There is an increasing danger that the sustainability movement is starting to reflect the very system it is seeking to change
We can find scores of reasons why sustainability is not scaling up at speed, but how often do we search for the common root cause?
If we are prepared to look the problem in the eye, we see that these barriers tend to emanate from our egoic needs.
Practitioners in the sustainability movement often complain that those in power refuse to respond to issues such as climate change or water scarcity because they benefit from the current system in terms of maintaining their status in society, their material comforts and desire to be in control.
But those who are passionately engaged in helping move society towards a more sustainable future are also subject to the same egoic forces, which, if they were able to better understand and master, would have the effect of quickening the pace of change.
While there is obvious strength in diversity, the corporate sustainability movement is becoming so fractured that it risks losing some of its momentum and vitality.
Worse than that, as the sustainability “industry” expands, there are increasing dangers that it is starting to reflect the very system it is seeking to change.
A competitive mentality prevails
Collaboration may be the buzzword, but very few are really driving transformational change and there is a dark underbelly that is seeing sustainability-related organizations increasingly in competition and privately critical of each other.
How many organizations, NGOs and other groups in this space do you see trampling over each other to get attention for their particular pet idea or project, rather than searching for common threads? Probably quite a few.
On the other side of the equation, how many times have you seen people stand up and be vulnerable enough to admit they have reached a dead end with a particular idea and that maybe someone else’s approach is more effective? Not so many, I suspect.
The danger, of course, is the movement ends up becoming something akin to the Tower of Babel, with the cacophony of noise getting ever louder and the very people they are seeking to reach becoming increasingly confused by the myriad approaches.
A great illustration of this came at a two-day event run by Nike at its headquarters in Portland, Oregon.
The Launch 2020 event represented a bold move by Nike, bringing together experts from all over the world who represent every part of the sustainable materials system, ranging from regulators and designers to NGOs and chemists.
All were brought together to try to find a way of breaking through the incrementalism of change. Reducing impacts is critical when you consider the global apparel industry on its own is expected to produce more than 400bn sq metres of fabric each year by 2015, enough material to cover California.
There was something wonderful about seeing system thinkers, system mappers and system innovators working together with practitioners to break the deadlock and find common solutions to the way we design, manufacture and use materials.
All well and good. But what was also noticeable was the desire of individuals to blow their own trumpet, rather than deeply listening and holding the space open for new inspirations. I recognized it, because I also saw myself falling into that very trap.
Championing individual interests over collective needs
At the Brainstorm Green conference in California, I spent some time in a group that was looking at how to engage with consumers, but quickly the conversation started degenerating into people talking over each other to promote their own individual ideas and solutions.
For example, the representative from the world of arts talked about the importance of art, while the senior financier talked about the importance of finance.
While each participant was eager to get his or her valuable idea and insight across, was anyone really listening to what the others were saying, never mind integrating into it their own perspectives or letting go of some of their invested views?
It is understandable we want our voice to be heard. Each of us has invested an enormous amount of time, energy and commitment in seeking to understand the causes of the problems we face and the solutions to get us out of this mess. Our self worth is based partly on other people recognizing that.
But, if we look more deeply, the egoic need to feel important is merely a clever mask that overlays something far more profound; our desire to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be loved and to feel whole.
Practitioners would do well to recognize a powerful pattern, which is that the work we do in the external world tends to be a perfect mirror of what we are seeking to heal within ourselves.
Sustainability represents a desire to move away from the ego’s destructive and individualistic tendencies towards a society that is based on trust, a sense of belonging and a common purpose.
But we can only create that externally if we first of all uncover those qualities within ourselves.
An “orbital perspective”
The astronaut Ron Garan took part in the event at Nike’s HQ. He spent nearly six months on the international space station so had plenty of time to look down at our wonderful fragile planet and ponder on the challenges we humans face.
One day he spotted something unexpected, a bright orange line snaking for hundreds of miles across the earth’s surface. It was only after some time he recognized it was the barrier separating India and Pakistan.
This brought up in him all the barriers that prevent people from working together; the duplication of effort, the unhealthy competition, and the lack of communication; all key aspects of the ego.
He talked of how difficult it is to overcome these, but recognized “it is those people who have the courage to step outside of their comfort zones, step outside of the way they have always done things, that can create change on a big perspective. You do not have to be in space to have an orbital perspective.”
Garan encapsulates a great truth. It is only by uncovering the wholeness in ourselves that we can have the courage to truly work for the wholeness of society and the planet.
This article was originally published on The Guardian
NOTE: The issue of what kind of world will welcome greater sustainability is something that is being explored in our upcoming White Paper on Capitalism 2.0. But this is just the beginning, the “CAP2 Project” is all about ‘joining up the dots’ of what is already happening, and to engage you in the process of reflection and rational debate. We aim to create a more vibrant picture of where our society is headed. We believe that “Destination Sustainability” needs to be better defined so that we can all see clearly what this future will look like. This is the only way we can attract the greatest number of people to share in the process and to ultimately define a viable alternative model for our economies. Please join us in this journey – click here to be notified when the white paper is released.
Jo Confino is an executive editor of the Guardian and chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business. He also advises Guardian News & Media and Guardian Media Group on their sustainability strategies.