The battle of narratives: Five new sustainability narratives for business

Credit: Times Up Linz

There is one thing that both President Biden and Republicans share when it comes to climate change — understanding narratives. President Biden understands the need to frame the fight over climate as a way to improve people’s lives here and now. This is why he focuses on jobs when talking about the climate crisis (“For too long we’ve failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs”). His opponents try to do the exact opposite, which is why they falsely frame his plan as an effort to ban hamburgers.

It is no accident that both President Biden and the Republicans pay careful attention to narratives. They understand that to win the battle over climate change you need first to win the battle of narratives.

Defined by Dr. Katherine Knuth as “the stories people use to make sense of themselves, their connection to broader group, and to the world as a whole,” narratives are powerful tools for changemaking. They are “the most important human device for collective action,” as Dr. Frederick Mayer writes in his book Narrative Politics: Stories and Collective Action. My book considers the importance of narratives in the context of the need to shift from the current mental model dominating business in recognition of the power of narratives to change mental models. Overall, as Dr. Knuth finds in her research narratives are “a key element in deliberate transformation”, which is why any attempt for transformation in business needs to consider them carefully.

Fighting the narrative war is therefore a critical piece of any plan to change business. In this piece I would like to focus not on how we win this war, but what are the narratives we should be fighting for exactly? I present below five narratives that represent themes I consider to be key in any attempt to move away from sustainability-in-usual in business and replace it with a new and bold vision that I describe in my book, which is a good fit for the era of the climate crisis. The descriptions of the five new narratives presented below (together with the current narratives they aim to replace) are just a starting point. To win the narrative wars we need to design and develop these (and other new) narratives carefully to ensure they could support a viable theory of change to achieve the desired impact.

1. Sustainability first, profits second

Current dominant narrative: Profit maximization comes first, everything else (sustainability included) comes second.

This narrative is captured in McKinsey’s advice to companies: “Approach sustainability issues as business opportunities.” In other words, companies’ economic considerations of profit maximization transcend those of sustainability. The latter is always considered through the lenses of the former. This is how we end up with the constant search for the business case for sustainability — the Holy Grail is a sustainability strategy/practice that improves companies’ bottom line. This explains, for example, the popularity of shared value creation, or even more so of the circular economy, which is described as an opportunity to unlock trillions of dollars in economic value.

The new narrative: Sustainability always comes first. Everything else, profits included, comes second.

Rather than searching for the business case of sustainability, companies are looking to make the sustainability case of business. To put it another way: every business element is evaluated first on whether it meets certain social and environmental criteria, and only if it does so it can then be assessed based on its ability to create economic value.

The new narrative also reflects a necessary change in our understanding of sustainability in a business context. It is no longer manifested by “the sustainability sweet spot”: “The place where the pursuit of profit blends seamlessly with the pursuit of the common good”, or Elkington’s triple bottom line, which “focuses corporations not just on the economic value that they add, but also on the environmental and social value that they add — or destroy”. This seemingly equal footing of environmental, social, and economic considerations is replaced with a clear hierarchy based on the notion that true economic prosperity could be achieved only if it is built on socially just and ecologically sound foundations.

Don’t get it wrong — the new narrative does not aim to convert companies into non-profits: while sustainability is prioritized, the pursuit of profits remains a required condition for companies to succeed, although is no longer the key element for which they are optimized.

2. Overconsumption is socially unacceptable

Current dominant narrative: Overconsumption is not a problem, but an integral part of legitimate business models.

The more people buy, the better off the company is. Companies’ approach is usually anywhere between business-as-usual (utilizing planned obsolescence, fighting against the right to repair legislation, and making durable products the exception rather than the rule) and sustainability-as-usual (applying circular economy strategies that aim at ‘greening’ consumption, not reducing it). Driven by companies like Amazon, whose obsession with the improvement of the shopping experience of its customers has made it into a powerful economic force, overconsumption had become easier than ever.

The new narrative: Overconsumption is a serious societal problem with dire consequences for humanity.

There is a growing understanding of the serious and costly ramifications of overconsumption and more pushback against companies that ignore it, as well as the affluent consumers who are also responsible for it. Overconsumption becomes unacceptable not only as a way for companies to create value, but also as a way of life. With growing pressure on both companies and rich consumers, they are forced to abandon overconsumption both on the supply and demand side. If a few years ago, only a company like Patagonia could encourage its customers to buy less, now almost every company shares this message with its customers (the latest Levi’s campaign is a first sign of it). Additionally, once overconsumption loses its cool, affluent people adopt a more moderate lifestyle to ensure other parts of society do not revolt against them.

3. Degrowth should be part of the conversation on climate solutions

Current dominant narrative: Degrowth is not a viable option.

Growth is an essential component of our thinking about development and progress. As Jason Hickel explains in his book Less is more: “Growth isn’t just necessary for human progress, it’s also.. the only way to mobilise the financial resources for the energy transition, and the only way to get the innovation we need in order to make our economies more efficient.” This notion of growth as an indispensable element generated the concept of green growth as a way to address sustainability needs.

Green growth is best embodied in the European Green Deal, which suggests the following vision: “Climate change and environmental degradation are an existential threat to Europe and the world. To overcome these challenges, Europe needs a new growth strategy that will transform the Union into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy, where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050; economic growth is decoupled from resource use; no person and no place is left behind.” Supporters of growth (and green growth) view degrowth as everything growth is not and therefore believe “that degrowth is not necessary to solve ecological challenges and is a distraction from them, that degrowth is unjust, impoverishing and austerian, and that degrowth would bring progress to an end — the concept must be rejected.”

The new narrative: Degrowth is a viable pathway to a socially just and ecologically sound society.

Defined by Jason Hickel as “a planned downscaling of energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way”, degrowth becomes a viable component of the discourse on climate solutions. We can debate, for example, if the Green New Deal can be achieved without degrowth, but should not ignore questions about the effectiveness of “green growth” as a key framework of the climate agenda. Based on the experience we already have with the circular economy it becomes clear that the premise of decoupling growth of economic activity from the consumption of finite resources may be unrealistic, or more of a neoliberal fantasy as Robert Fletcher and Crelis Rammelt put it. One way or another, the more growth is challenged as a taken-for-granted assumption, the more the alternative of “an economy that’s organised around human flourishing and ecological stability, rather than around the constant accumulation of capital” becomes commonsensical.

4. Fighting climate change requires solving people’s current pain points, not just future ones

Current dominant narrative: Climate change is an imminent risk for the future of humanity on this planet.

In a 2020 paper that was published by Xu et al., the authors write the following: “we show that for thousands of years, humans have concentrated in a surprisingly narrow subset of Earth’s available climates, characterized by mean annual temperatures around ∼13 °C. This distribution likely reflects a human temperature niche related to fundamental constraints. We demonstrate that depending on scenarios of population growth and warming, over the coming 50 y, 1 to 3 billion people are projected to be left outside the climate conditions that have served humanity well over the past 6,000 y. Absent climate mitigation or migration, a substantial part of humanity will be exposed to mean annual temperatures warmer than nearly anywhere today.”

This quote captures the current narrative of the fight against climate change — we need to start changing our operating system now to ensure the habitability of the planet in the future. The relationship offered by this narrative between the present and the future is pretty straightforward — we should do X (changes in the way we live) today to avoid Y (climate impacts) in the future. The more X we do now, the lesser Y people will have to deal with in the future. While there is a counternarrative making the case that we can already see the impacts of climate change (i.e. do X now to avoid Y now), too many people still consider the climate crisis as just one more problem, certainly not the most important one (here’s one example from the U.S.). The “shifting baselines syndrome” definitely doesn’t help here.

The new narrative: Climate change is not just a present risk, but also an opportunity to address current critical needs.

Going back to the example of President Biden, he said in his remarks at the Climate Summit the following: “when people talk about climate, I think jobs. Within our climate response lies an extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity ready to be fired up.“ Biden understands what many have failed to comprehend so far: improving people’s well-being solely in the future (even if it is “only” 15–20 years from now) is not a very compelling proposition for people who struggle with daily hardships now. This is especially true if future gains represent a trade-off against present concessions (this is the reason why Republicans try to portray Biden’s plans as an effort that to force Americans to stop eating red meat and replace hamburgers with Brussels sprouts).

The climate narrative, therefore, shifts to include a clear focus on recognizing positive outcomes in the present due to climate action — (e.g., discussing climate change in terms of “good jobs,” or immediate pollution reduction in underserved communities). Climate change needs reframing to get more people on board — “our house is on fire” has changed the discourse on climate, but to cross the chasm we need to find ways to get to the hearts and minds of more people. The way to do so is to frame climate solutions (and design them accordingly) as solutions to people’s most urgent problems. If climate solutions create good-paying jobs, provide free high education, or cheaper and better health insurance people will have a hard time saying no to them, no matter what they think about climate change in the first place. President Biden understands it. Others will follow.

5. The most important climate action: Fighting predatory delay

Current dominant narrative: A critical climate action = achieving net-zero goals (and the sooner the better).

Companies’ focus should be first on reducing their own emissions to meet the 1.5C warming limit. This narrative is best articulated by the 1.5C Business Playbook, which points out that “It is critical to mobilise the entire business sector for the 1.5°C ambition and to halve emissions before 2030. Businesses will contribute in several ways. First, by rapidly reducing their own emissions. Second, by reducing emissions in their value chains. Third, and most importantly, by scaling products, services and projects that enable reduction of emissions or even remove carbon from the atmosphere. Finally, by displaying climate leadership and influencing wider action in society.” Coalitions like We Mean Business suggest that this focus should be on the agenda of every forward-looking business, echoing Larry Fink’s latest letter to CEOs, where he asks companies “to disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net zero economy — that is, one where global warming is limited to well below 2ºC, consistent with a global aspiration of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”

The new narrative: A critical climate action = fighting predatory delay.

Given the power of forces benefiting from the status quo to prevent or slow change (predatory delay) the need to weaken these forces becomes a priority for any transformational change. As Kurt Lewin suggested in his force field analysis it is more effective for changemakers to focus first on diminishing the forces resisting change rather than on increasing the forces supporting change, as the latter tend to be offset by increased opposition of the former. Michael Mann describes in his new book, The New Climate War, the forces opposing action on climate change as “the forces of denial and delaythe fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats, and oil-funded governments that continue to profit from our dependence on fossil fuels.” These forces need to be in a weaker position, with less influence, to advance any serious climate action. Therefore, this becomes the first priority of any company interested in advancing a climate agenda.

There is already a growing understanding that the most powerful tool corporations have in the fight against climate change is their political clout. Additionally, we can see banks and tech companies pushed to consider their financial and commercial relationships with fossil fuel companies, as well as companies reassessing their relationships with industry associations based on the latter’s positions on climate change. Companies understand that no matter what they do within their value chain, they cannot make any difference if the business environment does not support these changes, and therefore fighting those who try to stop or slow changes in the business environment (i.e. those involved in predatory delay) becomes their number one priority. This may require companies to get out of their comfort zone, but once the story of climate action becomes about the fight against predatory delay they have no other choice but to do it so they can move on then to work on their zero-emission goals.

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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Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach