Since publishing my first book seven year ago, I have spent much time speaking before a diversity of audiences on the subject of sustainability. Over the course of hundreds of conversations, people have opened up about the role of individual citizens and consumers in creating and manifesting a “better world” for themselves, their children, and future generations. I have found that a “sustainability generation” has been awakened and has mobilized as force for good, to better themselves and the world.
Increasingly, people have become more knowledgeable about the complex and interrelated dynamics of the communities in which they live. Although not all people define or validate sustainability the same way, there is a fundamental and advancing understanding that humans and our behaviors, represent the common denominator for a better future. The context of sustainability has deep roots in environmental conservation and management, however, people are now understanding and validating the entrenched realities for social equity and economic prosperity.
For example, of late there is a great deal of rhetoric in the United States surrounding a ‘Green New Deal (GND),’ proposed by Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortes (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA). The GND seeks to accelerate the U.S.’s transition to a 100% clean energy and decarbonized economy. The GND proposal has also been equated to a ‘massive’ social transformational agenda, much like the ‘New Deal’ that U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt put into place in the early 1930s to provide relief and support for citizens following the Great Depression.
New social reforms such as the GND are being introduced by politicians partly because humanity is in need of an intervention. When the dignity of a human life is no longer a bestowed value that transcends the products, policies, and practices that define our lives, something is clearly broken. Humanity is at a vulnerable crossroads. We essentially have two paths to choose between; one illuminated by hope and respect for all living matter, and another which feeds and fuels fear for further advancing the near-term prosperity of a few.
Over the past four decades, regulatory reforms and societal pressures drove an era of corporate social responsibility, environmental management, and now, corporate sustainability. The transition has taken time, and shows no signs of slowing. Today, corporations are held to a financial and economic test by their investors and shareholders. In fact, according to US SIF Foundation, in 2018 there were more than $12 trillion of sustainable, responsible and impact investing (SRI) assets in the United States alone. I remember that it was not that long ago when there was less than $3 trillion under management. Today, asset managers are managing complex financial risk through the lens of environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) criteria and consistently evaluate what companies are doing on top-rated business performance issues such as climate change/decarbonization, conflict materials and supply chain risk, labor practices, employee health and safety, water security, energy conservation, among others.
In an effort to achieve strong financial returns for investors, corporations have had to also contend with highly volatile and competitive market forces, shifting consumer behaviors, and an innovation cycle that is continually driving them to do more with less. From this context, corporations have, perhaps more than government and civil society, had to clearly demonstrate strong sustainability performance in order to earn a social license to operate, let alone a regulatory license.
The stakeholder landscape for any company is complex (i.e., employees, customers, politicians, investors, regulators, shareholders, community activists, NGOs, competitors). Simply put, corporations have a lot to lose if they don’t get their sustainability strategy right. Corporations are in the crosshairs of civil society, consumers, regulators, and investors, each of which have increasingly shown less and less tolerance for organizations that are not trusted, accountable, or that fail to deliver on their promises.
The advent of sustainability, as a global force for businesses to do good, has taken time to reach scale. Most people might agree, the global economy is far from being sustainable. However, today there is a more informed, ready to commit and act business sector that is actively pursuing a greater alignment between the environmental, social, and economic constituents which comprise corporate sustainability.
A convergence is also happening between government, business, civil society, and other long-standing organizations and institutions including NGOs and religion. This convergence is a positive evolution for sustainability in that there is a more shared recognition and appreciation that the strategy, goals, and desired impacts do not (and should not) reside exclusively on the shoulders of corporate giants. Rather, every citizen, community, business, and government agency has a responsibility and critical role to play in shaping sustainable outcomes and impacts. The algorithm for a better world is really not that complex. It is a simple equation that might read something like:
Where, gS = Global Sustainability;
hD = Human Dignity, or a general growing awareness of the legal, ethical, moral, and values-based opportunities for individuals and society to be more accepting, inclusive, and understanding;
iA = Individual Accountability, or a number of actions committed to achieving gS;
sC = Social Convergence;
The formula suggests that global sustainability is motivated and made possible when individual accountability (raised to a minimum of the second power to suggest generational transference) plus human dignity (dignity for all living things and as a human right) can converge with broader civil and societal convergence at massive scale.
Sustainability then, becomes mobilized and optimized when all humans are valued, accepted, and treated as equal partners with equal and shared responsibility, for being accountable for their behaviors across the interrelated dimensions of human dignity, social equity, environmental conservation, and economic prosperity. The equation assumes that the role of the individual in civil society will transcend their behaviors across all facets of their life, including at home, in the classroom, in the boardroom, and in the community.
For the formula to work, a fundamental requirement is the capacity for human dignity and individual accountability to directly influence and impact ‘partnerships of purpose’ between public-and-private organizations. Given the full range of sustainability challenges we face at local and global scales, we cannot afford to sit idle, hoping that hot button issues will resolve, or that any one constituent will solve them. Whether we are talking about water scarcity and security, climate change and adaptation, food safety and security, diversity and inclusion, innovation and education, or healthcare and human rights, complex and interconnected sustainability issues are growing in scale, swiftness, and severity.
This is all happening during our short lifetime, and during a period of history where global population has risen to a new peak of 7.7 billion people. As a result, human demand for natural resources to sustain our current quality of living, continues to intensify. Simultaneously, global temperatures are rising; and the impacts of climate change and volatility of weather fluctuations are being felt in every region and community of the world. In an effort to adapt and mitigate our lives to these changes, and to ensure human survivability, we are proactively engineering new, and reengineering existing, infrastructures and systems to ensure humans have access to potable water, adequate food and nutrition, and a less energy intensive built environment (i.e., transportation systems, homes and buildings).
IN THE PHOTO: No water in the tap PHOTO CREDIT: Ken Treloar on Unsplash
Of course, this global transformation is not felt the same in every community. Coastal regions, urban centers, and rural communities each are experiencing and internalizing, in real-time, how to adjust to the realities of the social, economic, and environmental changes that precipitate more rapidly than in the past. Consequentially, humanity is facing and has to deal with, gross resource inequalities, social justice and equity challenges.
As an observer of the burgeoning ‘sustainability generation,’ I’ve seen a social shift from passive and reluctant thinking about tough issues like climate change to a reactionary mindset which has shaped risk-based dialog on how to mitigate impacts and accept change. Over the past four decades, ‘sustainability’ has become more mainstream, to the point where it is viewed by many as another meaningless buzzword without any true substance or teeth.
For decades I’ve seen many peers and professionals work hard to provide credence to the value of sustainability, particularly to the business community. For the business community, sustainability needed to show a return-on-investment (ROI), otherwise it was just another corporate objective that was a nice to have, but not a real driver of business strategy, performance, or impact. Paralleling the corporate sustainability journey has been policy makers, politicians and civil society who have also looked for more clear understanding behind the what, how, why and whom of sustainability.
Whether you are at the helm of a Fortune 100 company, working in customer service for a government agency, or working as a gig-economy consultant, we are all operating in world of amazing abundance, but also, high alarm regarding the limitations of natural resources and the ecologic damages that human activities have caused. It is as if we’ve waited for some watershed moment, a Climate Treaty, a Peace Accord, a comet striking the earth, a zombie apocalypse, to come together, assess our state of affairs without bias or blame, and finally collaborate for positive change.
Well, unless I missed it, and I’m generally glued to social media like the best of them, there has not been a singular awakening for humanity. However, there have been multiple tremors and warning signs. Whether or not the “big moment” is coming is inconsequential. Taken in totality, the social, economic, and environmental stressors that divide rather than unite humanity are evidence enough that systems are broken. That leaves us with reality that taking action on sustainability is not a sexy Hollywood movie moment.
We don’t need and should not wait for some magical aspiration to tell us what to do next. Rather, we need to simply roll up our sleeves, accept that we all have flaws, and move on from where we are to empower every woman, man and child to live life with a sense of purpose and resolve for enriching their lives and the lives of others around them.
Taking action to improve your life, the quality of your community, and the state of affairs in the world boils down to a consistent assessment and conscious modification of unsustainable behaviors. As global citizens and consumers, we all have the capacity to vote with our pocketbook and our voice to effectuate economic and political change. How we treat our bodies and each other are also the most evident opportunities for improving our health and the quality of relationships in our daily lives.
Stated another way, the underlying bond between each and every human begins and ends with dignity. That is, how we treat each other and ourselves. Right now humanity is broken and afraid. We are collapsing under the weight of our own fear; a fear that is permeating from deep within an entrenched, pervasive, and insidious ignorance of greed, control, and ego that is allowed to persist throughout the world.
Make no mistake, the forces of good and evil are at play each day throughout the world. Each day we are faced by choices and behaviors that challenge the good and evil in all of us. Fundamentally, I believe human dignity and the spirit of what is good will prevail. A ‘sustainability generation’ has promulgated across the world to shape our future for the better, grounded by the fact that there is dignity in all living matter, and that humans are the stewards of our destiny. It is up to each of us, acting in concert, as individual citizens and consumers, to ensure that humanity never falls victim to its own undoing.
Another observation is that ‘sustainability’ has infiltrated the vernacular of every day citizens. We may not all say or use the phrase the same, however, the convergence and systemic association between social, economic, and environmental dimensions and impacts of human behavior is more widely understood. As a result, there is growing acceptance that we must evolve our behaviors and practices in step with planetary boundaries and dynamic conditions. To that end, society is beginning to move beyond a reactionary mindset to one that is more tolerant of change and preemptive in its ability to influence and impact global sustainability. The clearest evidence to this point is in the proactive spirit, enthusiastic engagement, and unbridled ambition of global youth, who are vocal, politically savvy, technologically proficient, and are empathetic to local and global sustainability concerns.
For better or for worse, global youth have grown up in a digitally hyper-connected and social media driven world where from a very young age, they have become highly sensitized to the terrors and ills of humanity. Global youth inherently see the need for change and understand they need to take action. Global youth are living embodiment of the ‘sustainability generation’ that is using its power to influence the creation and launch of new products, policies, and practices that do a better job of integrating sustainable thinking and innovation from the onset, not as a corrective action.
Whether you validate the sustainability generation or not, one thing is certain. Human life and existence is forever shaping the state of affairs and future of our planet. If we exist as humans, not just survive, but to thrive as individuals and as members of a global community; we must all embrace a shared ethos to treat all living matter with dignity; and also, a resolve to serve the greater good. Each of us has a unique purpose in how we can improve our life, and the lives of those around us.