Editor’s note: The author was a keynote speaker at GreenBiz 23 last month, where she spoke about the need for a critical mindset shift among the sustainability community. You can watch her presentation here. GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.
One month after GreenBiz 23, I am still embracing reasons to be cheerful, despite serious headwinds that might make us feel the opposite.
First, let me address today’s flavor of headwinds — appreciating that they are always there. I’m seeing a near perfect storm of cost-cutting and hiring freezes as the private sector braces for — or settles into, depending where you are in the world — a recession. Alongside that, I’m witnessing a diversion of effort towards compliance-driven disclosure (increased legislation is a good thing, but whole teams being deployed to report on potential non-material risks isn’t). And we can’t ignore the politicization of ESG as it is embraced by a disgruntled "anti-woke" movement.
These all add up to some pretty good reasons for corporate sustainability professionals to opt for incremental as opposed to transformational change — all at a time when the world is still falling well short of what’s needed. Our climate, inequality and nature crises are intensifying.
GreenBiz co-founder and Executive Chairman Joel Makower opened the conference last month by asking, "What’s the story we want to tell?" This is a brilliant question to keep asking ourselves as (spoiler alert) the future is not written, it’s ours to create — and we have options. What kind of future do we want? Is it a future created based on the protection of vested interests and our status quo? A future born from mitigating short-term risks? A future in which we do things just a little better than today, having cautiously opted for incremental over transformational change?
My answer is no. It can’t be any of these. Our story must be one of grasping our challenges with the urgency they warrant and truly transforming how we live and work. I feel optimistic we’re ready to tell this story.
The story we want to tell: Just and regenerative business
We must rewrite long-established but no-longer-good-enough expectations around the purpose of business in society and our economy. We need to call time on the endless pursuit of profit at the cost of people and the planet. Instead, we must mainstream the expectation that business leaders should care for the long-term health of the people and places their company affects. We call this a just and regenerative mindset and believe it should be at the heart of running any business, with a focus on three areas.
- Transforming direct operations. This spans both "softer" elements such as leadership, culture and communication and "harder," more tangible aspects such as structure, strategy and policies.
- Innovating across entire value chains, from procurement policies and supporting supplier resilience to finding new ways of enabling customers to enjoy healthier and more sustainable lifestyles.
- Leveraging your influence. Just and regenerative leadership means stepping up to engage the wider operating context of your business — from how you work with policymakers on regulation to how you help reshape our international financial architecture so our economy incentivizes and rewards sustainability efforts.
The right mindset
At this point, I appreciate at least a few readers might be thinking this is all very well, but that all sounds quite hard.
It’s a matter of mindset. What we do is determined by what we think and feel, and whether we interpret what’s happening around us as risk or opportunity. That brings me to a simple but stark realization: The greatest unlock in accelerating action towards greener business is shifting your own mindset, your world view — or the set of assumptions and stories you tell yourself when interpreting the world around you.
Trailblazing systems thinker Donella Meadows recognized mindset shift as one of the deepest levers of systems change. And we’re long overdue in pulling it.
In The Business Transformation Compass, we’ve aligned the Forum for the Future’s vision for what we mean by a just and regenerative mindset and related them to the nested mindsets you see in any business. Broadly speaking, there are four, described in the graphic below:
Most businesses move between these mindsets. Change often starts by understanding where your business is. Speaking to people in language they understand is really important. Once you have their attention, you can explain what is meant by a just and regenerative mindset, essentially a mindset that:
- Recognizes planetary boundaries;
- Seeks to creates and distribute value in new ways;
- Understands that humans are a fundamental part of nature;
- Respects everyone's universal rights and potential to thrive; and
- Recognizes the fundamental importance of system change.
Applying this to ESG
It helps to ground mindset shift and storytelling with an example. Let’s consider ESG: Its true origins come from a risk mitigation mindset, with investors wanting (rightly) to understand value at risk from our big challenges, notably climate. ESG is useful for getting board attention, but it is not sufficient. Why? Because it optimizes the existing economic model. This is a model with goals predicated on short-term profit maximization, one that unintentionally puts the longer-term viability and prosperity of our planet, our society and businesses themselves at risk.
ESG on its own was never designed to deliver systems change.
Time to move well beyond risk mitigation
Time is running out to turn the tide on our global challenges. Only by adopting a just and regenerative mindset can we deliver what’s urgently needed: wholesale transformation.
Practically speaking, what does this shift in thinking look like?
It moves us from thinking about the problem we are trying to solve to the potential we are not seeing.
Think about the impact of a pure-play carbon reduction strategy. Yes, we may cut carbon, but we may also cut thousands of jobs. Instead, what if we think about a carbon reduction strategy housed in a broader climate and health strategy. Yes we cut carbon, and we are also delivering benefits for public health (deliberately). This is why Forum is so proud to host the Climate & Health Coalition, which includes healthcare businesses Bupa, Haleon, Reckitt and Walgreens Boots Alliance.
Or if the carbon reduction strategy is housed in a broader regenerative agriculture play. Yes, we cut carbon emissions, and by improving soil health we can also improve crop productivity and hence livelihoods.
What about a just and regenerative mindset applied to net-zero ambitions? This can mean a critical shift from net-zero targets for Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions by 2050 to embracing net zero as soon as possible. Many of the Forum’s partners have bought forward their ambition for net zero after using the Business Transformation Compass. No, we don’t have all the answers on how to get to net zero as soon as possible, but if we wait for them it might just be too late.
We also need to stop assuming we know what our communities need and start asking, "How might we co-design solutions with our communities?" This is all about shifting from traditional philanthropic initaitives to those that enable access not just to finance, but skills and expertise that create the conditions for long-term resilience.
Deciding what story to tell and shifting your mindset are two things we can all do. The best bit — no board approval is required. So, here’s to thinking and feeling differently, holding on to visions of a just and regenerative future — and, come tomorrow, telling the stories we want to hear.