The 2019 Guide for the Sustainability Warrior

2019 should be all about navigating to a new path, where sustainability and climate change goals become achievable, not just aspirational. The following recommendations for business transformation and mindset change can help us get there.

image credit: Mark Hougaard Jensen

Congratulations! You’ve managed somehow to survive the few ups and many downs of 2018! This was a challenging year, where the main story seemed to be climate change — it was very difficult not to bump into it almost every day, with numerous climate reports, many extreme weather events and a growing number of voices worldwide that were not happy with the little progress we’ve been making on this issue.

For me 2018 was a a year of clarity, both in terms of the need to act with urgency on climate change as well as the many obstacles we face when we try to do so. This is actually true not only for climate change, but for sustainability in general.

If 2018 was about clarity, 2019 should be about navigation. Right now, the path we’re on is not the right one. It may be one most of us feel comfortable with, but the progress this path generates is too little and too slow. Zooming in on climate change for a minute (after all, it is as Bill McKibben says, “the most important thing happening on our planet”), it will be quite impossible to limit global warming to 1.5C if we continue on this path.

What we need to figure out is how to navigate our way out of this path to a different path, where sustainability and climate change goals become achievable, not just aspirational. To do so I believe we need to focus on business transformation and changing our mindset about sustainable living.

A word about each one of these themes.

Business, as we all know, can be a powerful driver of change. However, we currently don’t take advantage of its power. Most of our ask from business is voluntary at the moment, assuming corporations will gradually understand there is more risk in inaction than in taking bold(er) action. This approach doesn’t work, or more accurately it generates only incremental change (see for example the small number of companies adopting the Paris Agreement goals). To be clear, it’s not that we don’t see any progress. It’s just that it’s not enough. We need to expedite the journey of business into sustainability by sending companies strong(er) signals that this is the only acceptable way to operate. We can do it, for example, by requiring business to meet the 1.5C goal, demanding personal accountability from executives and board members, or pushing companies to reimagine sustainable innovation.

This is however not just about transforming business. We also need to transform ourselves. Too many of us still associate sustainability with either sacrifice or premium prices. Too many people also perceive climate change as a distant threat, or what Michael Lewis calls a ‘fifth risk’: “The existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk”. We need to change it.

While some believe we should focus mainly on infrastructure changes, such as renewable energy and carbon capture technologies, my sense is that without changing our worldviews, beliefs and values it’s not going to happen. The Yellow Vests movement provided an example of what happens if you apply textbook solutions without considering people’s needs first. To avoid more examples like this one, we need to focus more on what Prof. Karen O’Brien calls ‘the personal sphere of transformation’, which represents “the subjective beliefs, values, worldviews and paradigms that influence how people perceive, define or constitute systems and structures, as well as their behaviors and practices.”. It’s not easy, but nevertheless it is crucial.

So how do we do it? In order to transform business and ourselves we need no less than warriors, as this is a culture war that we fight here on our future. As I wrote in the past this war is at its core on the speed of change. On one side you have those who exercise what Alex Steffen calls predatory delay — “the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime.” On the other side you have those who believe that “winning slowly is the same as losing”. This is a fight between two worldviews: One is very much grounded in the status quo, while the other is about making it obsolete.

To those of you who see themselves as sustainability warriors and to those who may be willing to consider becoming ones, I prepared a short guide with 10 recommendations on what we need to do in 2019 to start navigating ourselves out of the current path into a far more promising one. The first five recommendations focus more on business transformation, while the last five recommendations are mainly concerned with mindset shift. I hope you find this guide useful!

1. Disrupt and delight — the latest news from CES 2019 demonstrate that innovation for the most part is not sustainable, at least not the innovation we celebrate in places like CES (with the exception of probably Impossible Burger 2.0).

Yes, I know we have some of examples of sustainable innovation, but they are the exception, not the rule. To address our sustainability challenges effectively we need that the majority of innovation will be done with sustainability in mind, not just a small part of it. To change the current state we need designers, creative people, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and curious people in general who will create sustainable innovation that is based on the concept of disrupt and delight, connecting the dots between disruption of unsustainable everyday practices and consumer delight.

Take for example the latest innovation in retail — Caper, the AI self-checkout shopping cart, which “wants to make eliminating checkout lines as easy as replacing their shopping carts while offering a more familiar experience for customers”. Exciting? Yes. Offering shoppers more convenience? Certainly. Providing supermarkets with opportunities to generate more revenues? Seems so. Sustainable? Not really. You can see how sustainability is definitely not in the Caper’s team mind in the short demo video they created when the happy customer ends the smart shopping experience with all the groceries in a plastic bag.. Can you come up with a sustainable version of Caper that is both disruptive & delightful?

2. Ignite Divestment 2.0 — the fossil fuel divestment movement had been very successful so far, with about “total size of portfolios and endowments in the campaign to just under $8 trillion” according to Bill McKibben. It is now time to consider the next step of this campaign — divestment not only from fossil fuel companies, but also from any company that is not willing to meet the Paris Agreement goals. There are two main reasons why I think it’s a good idea — first, it can support an overall campaign requiring all companies to do it by law. Second, it will help solidify the idea that companies should take responsibility for their environmental (as well as social) impacts.

It may sound a bit extreme, but so was the idea of divestment 1.0 (i.e. divesting from fossil fuel companies) six years ago. In order ‘for the kids to win’ as McKibben predicted in 2013 we need to spark what he called “a new front in the climate change”, in this case one that can unite us against every company that is not willing to be part of the solution.

3. Be smart, use new power — “old power”, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms write in their book “New Power”, “works like a currency. It is held by a few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads and it captures. New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard but to channel it”.

The message is simple: To win a fight in the 21st century you need to adopt a 21st century approach and use new power. If you’re not sure what it means or how to do it check the book, the authors’ 2014 HBR article, or Heimans’ 2017 talk at OuiShare Fest. A good starting point is considering the power of social media and how it can help you convey messages and spread the word as you fight to make corporations more accountable and responsible. Donald Trump seems to know how to use new power model extremely well. Do you?

4. Make sustainability a priority for executives and board members — to make companies change you need to change the mindset of their officers and board members. Right now it is pretty clear sustainability issues are not a high priority for the people who lead corporations — it’s not that they don’t care about sustainability, but that sustainability issues often become diluted by wider priorities as John Elkington explains. According to the latest PwC’s CEO survey, for example, climate change and environmental damage are ranked no. 9 in a list of threats CEOs are most worried about. To change this they need to hear from you, the customer/employee/stakeholder.

Assume for example that only 1% of Amazon’s 300 million customers would write a polite email to Jeff Bezos and all of Amazon’s board members asking why the company is not committing to the Paris Agreement goals. My sense is that such effort can make a difference, or at least make them consider climate change more seriously. After all, Bezos himself suggested that “customers are “divinely discontent” and their ever-rising expectations keep Amazon having to improve and innovate quickly”. It would be interesting to test if this is true also when the issue the customers are divinely discontent about is sustainability.

5. Experiment — according to the Cynefin framework when you are in a complex context, where “there is no immediately apparent relationship between cause and effect, and the way forward is determined based on emerging patterns,” the recommended way to act is probe-sense-respond. As David Snowden explains: “we conduct safe-fail experiments…if an experiment succeeds, we amplify it. If an experiment starts to fail, we dump it. In fact, we shouldn’t even do an experiment unless we’ve identified our amplification and dampening strategies in advance.”

So, assuming most businesses operate in a complex context when it comes to sustainability (and in general..), if you have an idea you think is worth trying to move the sustainability needle, just plan an experiment and run with it. If it shows signs of success, amplify it. If not, move to the next experiment until you find what works!

You can use a card similar to this one we use in the 1.5C for Victory campaign to help structure your experiment:

6. Figure out how to make a real impact on systems larger than the household scale — take this advice from Alex Steffen and provide your own interpretation. The examples of Fab City, Transition Towns, Toast, Greta Thunberg and the Yellow Vests movement suggest that no matter where you live, what you do, or how much money you have in your bank account you can always find ways create a systemic change. This is eventually about scale — “if you don’t have scale, you have a hobby…you can’t mitigate climate change as a hobby,” Thomas Friedman writes. He refers mainly to clean energy, but it is also the case for sustainability in general — we need scale to create impact and that requires us to think in terms of creating changes that can move the needle beyond the four walls of our house.

7. Help normalize sustainable solutions — Social norms have considerable impact on people’s behavior. This is also true when it comes to sustainability, where according to Douglas Miller “the presence of such [unsustainable] norms fosters unsustainable behavior and hinders sustainable behavior”. At the same time norms are also considered to be an effective tool for promoting sustainable behavior.

Normalization can take decades but also be a relatively short process, as we can learn from politics in the Trump era or the sharing economy (it took less than a decade for Uber and Airbnb to normalize their services). Each one of us can be a sustainable normalization agent — all you need to do is to consider how to help make sustainable product/service/business model/system look more normal, not to say desirable or even necessary. If you’re interested in an example that hopefully can inspire you check the story of Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, aka the minimalists.

8. Support those who expand the limits of the possible — I believe there is a growing understanding that we need to think out of the box when it comes to sustainability, or else we’ll end up with incremental and slow change that is just not good enough. We have a growing number of people and movements who challenge our conventional thinking about sustainability and offer us inspiration and ideas on how to make it work. My list of disruptors of the status quo include for example Greta Thunberg, Alex Steffen, Kate Raworth, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Zebras Unite and Extinction Rebellion. While these are my examples, you can find your own and figure out how to help spread the word on ideas and actions that reshape the discourse about sustainability and force us to rethink sustainability-as-usual.

9. Stop frightening your friends — please stop sending your friends links to the latest report or news about the horrors of climate change. They’re either already horrified and/or in a state of denial. If you want to get their attention, then focus on solutions that relate to them — invite them to try Impossible Burger (maybe even the 2.0 version) in a burger joint near you, buy them a nicely designed travel mug (the ultimate commuter companion!), or tell them about the free used stuff they can find on their local Nextdoor community.

10. Design accessible ways for sustainable change — we still live in a world, where only the rich can afford legacy sustainable solutions. If, for example, I want to buy hand soap, the Method/Seventh Generation hand soap costs twice the price of regular hand soap. This is a problem. To fix it we have two possible routes: The first is sustainability-as-usual, where we either work to reduce the price of sustainable options or make unsustainable options more expensive (or both).

In the other route we adopt a Sandbox Zero mindset and look for new options. We may want to start by asking why do we need to buy hand soap in the first place? Yes, we need to wash our hands with soap, but buying hand soap is just one option to meet our need, not the only one. How about making hand soap? As you can see here making your own foaming hand soap is easy, fun and the process itself doesn’t take more than 2 minutes. The design challenge may not necessarily be about creating a better hand soap recipe, but creating a winning strategy that can make such solutions compelling for more people.

It’s time to better refocus sustainability on accessibility, following the vision Bucky Fuller articulated half century ago: “To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”.