It’s time for a new vision for business: Awakened sustainability

Credit: Thomas Hawk

“Eco-effective designers expand their vision from the primary purpose of a product or system and consider the whole. What are its goals and potential effects, both immediate and wide-ranging, with respect to both time and place? What is the entire system — cultural, commercial, ecological — of which this made thing, and way of making things, will be a part?” -Bill McDonough & Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

Why do we need a vision?

Companies like to use the term ‘vision’ when considering their future in general and in the context of sustainability in particular. Target, for example, just came up with a new vision to “co-create an equitable and regenerative future with our guests, partners and communities.” Guess’s new vision is about promoting “diversity and inclusivity as a value and culture within our global workforce and supply chain and creates fashion that contributes to a climate positive, circular economy.” Even Jeff Bezos wrote in his last letter to Amazon’s shareholders as a CEO that “despite what we’ve accomplished, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for our employees’ success“. And the list goes on and on.

While you would be right to take these visions with a grain of salt (I know I do), it does not mean that a vision is not a key part of a transformational change process. As Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers wrote in Beyond the Limits: “Vision without action is useless. But action without vision does not know where to go or why to go there. Vision is absolutely necessary to guide and motivate action”. This notion of the importance of vision for a transformative (sustainability) journey was reiterated by many, including Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, who suggested in their 2020 book The Future We Choose the following perspective:

“A compelling vision is like a hook in the future. It connects you to the pockets of possibility that are emerging and helps you pull them into the present. Hold on to that. Stay firmly fixed to a vision of a world you know is possible. This act is radical resistance to the belief that solving our problems is beyond us”.

So, what is a vision anyway? I find Peter Senge’s point about a shared vision being “a picture of the future we seek to create” helpful in understanding vision on the most basic level. Strange and Mumford’s paper The origins of vision: Effects of reflection, models, and analysis, which suggests that a vision “involves a set of beliefs about how people should act, and interact, to make manifest some idealized future state” also helps to characterize the nature of a vision. Last but not least, Daniel Wahl suggests in his book Designing Regenerative Culture that “visions can serve as lighthouses that guide us towards a regenerative culture. Just as lighthouses are rarely the point of arrival, but only the beacons that direct us towards a goal that lies beyond them…Visioning together can serve as a catalyst for collective intelligence engaging all of us in a design-based conversation about a more meaningful and healthier future.”

A new vision: Awakened sustainability

I also see vision as a necessary component in the redesign process of sustainability in business, which I share in my new book Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis: A Strategic Design Approach. As I mentioned before, my recipe for (transformational) change, which I share in the book, consists of a number of ingredients, including dark matter, a vision, and a theory of change. In the last article, I focused on dark matter. Today I will shed some light on the new vision I have in mind for corporate sustainability, which I define as awakened sustainability.

What is awakened sustainability all about? First, it has been developed as a counter approach to sustainability-as-usual, using what I call “the opposite principle,” and as a part of a broader backcasting process, which I discuss in further detail in the book. Here, I would like to introduce the three components of the new vision — mental model, content, and context, and what they construct together as a whole.

1. Mental model — sustainability first, NOW

The mental model is the foundation of this new vision and in general of every vision whatsoever. If you don’t change first the mental model, then you may talk the right talk, but it would be impossible to walk the walk. This approach is aligned with a broader recognition of the criticality of mental models, which Peter Senge describes as “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action”.

To start with the mental model for the new vision entails the notion of considering sustainability first, not profits as companies do today. Unlike the mental model of sustainability-as-usual (I call it shareholder capitalism 2.0), which still sees profitmaking as the top priority of the company, the new mental model assumes that sustainability considerations top everything else. The new mental model offers a new way to think about businesses, suggesting a clear shift in the dynamics between sustainability and profits, where companies do not optimize for profits, but for sustainability. As a result, rather than making the business case of sustainability, companies will start making the sustainability case of business.

To be clear, the new mental model is not about the elimination of profitmaking as an important element in corporations, but about changing priorities. Moreover, we should be reminded that putting profits before sustainability is not a law of physics (or even the law), but a choice we make because we believe in the story behind it (shareholder capitalism). This hierarchy is what Yuval Noah Harrari describes as fiction or imagined reality — “unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world”, he writes in Sapiens. It means that while the current mental model may be persistent, it is not necessarily irreplaceable.

Last but not least, the new mental model is grounded not only in the need to create a new hierarchy between sustainability and profits but also in the urgent need to act on climate change, which is why it includes the word “NOW” in capitals. It should act as a constant reminder of the need not only to win this fight but to do so quickly, reflecting the perspective that “winning slowly is the same as losing”.

2. Content: Science-based principles

After providing a solid foundation for the new vision with the mental model of “sustainability first, NOW”, I move on to the composition of its content and context. There are different approaches to constructing a vision and I chose a principle-based approach that seems to be a better fit for a vision focusing on sustainability (more about it in the book). If the mental model puts sustainability first, then the goal of the content and context is to clearly define what sustainability is all about.

With the decision to use principles in mind, I wanted to make sure that the articulation of sustainability is done with rigor. Therefore I capitalize on the work conducted by The Natural Step developing a framework for strategic sustainable development (FSSD), which resulted in a number of principles that “could be used as a non-perspective starting point for system thinking about sustainability”. Drawing on scientific consensus as to what exactly is needed to achieve sustainable development, these principles have been further expanded by the Future-Fit Foundation into seven core properties that allow businesses to create what the Future-Fit Foundation defines as system value, where “business addresses societal challenges in a holistic way, while not hindering progress toward a flourishing future”. These seven principles/properties (see figure below) provide a solid and scientific-based understanding of sustainability in a business context, which provides companies a clear framing of what taking sustainability seriously requires from them.

3. Context: Social justice and regenerative design

While the abovementioned seven principles make a compelling case for a bold sustainability vision, they still need a context for bringing them to fruition most advantageously. A context is necessary to connect the dots between the principles, so they will come across as a coherent manual for companies’ operating systems, rather than as a wish list of isolated principles or a set of boxes to check. The context I offer consists of social justice and regeneration; i.e., making sure our vision is of a fair and regenerative future.

Social justice — The ultimate goal of this part of the context is to ensure that sustainability solutions in business are not separated from social justice. While it is clear that that social systems cannot exist without a healthy environment, we should also be reminded that this dependency exists on both ends. As Kuhnhenn et al. write: “There is no ecological sustainability without social justice”. The emphasis on social justice as a context also echoes Kate Raworth’s goal of creating a safe and just operating space for humanity. Finally, we need clarity on what social justice stands for. While there are many definitions and interpretations of the term, I find Erik Olin Wright’s definition to be a good fit here: “in a socially just society, all people would have broadly equal access to the necessary material and social means to live flourishing lives”.

Regenerative design — regeneration is also an important lens, as it helps anchor the seven principles in a much stronger understanding of what sustainability should entail. It is built on a growing critique about the ability of the current paradigm of sustainability to achieve meaningful outcomes, as well as calls for the consideration of a regenerative approach, which could be more effective in addressing the ecological and social challenges we face. In general, my approach sees regenerative design as a framework helping to rachet up companies’ ambitions for sustainability (similarly to Raworth’s approach) and frame the principles as a means to create what Wahl describes as “a whole system of mutually beneficial relationships”.

Connecting the dots

After putting all three pieces (mental model, content, and context) together we can see the full picture of a new vision for a desired future of awakened sustainability. This vision focuses on the notion of awakening, which could range from a very basic level of waking up from a sleep mode, acknowledging the crises we face and what is needed to respond to them adequately, to a deeper spiritual level of change “that challenges and subverts your framework for understanding the nature of reality”.

While some may ask if this vision is not too utopian, I find it to be more aligned with what Wright calls a “real utopia,” which embraces the tension between the imaginary and the practical and is “grounded in the belief that what is pragmatically possible is not fixed independently of our imaginations, but is itself shaped by our visions”. In other words, it is ambitious but certainly doable.

Raz Godelnik 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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