To answer the call of this climate emergency, we need business to shift from being ‘less negative’ to being ‘for good,’ and to redefine ‘profit’ to include social and environmental benefit.
Do you feel the heat yet? Climate change is no longer an existential threat. From the flooding in the US and Mozambique this year, to the recent report that Canada is warming at twice the rate originally forecast, it has arrived.
Food production and agriculture are devastated globally, 80 percent of insect populations have vanished in the last 10 years, and species extinctions have multiplied at a pace unseen since the death of the dinosaurs.
It’s too late to save those already lost, but there is still time to save humankind and work to restore the natural resources sustaining life on earth.
Here are 6 ways we can influence business to shift towards the necessary positive impacts:
1. Don’t focus on what people think. Focus on what you can help them do.
Changing what someone thinks can be difficult and time-consuming. Instead of focusing on trying to make people ‘think’ differently, see if you can get them to ‘do’ differently.
For example, when Loop — TerraCycle’s new durable, refillable shopping platform — launches in the United Arab Emirates, it may be under a design message: This is the future of product design.
This design message has the potential to drive a behavior change that supports sustainability in broader terms, as it appeals to an affinity for design and user experience, versus angling for “green” sensibilities.
Meet people where they are and recognize they may choose self-serving activities over ‘doing the right thing.’ Electric cars caught on because of the perception they are more efficient than conventionally powered vehicles, not simply because they offset petroleum consumption.
2. Sustainability needs to stop shaming and start simplifying.
‘Sustainability’ needs to start communicating more like mainstream TV does: in simple and clear
terms, instead of a high-brow, academic program. In the sustainability field, many appreciate that complexity. But we must strip it away, and communicate the problem and its solutions in clear and easy terms for the general public, businesses and governments at large.
Topics such as litter or ocean plastic are easy to understand because they are visual and often elicit an emotional response. But we also cannot shame people into good behavior through negative visuals and guilt. The doom and gloom of beaches covered in trash, animals choking on plastic, and studies on microplastics in tap water are not enough to drive consumers to inaction.
Our sustainability challenges will meet their match through the lens of innovation — an aspect of which is driving ease, convenience and simplicity for sustainability. As a business, what are you doing to simplify sustainability and its solutions to create behaviors that can save the planet?
3. There are no failures. Only lessons.
Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from taking steps towards becoming a more sustainable business and innovating for positive impact. When people tell you “it can’t be done,” lean into your ideas even harder; you can be the first! This is invaluable ammunition for championing circular economy initiatives in business.
The point is to innovate and create new approaches. If you are told it can’t be done, it’s a sign you are on the right track and must keep pushing. If it ‘fails’ by conventional standards, that means you have learned something important. Unique solutions don’t come without risk, and taking risks is how we evolve.
4. Follow the money.
Why are we expecting NGOs and nonprofits to solve our problems? If two businessmen can raise €300 million to restore Notre Dame within just six hours, we know we need to follow the money.
For-profit companies are uniquely positioned with the trifecta of having the cash, the speed and the global influence to create change. Danone and Procter & Gamble combined have more impact and power over our planet than most national governments. To answer the call of this climate emergency, we need business to shift from being ‘less negative’ to being ‘for good,’ and to redefine ‘profit’ to include social and environmental benefit.
5. One for all, and all for one.
It’s simple. Every single issue (climate change, ocean plastic, biodiversity loss), bar none, is all linked to one thing: buying stuff. We need a fundamental change in our approach, and it needs to manifest through all parts of the ‘stuff’ cycle, not just the ‘waste’ cycle.
Every stakeholder has a critical role to play. Governments can and should be legislating against products that cause harm and giving incentives to those that don’t. If it’s harmful, manufacturers need to stop making it.
Then, retailers need to stop selling it — we’ve seen the success of this with palm oil products, for example. It's incumbent on every business selling something to make it impactful at every stage.
Finally, consumers need to stop choosing and spending their hard-earned money on harmful products. The art of buying is an act of voting — consumer purchases are at once both a vote for something, and a vote against the myriad of other options they aren’t choosing.
It’s just that simple, and exactly that difficult. People need to stop looking at the waste cycle to make it all better. The problems exist at every stage of the chain and they all need addressing. It’s on all of us, because none of us are getting out of this until we each do our part.
6. We need bold business action.
Business as you knew it is already dead. Accept this, move forward and use your power to shift while there is still time. Stop saying that your company is not ready or has other priorities: You don’t.
Businesses now need to create positive impact, not just sell their products. Cleaning up supply chains is not proof of a positive impact; it is just being ‘less bad.’
According to the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study, most people expect brands — over activists and governments — to take a stand for and with society. The same study reports companies are now more trusted than politicians; and more than half of consumers are ‘belief driven,’ which means they look for and reward brands ‘for good.’
Saving our species requires bold and brutal action while building a new model for doing business.
As leaders in the world of sustainability, we urge you to consider these steps to save our species.
We think it’s in everyone’s interest to act with suitable speed and urgency to avoid the looming extinction we otherwise face.