by Scott Lewis | Brightworks CEO
In an era of superstorms, and garbage gyres the size of Texas, where 1.2 people lack safe drinking water and, those of us working for change at scale feel a heightened sense of urgency around the issue of scale and impact. According to a new report by the UN, climate change if not averted could push up to 3 billion people into extreme poverty by the middle of this century. This is the Go Big or Go Home moment.
I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of having an aspirational vision – that incremental change is both uninspiring and insufficient. But after 12 years in practice using sustainability strategies to help our clients address their most pressing issues and greatest opportunities around cost, risk, brand, talent and aligning their values with their work, we are finally gaining real proficiency in what I feel is the most powerful lever for helping our clients secure enduring competitive advantage.
Greenland Ice Sheet Melt – an impact of climate change. Over the course of several years, turbulent water overflow from a large melt lake carved this 60-foot-deep (18.3 meter-deep) canyon (note people near left edge for scale). A complete melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet would raise sea levals by over 20 feet. Image credit: Ian Joughin, University of Washington; NASA
In the world of sustainability practice, the biggest barriers, challenges and opportunities are often perceived to be either technical or financial. And while it is true that financial and technical innovations are urgent and important, we have found through our work on hundreds of projects with dozens of clients large and small, that the greatest challenges and opportunities are in fact neither technical nor financial. Yes, we have to figure out non-toxic product strategies using renewable inputs and closed loop recycling. We have to figure out how to make buildings and communities that can run on renewable energy and function with a net-zero (or positive) environmental footprint. And we have to figure out how to pay for these things. But as Lester Brown observed in his inspiring exploration of possibility, Plan B, everything we need to do to achieve real sustainability, we are already doing, in places. It’s a question of scale, resolve, fixing market failures like externalities, and overcoming huge issues like the corrupting influence of money in politics. But the barriers are not technical, nor financial. They are personal.
Sustainability = Change
We hear a lot of talk in sustainability circles of the Triple Bottom Line – people, planet, prosperity. And while the ecological and financial dimensions of the equation are regularly addressed, and the social equity component is gaining some momentum in some circles, when I talk here about the social dimension of sustainability, I’m not referring to the “sustainability has to reach all groups” aspect. While that factor, the Sustainability For All angle, is certainly true, urgent and important, that’s not what I’m talking about here, now. What I’m talking about is this: sustainability is about change. It means doing things differently in the future than today. And if we don’t think about that fact, get inquisitive and ask about its implications, we’ll be stuck writing inspiring sustainability plans that gather dust on the shelf while the ice sheets melt and species continue to vanish. If we aspire to accelerate the transformation of an economic, social and political system that depletes the planet’s natural capital into a system capable of providing lasting prosperity for the majority of humanity, we must focus heightened attention, and we have to do this quickly and well, on the implications of the simple observation that sustainability means change. Not doing so would be akin to trying to lose weight without eating less or exercising more.
Understanding what motivates people to change behavior is the most powerful lever to successful sustainability uotcomes.
The logic is somewhat straightforward:
Is our current system sustainable? Answer: obviously not.
Do we wish to have a sustainable future? Clearly.
Will we get there by continuing to do the things that created the situation we are in today? No chance.
Therefore, we have to do things in the future differently than we are today. Hence: Sustainability = Change.
This may seem obvious beyond words, but by not focusing on the implications of this simple truth, which we have found in our work to be the rule more than the exception, we allow tremendous amounts of energy to leak out the sides of our efforts, instead of moving us forward as quickly as we can go.
So what does this really mean? What do we do about it? How do we “operationalize” change effectively? Believe it or not, there are good answers to all those questions.
Stay tuned and we’ll offer some thoughts, now that we’ve framed the question, in our next installment…