Sustainability is failing. So: what on Earth do we do now?

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By Gary Flood, Senior Journalist, The HR Congress

Our profession’s largest online event on HR Strategy & Leadership, HR Congress World Summit 2022, was held at the end of November 2022. We’re now revisiting some of the excellent Keynotes, plenaries, panels, and interviews to aid you in your learning journey.



Today, let’s go back to the Day Two Morning plenary session where Leadership for Good thinker Otti Vogt interviewed Cambridge “pracademic” and sustainable business author Dr Wayne Visser.

Otti Vogt, Former COO and Chief Transformation Officer ING C&G

Is there anything more important than saving our common home—beautiful Planet Earth?

Everyone says they agree. But the brutal truth is we’re not winning the climate crisis battle—and so we really do need a ‘Plan B’ to motivate people, and urgently.

Attendees at this fascinating talk between two highly intelligent and motivated speakers certainly came away with the beginnings of that Plan B—but to summarize such an interesting and passionate debate on the genuinely existential threats most serious people fear we face seems almost to trivialize it.

Case in point: few business presentations you go to start with a quote from the incandescent speech Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy doubtless shocked the journalist interviewing her for The Financial Times right back at the start of the pandemic (“This [global health crisis] is a gateway between one world and the next—so we can choose to walk through it dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatreds, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us, or we can walk through it lightly, with little luggage ready to imagine another world–and ready to fight for it”).

It’s time for a new approach beyond CSR

Perhaps luckily for viewers, while the scale of commitment to thinking about positive change remained this high through Otti and Wayne’s conversation, the level of intense prose did not.

That means we can examine the central thesis of the talk–drawn mainly from themes identified in Dr Visser’s important new book, Thriving: The Breakthrough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society, and the Economy.

Essentially, Visser claims that, despite more activity than ever before, ‘CSR’ (Corporate Social Responsibility) is just not moving the climate change needle sufficiently.

“If we look at climate change, if we look at biodiversity loss, if we look at inequality, if we look at corruption; these are not problems that we’re making much headway on in the last few decades,” he lamented.

Dr. Wayne Visser, Author, Fellow, Head Tutor, Lecturer – University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

Why? Well, Visser identifies three factors that tend to undermine even the sincerest CSR program. One, it’s always seen as peripheral to the company’s main activity (“I sometimes say that sustainability for many companies it’s like their main business is the juicy fast food burger and fries, and sustainability is the little salad on the side which hardly anybody touches”).

Two, far too many of our pushes for sustainability have been incremental, when the challenges we face are large, urgent, and getting worse very rapidly, so we’re not keeping up.

And thirdly, he fears that far too many C-Suites in their heart of hearts see sustainability/CSR is seen as uneconomic—as a cost that can be shrugged off for higher bottom-line priorities, like in the current soft global economic climate.

As Visser grimly joked, “Warren Buffett used to say you only know who’s been swimming naked when the tide goes out; well, I think that’s the case for many companies now, where you see they’re being exposed on sustainability because they’re not really that committed and it’s the first thing they cut.”

The only way to cancel out these negative trends, he stated, is to start to understand sustainability as an investment—that has returns, but not ones boards can see immediately.

And for both speakers, a better way forward drops right out of that. First, we need to focus; instead of 17 small sustainable development goals, we should be pushing to see the depth of the climate crisis means it really is adapt or die now.

Time to not just survive, but thrive?

Or rather, Visser’s new concept: thriving. We don’t tell our romantic partners we want a sustainable future with them; we want to have a thriving future together—and this is the tenor of the sustainability conversation Visser thinks we now need to be aiming at.

“I think sustainability has been shooting for the moon but barely getting off the ground,” he warned. “So, we really need to be more ambitious in our goals.”

Some of the changes the pair called for are on a bigger macro scale than anyone working in business can probably manage on their own. But inside organizations, HR professionals can also really be playing their parts, they agreed.

For one, work to stop managing sustainability as the company manages HR, Marketing, or Finance, as that doesn’t get us to where we need to go fast enough, or at the scale required.

“We won’t get to where we need to go without  really transforming what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, so we need to see this as an innovation opportunity instead.”

And if you’d like to hear more about the three steps around building resilience, rethinking leadership, and creating transformative cultures… then go to the link below.

Written by: Katalin Toth

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