenerate, understands that humans are a fundamental part of nature, and respects everyone’s universal rights and potential to thrive.
It sounds hard – and it is, but we can get there. Here, I’d like to draw out three critical mindset shifts that will bring us closer to adopting a just and regenerative approach.
1. From either/or to co-benefits
A common debate in ESG is which to prioritise: social or environmental outcomes. This is a false binary. The world is interconnected; It’s not possible (or necessary) to prioritise one over the other. For businesses, moving past this false choice means reflecting multiple issues in people’s roles (more net zero or social equity positions, for example), and ensuring every investment and grant drives both social and environmental outcomes.
Separating social and environmental responsibilities is slowing down progress, and even more unhelpfully, forcing trade-offs that serve only to perpetuate unhelpful win-lose dynamics.
2. From acting in isolation to driving radical collaborations
We know that a key ingredient of systemic change is collaboration within systems and across generations. Yet, within the ecosystem of sustainability professionals spanning profit-making organizations and non-profits, too often you find us arguing over respective theories of change and definitions and ironically, competing against each other for funding.
If we focus our energy on greater collaboration and create additionality, it could actually alleviate the non-profit hamster wheel of fundraising as it allows us to aggregate effort to create tipping points for system change.
3. From questioning the point to taking inspiration from the niche
Admittedly, the work we do as a sector can be challenging. Every new IPCC report seems to bring only despair and one might end up thinking, ‘what’s the point?’ But if we look to the niches of our system – the innovations bubbling up beneath the surface – we’ll see that the future we want is already here. From new economic models that create and distribute value fairly to nature-based solutions for climate centered on social equity, inspiration is there if you just look.
Let’s celebrate that solutions are all around us. We now need to work harder – and together – to bring them into the mainstream. This won’t be easy and at times, perhaps even impossible. But we need to try. Afterall, our future isn’t yet fully written.
Time to throw out the excuses
At the Forum for the Future, we’re challenging businesses to look beyond traditional notions of ‘sustainability’ to something much more ambitious: a truly just and regenerative future. It’s here both people and the planet can thrive, underpinned by a reconfigured economy and new business models that look beyond profit to meet the needs of both society and nature.
We not only believe that this is possible, but that it’s within our grasp. But creating it needs to start now. Business leaders are uniquely placed to use their power to take determining action, while influencing others to discover their agency. Every action taken creates ripples in the system around us, which means that every action matters.
It’s time to throw out the excuses. ‘It’s too hard and too difficult,’ no longer flies (and arguably never has). Instead, let’s ask ourselves, ‘is there more I can do?’ We need to believe deep change is possible, and it is-just look at the price parity of renewables with oil and gas. Even five years ago this didn’t seem a possibility.
I, for one, want to tell the young people in my life that I did everything I could help us avoid the worst impacts of climate change, to try and influence the way the world works, even though it felt uncomfortable, and it was hard. As I look at the possibilities ahead and accept that our progress to date just hasn’t been enough, it bears asking again: If not you, who? If not now, when?
See you all in the future. Let’s create the one we want.
Sally Uren is CEO of Forum for the Future