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The Next Economy
‘Green Swans’ Will Kill Some Brands, Boost Others

Green Swans also take the world by surprise — because of their exponential character, and because they produce outcomes previously considered to be not just improbable but impossible. But rather than driving degeneration like their Grey and Black cousins, they help drive resilience and regeneration.

I don’t spend much time on brands and branding in my new book, Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism. Having worked with business for over 40 years, I know just how powerful brands can be — but now see successful branding as an emergent property of deeper-running megatrends.

As systemic changes ricochet through our economies and societies, established brands will die, while new ones struggle to find their feet. And with the futures of capitalism, democracy; and, yes, sustainability now very much in question — even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit — brands may soon seem a lot less important than they once did.

And yet Green Swans, my twentieth book, is itself an exercise in branding. At Volans, we have spotlighted the risk of exponential breakdowns for years—and the parallel potential for exponential breakthroughs. We organised our first Breakthrough Capitalism Forum way back in 2012, although the penny has taken almost a decade to drop in the wider world.

But back to branding: I have created some fairly sticky language and brands over time, including concepts such as the “green consumer,” the “triple bottom line” and “business-as-unusual.” I built up the SustainAbility brand back when the word was meaningless to all but a few.

Along the way, I have learned how powerfully brands can connect to citizens, consumers, commercial customers, employees and investors. But, why brand examples of positively exponential change as “Green Swans”?

Well, starting from the basics, swans have long been symbols of beauty, elegance and effortlessness. But this extraordinary bird also symbolizes the potential for change; and, in particular, for transformation. That is highly relevant here, given that the present decade, the Exponential Twenties, will grow pressures for transformational change, moving well beyond responsibility to resilience and regeneration.

In the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb — particularly as outlined in his breakthrough book, The Black Swan — the focus was often on transformations that were degenerative. For him, a Black Swan is a rare event characterized by its extreme impact and its retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.

A typical question after a Black Swan event would be: “How did we/they fail to spot that one coming?” Think about the 2007–2008 market crash or the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Interestingly, even the blackest of Black Swans will generally have been foreseen by someone, at least in broad terms — as with maverick economist Hyman P. Minsky’s insight that in modern economies “stability is destabilizing.”

So, when British prime minister Gordon Brown lauded the stability of his country’s economy, predicting an end to the cycles of “boom and bust,” knowledgeable investors should have run for the hills. They didn’t, because most had forgotten what Minsky (who died in 1996) had said, if indeed they had ever heard of him or his warnings.

Black Swans, Taleb concluded, generally create negative, unwelcome and — above all — systemic impacts. A bit further along the color spectrum, we find Grey Swans. They display many of the same characteristics as Black Swans; but differ in that they can be anticipated, at least to a degree. Grey Swans, according to the president of the Population Institute, Robert J. Walker, are “unlikely occurrences that are just likely enough that they should be anticipated.” While they can — indeed, ought to — be seen coming, it can still be very hard to get a grip on their implications and potential impact before they happen.

Walker argued that “a confluence of events — including climate change, population growth, debt loads and the world’s rising demand for food, energy and water — are dramatically increasing the overall levels of risk in the world.” Exactly the sort of world, you might conclude, in which both Black and Grey Swans proliferate, and in which capitalism and democracy come under existential pressure.

Further along still, we find the “Green Swans” of our story. At one level, they show very similar characteristics and dynamics to their typically degenerative cousins, Grey and Black. They, too, take the world by surprise — in large part because of their exponential character, and because they produce outcomes previously considered to be not just improbable but impossible.

But rather than driving degeneration like many Grey and Black Swans, they help drive resilience and regeneration. Which is just as well, since regeneration is now our task — across our economies, our societies, our natural environment; and, perhaps most important of all, our politics. The role of politicians, governments and public policy will be critically important in determining the pace, direction and success of our collective change efforts.

Green Swans, it turns out, often evolve as responses to earlier Black or Grey Swan problems. By way of a public health warning, just as even the very worst of Black Swans may sport a few green feathers, or upsides; so even the most welcome of Green Swans can grow black feathers — and in some cases, even black wings.

Consider electric vehicles — part of one of the most notable current Green Swan trajectories in the world of mobility. They generally depend on batteries, and these, in turn, require materials such as cobalt. This is where this Green Swan starts to sprout darker feathers, with some 70 percent of the global supply of cobalt coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo — one of the poorest, most corrupt, and intensely violent places on Earth.

So, while much of capitalism is becoming more responsible and less destructive per unit of production or profit, it must now become radically more economically inclusive, socially just, and — crucially — environmentally restorative. This, in turn, means rebooting our thinking about profit and profitability.

That may prove problematic, when much of the evidence now points in different, darker directions. Traditional forms of politics and regulation are failing. If cancer is life run riot, then plastic-clogged oceans, obscene wealth divides, the undermining of democracy; and accelerating, climate-induced societal collapse are symptoms of our current forms of capitalism running riot. Like it or not, the generational task of containing — and then radically redesigning — capitalism is now our central challenge.

Acciona. Autodesk. Ballard Power. Danone. Dove. Eileen Fisher, Natura. Neste. Ørsted. Tesla. Umicore. Ventas. Whole Foods Market. Zoom ... Yes, all companies have their weak spots, their Achilles heels — but the sheer number of companies and brands that are now surging into markets shaped by sustainability-linked megatrends is itself growing exponentially.

Inevitably, the Corona-triggered economic disruption will spur greater consolidation among big businesses; but after the storm passes, expect to see a tsunami of wildly innovative new businesses — and, yes, brands — emerging from the rubble.