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Finding common ground and win-win sustainability solutions in a crisis

Two people walking in different directions
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This is an excerpt from "How to Talk to the ‘Other Side’: Finding Common Ground in the Time of Coronavirus, Recession and Climate Change" by Kevin Wilhelm and Natalie Hoffman. It is republished here with permission from the authors. It was published by Bowker.

How to talk to the "other side" book cover

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic recession makes this a uniquely challenging time in our country’s history. Unfortunately, while we face these great challenges, our country seems to be as polarized as we’ve been since the Civil War — not just politically, but also culturally and socioeconomically.

Tribalism has set in where people choose the facts and news sources they want to believe and increasingly dig their heels into their own camps and belief systems. This self-selecting and mass siloization has resulted in a bubble effect, where people only communicate, socialize with and listen to others who share their same beliefs. They don’t want to be associated with people from the "other side," and often avoid interacting with them altogether.

While this would test us during normal times, the current polarization is leading us into dangerous territory. The feeling by many that we no longer share the same values as people from the “other side” is a threat to us as individuals and as a country, especially as we face multiple public health, economic and environmental crises.

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic recession makes this a uniquely challenging time in our country’s history.

This book is about hope, optimism and practicality. It is not about finding ways to "convince" the other side that you are right and that they are wrong, nor is it about trying to get someone to switch political parties or point blame on how COVID-19 should have been handled. Instead, it is about finding common ground not only through small actions, but also through the foundation of our shared aspirations and humanity. If we are going to meet today’s challenges, we first have to get back to being able to talk to one another.

Our goal was simple — to provide a beacon of light during these difficult times and illustrate a path forward. Chock full of real-world case studies, we wanted to provide the reader with practical tools and win-win scenarios from countless interviews, conversations and research that will help us achieve the unity that we so desperately need right now.

Business vs. environmentalists: win-win solutions in this crisis

Working from home

For example, environmentalists have long suggested business policies to include work from home (WFH) options. This reduces commuting, which reduces the wear and tear on employees sitting in traffic while lowering greenhouse gas emissions. It also can increase employee productivity and reduces office energy use and waste. However, when coronavirus broke out across the country, WFH had another benefit — resiliency. Companies that had these policies and systems in place proved to be more resilient and had an easier time transitioning to a full-time telework schedule with less interruption to their business. Moreover, it helped leaders who previously worried about employees slacking off when working from home to realize something I’ve always said — a good employee is a good employee, and a bad employee is a bad employee that’ll slack off whether they are working from home or in the office.

Virtual meetings

Another example of this is the explosion in virtual meetings and conferences. For 15 years I’ve been working with companies on ways to reduce their GHG emissions — with business travel being one of the easiest and most cost effective ways of doing that. To a T, I’ve been told by one executive team after another about the importance of face-to-face meetings, and that travel was too important to them. However, once the risk of spreading the virus during the pandemic became known, most businesses switched all of their meetings and conferences to virtual ones almost immediately.

These two examples may at first seem only like environmental solutions, but they reduce both costs and risks to the business, as well as increase the productivity of their workforce by focusing their time on work instead of commuting and travel.

Responsible investing

One hindrance to this common ground between these two sides is the myth that a company or investor inevitably has to sacrifice financial performance and be willing to accept lower earnings to act in a more environmentally friendly manner.

The reality is that this myth is downright false, as I’ll show you below.

If you look at the performance of sustainable indices such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) and S&P ESG Index versus their traditional counterparts — the Dow Jones Industrial Average (referred to as the Dow) and the S&P 500 — the sustainable indices outperform the traditional ones. This has been the case for the past dozen years — through both good and bad times, before and after the 2008 recession and even during the historic performance of the market from 2017 to 2019, and then as recently as February before the coronavirus truly hit in the U.S. You can see the comparatively higher values in bold:

S&P Graph

Only a month later, in March, the differences were even greater. Due to the financial collapse that resulted from the coronavirus outbreak, the regular Dow showed 1-year annual returns as being down -23.21 percent, versus the DJSI which was only down -8.81 percent. Similarly, the S&P 500 was down 15.35 percent, and the S&P 500 ESG was down a lower amount — 11.66 percent. This shows that ESG investing is also more resilient during a pandemic.

Finding common ground

Talking to the "other side" is easier than we think, especially once we get past our preconceived notions and emotions. You’ll find that there are opportunities to find common ground all around us, and during these turbulent times we need to double our efforts to do just that — whether it be about public health, the economy or climate change. If we are going to effectively make change, it is essential that we respect and listen to others. We need to seek to understand, empathize and authentically listen to people’s hopes, dreams, anxieties and fears, so that can we truly uncover what is at the core of their beliefs and identify win-win solutions.

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