So You Want to Change the World? (Part 3)

What is your guide to sustainable enterprise, in a post-Trump elected world (and has it changed)?

The Trump phenomenon reminds me of that Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times!" We are certainly living through such a time. While I am totally appalled and opposed to what Trump represents and the way he has sanctioned bigotry, I am slightly less pessimistic than many of my colleagues when it comes to the Trump Effect and this is why:

  1. Most of Trump's campaign "promises" will be broken, either because he didn't mean to keep them in the first place (but he knew they'd made good PR and attract voter support) or because political action is much more bogged down by bureaucracy and accountability than he realises.
  1. We don't know which way the Trump Effect will go. It is just as likely that there will be a strong movement for social justice and environmental sustainability in reaction to his inflammatory and retrogressive position. Trump may, perversely, end up being good for activism and democracy.
  1. The world is not waiting for Trump or the USA to move ahead on issues of human rights (like migration) or climate change (like going renewable). When the science and morality is so compelling and with so much momentum, common sense (and strategic self-interest) will prevail.
  1. Four years (or even eight years) is an incredibly short time in history. Yes, Trump may be able to distract and slow and confuse progress on sustainability (at least in the USA), but he will very quickly be shown to be a dinosaur that was on the wrong side of history.

And to your question, what should business do, my answer is simple: don't get distracted. Stay focused on the medium to longer-term trends and the underlying science. A great guide for this is the Future-Fit Benchmark, which is based on the scientific principles (or "system conditions") of The Natural Step Framework for sustainability. And what also competitors (economies and companies) are doing in the rest of the world.

There are many companies that will be exposed in the next 4-years for their lack of genuine commitment to sustainability. As Warren Buffet once said: “It's only when the tide goes out that you see who's been swimming naked.” So this is the perfect time to invest in sustainability, when it is undervalued - knowing that the underlying fundamentals (i.e. the trends and pressures, which will drive the need for sustainable enterprise) remain strong.

Could you please give some advice on how to selectively consume and retain useful information? And how do you share information so that people retain and relate to what you’re sharing?

Information overload is a challenge we all face today - and it is also true for media around sustainable business. I remember a colleague, Prof Stuart Hart, saying that we shouldn't complain, as this is exactly what we hoped for 20 years ago. And that's true. When I started on sustainability back in 1990, I really had to search and dig for any examples of companies doing anything to respond to social and environmental issues. Today, I struggle to keep up with all the great and inspiring things happening around the world.

So, to your question, how to deal with this flood of content? I think you have to develop filters. For me, it happens in two ways:

  1. I structure my social media so that I am following people whose opinions I respect, i.e. they share content that I believe is most relevant. When you do this right, then the cream rises to the top - the really significant content gets shared by a few of your favourite thought-leaders, which suggests it's worth checking out.
  1. I develop mental filters. Basically, this means having a few screening questions that you always apply, like: Is this from a credible source? Is this really transformative, or just incremental or business as usual? Is this tackling the symptoms or the cause? Does this content relate to my own mission and values, in terms of my career aspirations and life goals?

This all sounds very rational and systematic, but it's actually quite intuitive. Besides, some of the real "ah-ha" discoveries of content are not logical. They might appear random, but I prefer to think of them as synchronistic (as per Carl Jung's concept). A wonderful book that applies this to societal, organisational and individual change is called Presence.

In answer to your second question - about how to most effectively share information - I believe there are two keys.

The first is to share information that is useful, informative or inspiring. It sounds obvious, but it is easy to fall into the trap of sharing negative or unhelpful "news". Most people want to be empowered by what they are reading, so what we share should be positive, constructive and solutions-oriented. This is why I try to focus on innovation for sustainability.

The second key is to tell (or share) stories. We are no different to our ancestors who sat around a fire and told spellbinding tales. We are psycho-culturally hardwired to love storytelling. I try to do this in my books, articles and blogs. I know facts and figures can inform and educate (and are important), but powerful stories are more likely to inspire others and move them to action.

Concluding thoughts: the opportunity of change

I'd like to end my contribution to this dialogue by reiterating that change is a "multi-player" game, because we are trying to change a complex system. This means that there is a role for lots of different types of people and institutions. I'm privileged to have lived through South Africa's transition to democracy (in 1994) and so I know that transformative change does not come from pulling a single lever.

There were literally millions of actions by millions of people in South Africa and around the world that caused the racist regime to tip onto a more positive path. It will be the same for sustainability - and I already feel the tipping. As the African proverb goes: To go fast, go alone; to go far, go together. We need to go far, fast, so let's do it individually and collectively.


Extracted from a dialogue with Masters students from the University of Waterloo, Canada, on the topics of sustainable business and transformational change.

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