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Implementers, Catalysts and This Moment in History

"If you’re going to do something great, why not spread it around? Why not be a catalyst and amplify the impact exponentially?" — Daniel Aronson

This post is adapted from a June 1, 2020 interview podcast, "Acting on Your Values", by The School for Humanity — with Valutus founder Daniel Aronson.

I have a bit of a thing about catalytics, about how to be a catalyst — I think about it, write about it, and talk about it. A lot. (Sometimes people tell me that I can’t go a day without mentioning it. They might be right!) If that seems a little much, I get it — but I believe we have no choice.

In our field, where every step in the direction of sustainability can be a challenge, anyone taking a step forward is very welcome. But not all such steps are created equal. Some move a single company forward, while others are more like the scene where Forrest Gump looks back and realizes there is a crowd running with him. Both are great, but right now we need a lot more of the second kind.

This came up in an interview I did for The School for Humanity podcast last month, when I was asked about the difference between those who do things and those who bring others along. It’s a critical distinction, and I thought it would be useful to reproduce it here.

Q: What is the difference is between an implementer and a catalyst?

Daniel Aronson: The short version of this is that an implementer is someone who does something good inside their own organization; in particular, something over which they have direct control. Like, if you're working with manufacturing, and you improve the sustainability of your manufacturing, lower your energy use, waste and so forth. That's good. And you should be proud of that good work.

The problem we have in this particular field, and this particular planet that we're on, is that there aren't enough leaders doing the things they need to do inside their companies — not enough to get us where we need to go in time to achieve the Global Goals to mitigate climate change by 2030, and so forth.

For example, there are thousands of large companies around the world, tens of thousands; and tens of millions of medium-sized companies around the world, and about a thousand of those have committed to setting science-based targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

That's a very small percentage and, of those who have committed to do so, only around half have actually set the targets so far. And that’s just the beginning.

Obviously, setting targets is a good step, but you have to also meet the targets. And what has become clear through research that Andrew Winston did, and through looking at the Science Based Targets initiative and so forth, is that we're not moving fast enough as a planet.

Now, there are two things we can do about that. We can despair, and think we're not going to make it. That's not my choice. My choice is the other option, which is to take those leaders and help them to bring others along faster. That's what being a catalyst is, definitionally: It's influencing someone over whom you don't have control.

A sustainability person inside a company can be a catalyst. They probably don't have control over purchasing, but they want to influence purchasing. Same thing with manufacturing and so forth. But within the span of organizations, a leading organization — a Nike say, or a Walmart — can influence others to speed up their progress. And that's what we need. We need catalysts inside and outside organizations if we're going to get to where we need to go in time.

Q: Talk about the differences between a leader and a catalyst.

DA: A leader can be someone who is either being a catalyst or an implementer but is doing a really good job.

There's nothing wrong with somebody who is at a company that's already gone to, say, carbon neutral. That's great. That's ahead of science-based targets and ahead of emissions reductions that we need and so forth. But let's say you have a company that has a relatively small carbon footprint — it's mostly office buildings or minor research labs or something — then your being carbon neutral is only a small part of what’s needed (although it's great and you should be commended for it).

What we need from leaders is not just to be good implementers but to be great catalysts, to bring your industry along, to bring your neighbors along too. To bring along businesses that aspire to be like you.

Think about a small company like Patagonia: It’s very small when compared to firms like Nike or Walmart, or Target. And yet, they influence companies in their industry and outside of it, too. They influence companies and leaders who just want to be really good for the world — regardless of industry, location, and so forth. That kind of catalyst leadership really amplifies their effect far beyond just being a good internal steward of resources.

Look, being a sustainability leader is hard, and making a real difference is hard. If you’re going to do something great, why not spread it around? Why not be a catalyst and amplify the impact exponentially?

That’s why we all do the work we do, to make the biggest difference we can. And being a catalyst is a critical part of that.