What are major obstacles to moving towards sustainability (faster)?
Sustainability. If it was a pressing and important issue before, Corona, fires of unprecedented scale in Europe and America alternating with floods, draughts, earthquakes and hurricanes that we have been seeing in the past few years, all over the globe, have propelled it to everyone’s forefront of mind. While we could have been aware of the challenges we created for ourselves, at least since the publication of Limits of Growth in 1972, it has taken until now for António Guterre, Secretary General of the UN, to use clear and unambiguous language:
“The evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions are choking our planet & placing billions of people in danger. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible. We must act decisively now to avert a climate catastrophe.”
The challenge is clear. The task is obvious. The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals are creating shared language, providing a shared framework. More and more organisations are publicly declaring intent. ESG reporting and particularly investing are gathering momentum. CEOs recognise the need to deliver beyond profit, for people and planet.
66% of CEOs said “COVID-19 has increased expectations from stakeholders that our company will drive societal impact, environmental sustainability and inclusive growth”. EY Survey, 2021
Yet … I may be wrong, but I am not quite seeing the action that’s necessary to truly move the needle. Why are we not moving towards sustainability faster? What are the biggest obstacles / challenges that are holding us back? Is it,
=> Is it not knowing where or how to start?
=> Is it not knowing what exactly true sustainability means in a particular context?
=> Is it not being able to discern what is more, and what less sustainable: e.g. keeping a diesel that has higher emissions than an electric car, or buying an electric car that uses a huge amount of fresh resources?
=> Is it a question of priority – other everyday challenges are always considered to be much more important?
=> Is it a lack of capacity to act?
=> Is it ….?
To better understand this I conducted a short survey (autumn 2021) where participants were invited to share their views, either from their personal, or from their company’s perspective. About 2/3 of respondents choose the former.
As the sample was not particularly large (38 participants), these findings are of course not universally true, but perhaps they can give a little bit of a glimpse of what prevents us from moving faster – or should I say, at the pace that is urgently required …
Obstacles identified fell into three main buckets:
No intention to fundamentally change current ways of operating. This was seen to be driven by,
- Complacency – we are doing quite well thank you very much;
- Lack of urgency – it is not really that bad, we still have time, it will not affect me;
- Lack of knowledge – I don’t really know how to tackle the problem so let’s leave it for now;
- Greed – let’s make money while we can, never mind the environment and the people.
- continued destruction of the environment, continued disregards for fellow beings;
- (almost deliberate) green-washing at best.
Collaborating and or sharing responsibilities would be required. This was considered / perceived to be too difficult and manifests in,
- Only wanting to act if others act too;
- Asking, what is in it for me?
- A lack of consensus how to proceed exactly / lack of alignment at many levels.
- Only working on issues that can be addressed alone;
- Lip service & half-hearted action.
Wanting to change in principle but feeling that a lack of support is holding them back. This referred to,
- a lack of supporting legislation;
- a lack of economic or other incentives;
- a lack of economic or other penalties.
- Tweaking at the edges with limited impact;
- Doing only what is required by law (which is clearly not enough);
- Pushing action back to the bottom of the to-do list.
To me it somehow feel that reasons for non-actions are more like excuses … Putting the question whether the obstacles identified are real or imagined to one side, if I had to boil down all of the obstacles that were mentioned, it seems to come down to one thing more than anything else: lack of will or perhaps even more so, courage. Courage to move forward, one step after the other, finding the path as we walk. I am definitely a firm believer in the saying that ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ – the will just has to be strong enough. The really good news is, there are an increasing number of examples that illustrate that it can be done, and how. Overleaf a few tools / concepts / frameworks that provide some guidance and structure.
What would help?
I also asked whether there were any things in place that were already supporting acceleration towards sustainability. The answers were mostly about what could be done than what is actually being done… With one notable exception:
“We consciously choose our clients based on (admittedly very loose) criteria: green energy provider, VC with a clean energy mandate, clean-water start-up. The next level up for us is to actively engage B-Corps and decentralised organisations fuelling the regenerative renaissance.”
Here some more thoughts and suggestions:
- Educate! Talk about it / organise talks about it;
- Make sure to embed sustainability targets and goals in your KPIs;
- Integrate sustainability performance into internal and external reporting;
- Be transparent about the impact of current offerings & process on sustainability;
- Identify Actions and build a plan to make your company more sustainable (goals, timelines); this is also an opportunity to engage and involve employees: ask for ideas and recommendations on how to be more sustainable;
- Proactively shape narratives that envisage a more sustainable and caring future;
What ever we do, it will be so much more effective if we do it together. Though it may not be easier, as it is not about collaboration with the ‘usual suspects’; it will require us to collaborate with those with whom we have never thought to collaborate before, with those who are very different from us. Hint: collaboration with those who are different from us is generally the only way to come up with something truly new and different – just what we need if we want to tackle the sustainability challenge. Which can be a bit of a challenge as it seems to be in human nature that we tend to prefer to surround ourselves with liked-minded.
In addition to the suggestions from participants, if we are serious about moving towards sustainability and beyond, I believe that we need to …
* … pool resources, not least so those with less resources can keep pace;
* … share experience, successes and failures alike, so we accelerate understanding what it takes to become truly
* … ensure that everyone can be involved in co-creating a sustainable future; only a fair future for all who inhabit
our planet will be a sustainable future.
Oh, one final point … given how far we have pushed our planet out of sync that what we REALLY need is not sustainability, it is regeneration. Earth Overshoot Day in 2021, the day where we have used up the mount of resources our planet can reproduce in one year, was the 29th July. This means that every day after that we have borrowed from the future of our children and children’s children …
In the past century the the following African proverb probably held true: If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go further go together. In the 21st century this is no longer so. The ONLY way forward is together. We are all part of the same system, our beautiful and unique planet; and any system is only as strong (and sustainable) as its weakest (least sustainable) part.
Big “thank you” to everyone who has taken the time to complete the short survey on obstacles and enablers of sustainability – and apologies it has taken me a while to put this short report together …
Appendix – Participants
38 participants from: Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, India, italy, Philipines, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, UK, Ukraine, USA
About two thirds answered from a personal perspective.