The struggle to build movements for sustainability

Apr 20, 2023 | Articles

by Clara Kwan, Global Head for Sustainability and Impact Investment at Consulus

Unless we live under a rock or intentionally close our eyes and ears, there is compelling evidence that the world (both the environment and the community) is struggling from the years of abuse, and it was brought out powerfully by Sir David Frederick Attenborough in many of his documentaries such as State of the Planet in 2000 and even by Al Gore in his documentary film An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. So, we know the need for sustainability, and there are more and more tools available to assist organisations in measuring and tracking the data that they require to make changes. Then, why do organisations do so little so far?

Progress has been slow since the Paris Agreement in 2015. We’ve heard many announcements and speeches from business leaders promising sustainable development. But where are the results? In COP27 last year, there were continued concerns about rising emissions, and leaders are pressed to take more action. At the same time, we see a lot of negative labeling for any sustainability efforts: Stop using plastic straws to reduce pollution – that’s not good enough. Use reusable bags instead of plastic bags – what do I use to contain my trash then?

The way I see it, the science and logic for the need for sustainability is clearly established. But the more challenging (and real) battle lies in the hearts and minds – how to ignite and sustain viable internal sustainability movements. Here, I am proposing four things to take note of for anyone out there who is struggling to build one:

Seed a cause.

We must make it viable and attractive for your leadership to adopt it. Business owners are still strongly focused on immediate profitability rather than medium/long-term gains. The world is a complex system, and we need to have systems thinking approach in business to connect relationships and components (both internal and external). Align the cause with the organization’s purpose. As a sustainability leader and changemaker, we need to think out of the box and help our leaders to see that sustainability and making it viable as a business is doable. So instead of being the lone cheerleader, we need to find attractive ways to help leaders own it as their platform for change. 

Shape a viable vision.

Sometimes, we see that most environmental concerns are too amplified to the point that some may take the view that it is best not to do anything. Vision starts with a direction and it is best to break it down to doable steps. Purpose-driven organisations and their leaders walk the talk. Sustainability activities permeate throughout all departments with a common goal, often using the UNSDG goals as guidance, but that might be a tall order for many. So start with simple and measurable steps. Again try to secure small wins together so that the plan for sustainability is not meant for the elite few who know the details. There is as of now, too much jargon in the sustainability sector: how do we make it relatable with stories? I often share my personal experiences and stories to get people to adopt a sustainable vision, and I am sure you have yours too. 

Nurture a culture of trust.

We cannot achieve a vision in a vacuum, even if you are the smartest and most hardworking person in the organisation. Leaders rely on the people around them to realise the organization’s cause and vision. In a sustainability movement, everyone can be a changemaker and has a part to play. Participation is important. We need to nurture a culture of trust with internal and external stakeholders, from top to down. And it is essential to get everyone on board simultaneously, so who can you start with first. Begin a small movement that can share good and credible examples of change. Strategise and break it down in phases and involve more and more people over time. Through each person’s lens, each being given its own voice and stake about the organisation, opportunities, blindsides can be discovered and then teams can trust each other to collaborate and work towards a common vision.

Pivoting and a Growth Mindset

As more and more data and knowledge about sustainability surfaces, we continue to learn and gain new insights. We must be ready and prepared to pivot in this changing world. With a growth mindset, we all must embrace challenges and work through obstacles as we learn from challenges and criticism. Pivoting a business may sound intimidating but also presents growth and expansion opportunities. Let’s go against the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – with the rapid advancement of technology in our lives and the business world, we are able to use AI and data to help improve efficiency and performance and advance green changes that we have not had the opportunity to do so in the past. From the reduction of waste, energy consumption, lowering of costs and carbon emission etc, the era of technology can teach any willing “dog” new tricks. Leaders need to keep an open mindset, focusing on the vision they wish to achieve. 

We will discuss this with other leaders at the upcoming Shape the World Summit 2023 in Pullman Kuching, Sarawak on 21st June 2023.

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