How to fix corporate sustainability? Start with dark matter

Credit: Dark matter visual — Wikipedia

Corporate sustainability is broken. It may not be easy to see it with the constant news on new net-zero pledges, innovative products, successful stakeholder resolutions, and ongoing ESG buzz. So, yes, companies are moving forward but too slowly and incrementally as they are still operating in what I describe in my book as a sustainability-as-usual mode. In this mode, efforts to make businesses more sustainable become common, but at the same time, they are still subjected to a shareholder capitalism mental model, which significantly limits the effectiveness of these efforts.

The problem with sustainability-as-usual is that it is an inadequate approach to transform business in order to ensure we can live in a just and safe space. The evidence is everywhere — from flawed net-zero plans that many of them “require little or nothing in the way of real solutions or real effective emissions cuts” to innovation focusing on developing low-value recyclable solutions. With the window of opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels closing fast, not to mention the risks of exceeding climate tipping points, we have no choice but to move companies beyond sustainability-as-usual and do it with urgency in mind.

But how do we do it? How do we fix corporate sustainability? In my book, I describe my perspective about the why, what and, how of the necessary changes. In general, for me, the recipe for (transformational) change includes three main ingredients: Dark matter, a vision, and a theory of change. Today I’ll focus on dark matter (the next articles will discuss the two other elements).

So, what’s to dark matter and corporate sustainability? Dark matter is about the approach we need to bring in to fix corporate sustainability, or in other words, what should we pay attention to? In his book “ Dark matter and trojan horses: A strategic design vocabulary” Dan Hill uses dark matter as a metaphor for elements that are invisible, but nevertheless play a critical role in shaping what we actually see. Accounting for about 85% of the matter in the universe, dark matter cannot be directly observed because it does not emit, reflect or absorb electromagnetic radiation (e.g., light). While we cannot see dark matter (which was also known earlier as the “missing matter”), it is crucial to everything we can see. As Lisa Randall notes: “Despite its invisibility, dark matter has been critical to the evolution of our universe and to the emergence of stars, planets and even life.”

Take for example products or services — just like with normal matter we can see them but we are probably not aware of the context, or the dark matter, that shaped them. In his book Hill gives car as an example:

“A particular BMW car is an outcome of the company’s corporate culture, the legislative frameworks it works within, the business models it creates, the wider cultural habits it senses and shapes, the trade relationships, logistics and supply networks that resource it, the particular design philosophies that underpin its performance and possibilities, the path dependencies in the history of northern Europe, and so on. This is all dark matter; the car is the matter it produces.”

Building on Hill’s idea (and as part of a strategic design approach I utilize in my work), I apply the criticality of the invisible dark matter to the creation of visible matter when it comes to corporate sustainability. In my book, I suggest that changing the focal point from corporate sustainability practices (normal matter) to the elements that underlie corporate sustainability (dark matter) could be a more effective way to transform sustainability in business. This shift in framing is helpful in understanding the problem (why sustainability in business is broken?), articulating the solution (what is our vision for the desired state of business sustainability?), and identifying a way to realize it (how do we make the desired vision happen?).

Taking a systems point of view

For me, reframing of corporate sustainability around dark matter means shifting the conversation from a tactical level (is offsetting acceptable? What is the best reporting framework? etc.) and even a strategic level (is the circular economy an effective sustainable business model?) to a more systemic level, where we look to understand the bigger picture. This approach goes hand in hand with the complex and adaptive nature of both organizations and sustainability, which suggests the need for a biological rather than mechanical approach to corporate sustainability. In other words, instead of trying to fix different sustainability practices separately with direct interventions (mechanical approach), we need to take a more holistic view and consider indirect interventions that could help create an external change to address the problem (biological approach). As BCG’s Faeste et al. write: “To address a complex task…direct interventions (such as mandating individual behaviors) are unlikely to bring about the required change”. However, they point out, “Indirect interventions…often prove to be more effective because they touch the deeper, more persistent drivers of behavior.”

Furthermore, a dark matter approach has guided me to take a closer look not just at systemic structures, but also at their enablers. More specifically, my focus is on mental models, which can be viewed as “systemic structure generators” as they provide the “blueprints” for these structures”. Defined by Peter Senge as “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action”, mental models play an important role, determining “not only how we make sense of the world, but how we take action.” From a systems point of view, mental models help us understand systems on a deeper level, as we can see for example from the iceberg model, where mental models represent the deepest level, or “the strongest leverage point for change.”

The focus on mental models requires us to look under the hood to gain a better understanding of what we see and the flaws with the current approaches to corporate sustainability. In other words, understanding the challenges of sustainability reporting or circular business models, for example, requires a consideration of the broader environment in which they take place, including the mental model manifested in them (in my book I dedicate one chapter to discuss sustainability reporting and another one for the circular economy).

Beyond having a better understanding of where we are in terms of corporate sustainability, the exploring of the mental model level helps understand how to change it, especially when the change we look for is transformational, not incremental. As Kania et al. suggest in their inquiry of systems change, while “mental models are not necessarily ‘more causative’ than other conditions”, they are the most important driver of activity in any system. Therefore, unless we pay attention to the level of mental models it will be difficult to make any significant change whatsoever, not to mention sustaining it.

Words of caution

I want to end with a word of caution or to be more accurate two words of caution regarding dark matter. The first is that shifting the focus from normal matter to dark matter is about clarity, not simplification. This is not about just putting the blame for everything wrong with corporate sustainability on capitalism and saying that we need to fix it. Using dark matter effectively from my point of view is about connecting the shortcomings of sustainability practices with the flaws of the environment in which companies operate, and understanding the interaction formed between the different levels and how they could be utilized in the exploration of transformation pathways. In a way, recognizing the presence of dark matter makes the change process more complex, but at least it helps us see how to move forward with more clarity.

Finally, while anchoring change in dark matter goes along with Bucky Fuller’s notion that it is more effective to change the environment than to change the person, in this case, the company, it should also be noted that this is not by any means a free pass for companies. When it comes to the transformation process, companies are not bystanders who just need to wait and see how their environment is changed. Companies could have direct and indirect impacts, both positive and negative, on the shift from sustainability-as-usual. We should hold them accountable, making sure they recognize and support the dark matter forces that enable change rather than obstructing them.

Raz is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School in NY, where he serves as an Associate Director of the Strategic Design & Management BBA Program. His new book “Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach” will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in July 2021. For more information on his work see Sandbox Zero. Feel free to connect on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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