How to see through the sustainability kaleidoscope

The Elkington Report

How to see through the sustainability kaleidoscope

kaleidoscope pattern
The scattered vision of sustainability leaders is starting to come into focus.

Most of us, as children, enjoyed playing with kaleidoscopes. Some contained multicolored crystals, others used mirrors to break up a real scene into fractal landscapes. With the former, every shake of the hand produced different patterns for our amusement.

Worryingly, the current sustainability agenda is a bit like that — out of focus and constantly changing.

In the end, we grew out of our kaleidoscopes. We moved on to microscopes, some of which can take us down to the atomic level, or to telescopes, which can help our minds travel out to the edges of the universe. By contrast, today’s "Sustainability Kaleidoscope" tends to give very different results depending on who is holding it.

That’s a problem, whichever way you look at it. Maybe this would be acceptable if all we were trying to do was catch people’s attention. But it is proving distinctly less helpful where we are trying to hold their attention long enough to get useful work done.

To distill a message I have heard in various boardrooms and C-suites over the years, "Until you corporate responsibility, shared value and sustainability folk get your act together and speak with a united voice, don’t expect us to put real skin in the game."

It’s not hard to see what the skeptics mean. When we sat down recently to plot some concepts and memes vying for attention in this space, we were beyond 50 in less time than it takes to drink a good glass of wine.

True, diversity is usually a source of resilience in economic, social or natural systems. But it is hard not to conclude that all these glittery fragments of what was originally pitched as a holistic worldview and agenda are getting in the way of coherence, convergence and the critical mass we must build for transformative change.

When I recently chaired a session for OUTstanding, a corporate membership organization representing the LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) communities, our keynote speaker was Unilever Group CEO Paul Polman.

You could forgive such business leaders for responding that LGBT+ was one more example of the extraordinary ramification and fragmentation of the corporate responsibility agenda — but that certainly wasn’t Polman’s view.

Indeed, he noted that his company’s health care plans even now include a provision to help employees wanting sex change operations, and the provision has been used.

An increasing interest in diversity inevitably means an increase in complexity. Indeed, one of my concerns with initiatives such as the Global Reporting Initiative has been the profusion of indicators and metrics. It often strikes me that the sustainability reporting has been bit like a snowball, gathering up all sorts of agendas and wish lists as it thunders down the slope.

In business, the normal consequences would include intensifying competition, an accelerating shakeout and eventual consolidation of the market into a small number of players. We have seen this dynamic play out in sector after sector.

But with our "industry," which now must deliver on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and COP21 agreement, the challenge is different. It’s more a case of developing a central operating system that can underpin everything that everyone in every sector does in the period through 2030 and beyond.

Breaking through

So how to make this happen? We are asking this question as part of the scene-setting phase for a new two-year program on breakthrough innovation we are co-evolving with the U.N. Global Compact.

The process will involve alternately zooming out to the larger picture and then zooming in to map, assess, benchmark and engage the different fields, disciplines, concepts and brandings.

Our central problem is that it is in the very nature of human beings to make things complicated. Earlier today, I picked up a fascinating new book by one of my favorite historians, Filipe Fernández-Armesto. His book, "A Foot in the River," investigates how human cultures evolve.

Its overall conclusion is far from encouraging in terms of our desire for coherence and convergence. Cultures, he wrote, "do not evolve, develop, progress, nor follow any linear, predictable, or regular trajectory. They just change: sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, sometimes accelerating, often in increasing complexity but occasionally in the opposite direction."

So does biology account for all of this? No, we are told.

Cultures "change unpredictably, over a range that neither our biological equipment nor our physical environment can fully explain." Even worse, he concluded, "they change autocatalytically, according to dynamics of their own, or randomly, like the contents of a vast kaleidoscope, shaken without intelligence, purpose or design. …"

Still, past and present encyclopaedists, from Denis Diderot to Jimmy Wales, have made major strides in organizing the world’s information — and surely we can do the same with the expanding universe of sustainability memes?

In addition to mapping the various fragments of the evolving sustainability agenda, we plan to invite key players to reflect on progress in their field, on the barriers they have hit along the way, on the workarounds they have come up with, on the trajectories they envisage following in the coming years and decades, and on some of the ways they might engage and co-evolve with people inside and outside the sustainability sector.

We’re working towards a Breakthrough Summit late in 2017 (based on the concept of a coming "breakthrough decade" marked by increased global volatility), with a series of Breakthrough Basecamps building momentum through the intervening period. Some of these basecamps will explore aspects of the exponential technologies, business models and organizations I have explored in earlier blog, while others will zero in on memes, concepts or strategies likely to have the biggest impact in the period out to 2030.

It’s time to turn our Sustainability Kaleidoscope into a useful market instrument. Please let us know if you’re moving in a similar direction.