Today marks our annual celebration of romance and love. February 14th is a day of last minute restaurant reservations and heart shaped boxes containing single use plastic and the product of neo-colonial, modern-day child slavery.
Okay, I promise that was the last bit of pessimism you’ll read in this entry.
For today is a day for lovers, for compassion and deep feeling! But what does this have to do with sustainability?
To answer this question we have to explore two concepts: feeling and feeling. (Notice I’ve been very clever here and one of the ‘feelings’ is in italics.)
As people who have bodies and minds we interpret the world around us with our senses, which in turn provide our minds with information about what’s going on around us. We feel (no italics) by interacting with something physical, like hearing vibrations in the air or touching a loved one’s hand. This is feeling.
Feeling (in italics) on the other handis something different entirely. We don’t feel with our senses. We feel with our minds and in particular a part of our mind that we rarely credit: our gut.
When we hear vibrations in the air, say, by hitting play on the video above, we use our senses to feel. But we feel the information that our senses deliver to us deep within our bodies. The goosebumps I feel at precisely 1 minute and 55 seconds aren’t a product of my body feeling, but my gut feeling Ella and Louie’s voices dancing together.
This feeling has been a mystery for humankind since we began thinking. The best way to think of it today is gut feeling: associations and signals that we can’t quite put our fingers on but fill us up with intense compassion, meaning and a sense of rightness or wrongness.
Louis Armstrong once said: “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
Here I think he’s talking about feeling jazz rather than just hearing it and the same is true for love.
Love isn’t the sensation of touch when out walking with your significant other. It’s something beyond explanation, deep in parts of the mind that we only explore in our dreams.
So what’s this got to do with sustainability? A lot actually.
I have no way to prove this apart from personal experience and a lot of thinking, but the deep part of our mind where our gut feelings come from is exactly the same place where our true feelings of sustainability lie.
You can’t arrive at feelings of interconnectedness with the world around you through our immediate front-of-mind senses. To understand this truth of compassion, togetherness, and ultimately sustainability, we have to listen to our guts, because they know a lot more than our limited rational minds can compute.
I actually believe that we will only see an end to the destructive spell in human history over the last few centuries when we begin to trust what our guts tell us, when we begin using our feelings to inform decisions instead of rational thought alone.
When we discard excesses of food, drive down the road for some milk or walk past someone in desperate need, I think there is a small part of us that feels the wrongness of these acts – past any rational argument.
So when you have that uncontrollable feeling, tonight or any other night,that makes you understand your place on this earth a little better, listen and trust it. It’s a wealth of unaccessed understanding about our world that we can only begin to make use of if we turn off the music and listen.
When chatting about sustainability, it feels almost inevitable that a discussion will break out regarding responsibility. Is it on the shoulders of individuals to make changes for the planet, or do we live our lives normally and let corporations or governments sort it all?
This kind of discussion will usually spring up over a person’s choice to go vegan, take the train instead of flying, or maybe, use a bamboo toothbrush. And I get it. In the face of global emissions, changing diet or toothbrushes seems laughably small and insignificant compared to BP’s annual emissions.
A conversation might go:
“Ahh they’ve got rubbish vegan options here”
“Oh so you’re vegan now are you?”
“Yeah, decided to take the plunge last month for Veganuary”
“Ohhh cool (deep sigh), what made you do it?”
“It was for environmental reasons, those bloomin’ David Attenborough documentaries got me”
“You know in the grand scheme of things it makes no difference right?”
“Yeah well I wanted to do my bit”
“Fair enough but I don’t think there’s any point in me changing my diet, what we need is for government to step in and do a meat tax or something… it’s on them not me”
In truth, I’m sympathetic to both sides here. While wanting to do my bit and make sacrifices for the planet, I don’t want to make climate change all about me and my actions at the expense of losing the bigger picture.
On average, a person in the UK has an annual carbon footprint of 10 tonnes per year. Let’s say that with extreme effort, you manage to get your footprint down to 0 – you’re totally, 100% sustainable. That change would account for roughly 3% of one transatlantic flight. Nothing when you look at this.
So the “it’s the responsibility of the corporation” side of the argument wins right? If we really want to combat climate change, we need corporations to act. After all, 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of global emissions! .
And typically, at this point in the discussion, the pro-corporate action side is hailed as the victor and all responsibility is alleviated from the individual. Conversation over. They can eat their juicy steak with glee and contentment in the full knowledge that their lack of sacrifice is having as little difference as their friend’s self-denial.
… However, in my opinion, this is a premature end to the discussion and an incorrect conclusion.
Just because corporations make the most significant contributions to global emissions does not mean we as individuals bear no responsibility. After all, they don’t emit GHGs because it’s fun but because we buy it and make it profitable to do so.
Realistically then, what’s going to drive corporations to reduce their emissions and become environmentally friendly?
Personally, I think it’ll take no less than systemic cultural change on a global scale.
So how does that happen?
Well, that’s a tough question, but to try and tackle it we’re going to introduce an American guy named John Shook.
John Shook was the first American manager to be hired by Toyota. Upon being hired, he packed his bags and moved with his family to Japan, immersing himself in the organisation for a prolonged period with the sole purpose of understanding Toyota’s innovative culture.
What John observed was not a group of managers pestering their employees telling them what to think and how to act. But instead, a culture embodied by all employees, regardless of position, promoting experimentation, reflection, and ambition. John was amazed.
John subsequently quizzed the Toyota managers:
“How do you get your employees to think and act so differently, how did you fix the culture this way?”
What John later learnt totally changed his views on culture formation.
The Toyota staff didn’t “fix” the culture but modelled it.
John admitted he used to think culture came from telling people what to think and holding a few “vision” meetings. But instead, what the Toyota staff taught him, is that culture change happens with actions not words. You need leaders that will show rather than just tell people how to act.
Furthermore, once a workforces behaviour changes en masse, their shared values and culture soon follow.
This is how culture changes.
As a result of these findings, John developed the following model.
Johns’s simple model shows how, traditionally, he (and most people) used to think culture dictated our values and, subsequently, our behaviour. Which is somewhat true. However, recent research (combined with John’s own experience) suggests the opposite also happens. Our behaviour informs our values.
Consequently, if we want a more pro-environmental culture, we need to change people’s behaviour towards more pro-environmental action.
So how can we change people’s behaviour to favour the planet?
This is a tricky question but research has shown that people use less energy when they think their neighbours care more about the environment (regardless of whether they consider the environment a personal value of theirs). Consequently, typical, pro-environment signals like solar panels spread like wildfire amongst communities because individuals feel significant social pressure from their neighbours.
(Similar to how working behaviours spread in Toyota)
If you don’t believe me, look at how leaders and first followers create a movement in the following video. Think of the weird dancing as a symbol of pro-environmental behaviour – watch what happens!.
This suggests most climate scientists with their communication strategies and in depth reports have perhaps got the cart before the horse.
Because changing thinking in order to change behaviour doesn’t work, instead what John found in Japan is we must first change behaviour to change thinking.
So we’ve conceded…
More so than individuals, corporations need to act to tackle climate change
Changing corporations requires systemic cultural changes, reflected in voting, consumer, and career preferences etc.
We’ve also learnt…
To change thinking we first must first change behaviour.
Pro-environmental changes spread like wildfire in communities.
So where does this leave us?
What does the world need?
Can we as individuals do anything at all?
I’d argue we can.
I believe to make corporations act we need more sustainability leaders.
(… or weird dancers, if you’ve seen the video above)
Sustainability leaders in our communities
Sustainability leaders in our neighbourhoods.
Sustainability leaders making personal sacrifices and decisions that demonstrate their commitment to looking after the planet
Not because these actions in themselves will save the world but because they signal to communities and neighbourhoods that the environment is important, and should be considered important by them too.
These leaders will initiate small scale local changes in their communities’ behaviour and culture. Just like the managers in Toyota, the weird dancers in the linked video, and the early neighbours who put up solar panels.
And as these behavioural changes go exponential, they inevitably influence wider community values trickling upwards and outwards slowly affecting culture at large – even reaching those big corporations (no hiding now!).
Therefore, perhaps the greatest individual impact of choosing to reduce our personal footprint is not in the directly saved emission but rather in the expression of our values signalled to our local networks.
So yes, the corporations are mostly to blame (the corporation side wins the debate). However, we still have a responsibility to act, not waiting idly, but taking the charge as leaders and first followers. Because our choice to participate in the sustainability revolution (or lay low and eat steak) has more impact than we realise.
… so go vegan, install solar panels, rewild your garden… (dance weirdly)
Because when your friend sitting opposite is eating that juicy steak, they cannot help but ask themselves…
“Damn, am I missing out? Maybe I should make some changes too”
Just a (not so) quick one here to say MERRY SHIFTMAS, one and all!
Tis the season for gratitude, so I’d like to take this Christmassy opportunity to say loudly that we’re grateful for you, without which Future Shift would be but a figment of our imagination.
I thought it would be nice for Future Shift’s friends and family to hear our story over the last two years. If you’re reading this, you’re likely to be someone who’s played a part in shaping us. So for that I say thank you from us all!
Within the walls of Future Shift HQ, we’ve had a year of meaningful collaboration, learning and intense discussions about the future we want to design. But let’s go back to when it all began.
In the winter months of 2020, Will and I sat down and made a plan for what Future Shift was to become, each year, for the next five years. The first two years of this plan were to be our ‘Launch period’. This meant creating a brand we were proud of and a mission. Beside this mission were a couple of services we would design to uphold our founding principles.
So, what did our ‘Launch’ look like? Well, we started off in Future Leap, in the heat of lockdown, and talked to people who we believed were doing the kind of things that we would like to be part of in the business sustainability space.
We reached out to the wonderful network of UK B Corps and listened to the learnings that had been made on their way to becoming more sustainable businesses. This is where our first consulting service, Shift B Corp was born and, along with our first client Creative Revolution Group, we designed a platform-led consulting approach to support businesses on their certification journeys. Today, we are proud to have supported a new wave of B Corps with this service.
In the early months of 2021 we moved into an abandoned Costa coffee shop in the middle of Bristol’s old town and set up shop, sandwiched between two squats, acting as guardians of the property in return for cheap rent. We enjoyed an excited range of visitors who’d pop into the office from time to time and absorbed the revolutionary atmosphere created by the various pop-up anarchist shops and political flags draped from the windows of our neighbours – there was never a dull moment in our six months on High Street.
In September 2021, we took our reclaimed desks and Gumtree-freebie office equipment to 31 College Green, our current office. This was a big step up for us in terms of professionalism, being able to open up a space where some serious innovation could happen, we could take clients and begin building a home for ourselves. Here, with each new client (and all-important paycheck), we made copious trips to Ikea to buy plants, lamps and mugs for the office, one by one with each penny rolling into the Future Shift bank account.
Around this time Will and I could start paying ourselves ‘real money’, move out of our parents’ spare bedrooms and live lives like our friends were. This was a big ‘this is getting real’ moment for us.
Not long after, in summer 2022 we were included on a 12 month project which gave us something we had never experienced before: some form of stability. This meant we could plan 1, 2, 6 months into the future, and that future included employee #1. So we set out to hire the first of the ‘founding employees’. We looked through some 300 applications for a ‘junior consultant’ role and out of the dozens of interviews and many hours reading cover letters, we found Tom.
Tom is an important one. Not just because he’s a brilliant mind and was already strongly aligned with our mission, but because he represented the departure from a business that was effectively two consultants trying to make ends meet. Now we were closer to a firm, with diverse, complementary skill sets and management structures. This was a big jump from us that we are still getting our heads around.
It’s quite clear from our experience that when multiple people work together, emergent properties like culture and innovation begin to bubble up from sharing our collective experiences. We have another team member coming on in early January 2023 which we are all super excited about. Our ability to interpret the world, as an organisation, gets that one bit deeper, allowing us to make better, more equitable collective decisions.
So that’s us over the first two years of Future Shift. Thanks for listening to our story.
As I write this at the end of 2022, I can confidently say that everyone at Future Shift is excited to witness what 2023 has in store for us. We’ve worked hard to create conditions of innovation and collaboration, guided by an undertone of revolution, gratefully instilled into us by our anarchist neighbours all those months ago. Now it’s time to establish the principles developed during our two-year launch in our next phase: growth.
Kind regards, Merry Christmas and have a wonderful New Year,
Okay. Now you’re here and thank you for clicking. Over the next 4 (just four!) or so of your precious minutes, I’m going to try to shift your fundamental understanding of what sustainability really looks like. There’ll hopefully be something in here for everyone.
The inspiration for this blog comes from the many protests, talks, webinars, seminars and sustainability consulting hours where I’ve had sustainability explained to me. The ideas in this blog are actually very simple, but it’s something that I (and hopefully future you) use every time I think about sustainability.
We, as people with human minds, have no other choice than to split the world around us into distinct categories in order to understand it. Some of the first works of scientific inquiry we do at school is dissecting a frog – splitting it into its component parts in order to understand it better. It works insofar as it allows us to understand better what ‘frog-ness’ means.
The exact same is true for how we begin to look at sustainability. We split it into the TLAs (three-letter acronyms): ESG (environmental, social, governance), CSR (corporate, social, governance), PPP (people, planet, profit) that make up the jargon of just about any sector. We’re going to focus on the common split of sustainability into environmental, social and economic categories and how they are often viewed wrong, and how a shift in how you look at them can help you think about sustainability.
If we look at the Google Image results for “social environmental and economic sustainability” we can see the age-old Venn diagram of three, equally sized, spheres which signals to us that these are equally weighted, slightly intersecting components of sustainability.
This gets a big fat NO from me and anyone who’s looked at sustainability at depth because it doesn’t get close to the reality of how these three ‘pillars’ of sustainability interact.
Here’s three reasons why the visualisations above are wrong:
It shows that the economy, the society and the natural environment are of equal size and importance for sustainability
It shows that the spheres only somewhat interconnect (and in the bottom-middle case in the figure above, don’t intersect at all).
The large part of each of these systems exist in isolation from each other which is inextricably wrong. This also makes it look like these spheres can exist without each other.
Now to a better framing of these three spheres. Below we have a visualisation that better fits the reality of the world that we live in.
Here’s three reasons why the visualisation above is better:
The economy, society and nature are not equal and never will be. We cannot see clearly from our limited human perspective – we wake up in concrete boxes, get in our metal boxes to sit in another concrete box for 8 hours, get back in our metal boxes to our personal concrete boxes in order to rest and occasionally get in a longer metal box that flies to enjoy ourselves. When we look at it from this perspective of course we’re going to be prone to mistakes when it comes to recognising the true proportion of things. We’re the centre of our worlds but not the centre of the world.
The economy, society and nature don’t just interconnect, but are subsets of each other and are interdependent. The economy exists only within (and never outside) the society that made it up, human society exists only with nature and not outside it and nature can exist on its own without the others. As much as we like to think that we are gods, we are merely a subset of a wider nature, a little circle next to penguins, ants and mushrooms’ with no more authority in nature’s order of things.
This also tells us a lot about the fragility of each of these three systems. If the economy is on its knees (because a group of American blokes decided to take excessive risks in 2008 or a flu-like virus starts killing all the old people in rich economies in 2019), society will still function just fine like it has for the last 10,000 years (apart from some very upset billionaires) and nature will probably be better off. If society implodes because a certain trembling Russian decides to push a big red button, nature will recover even if every last one of us is obliterated. But if nature is on its knees, so is our society and economy, and without society, the made up laws of economics will cease to be. The economy, whatever the news likes to tell you, is wild and fragile if you look at it relative to the other spheres.
The economy needs nature but nature does not need the economy.
We make mistakes (like destroying half of our regions biodiversity) as people and communities because we don’t see the world in the correct way. Shifts such as this towards seeing how systems actually exist and depend on each other can help us all make the critical decisions that make up our personal and collective impact.
This podcast has been my mantra for the last year and speaks some deep truths of our society and the nature of things.
Further watching: – How language shapes the way we think | Lera Boroditsky – One of the biggest squeezes on how we interpret the world around us is language. In this Ted Talk, Lera Boroditsky explains how the categories we use to break things down and thus interpret them can distort even our most fundamental senses from our sense of direction to how we see and understand colours.
Consulting involves harnessing the talents of skilled, knowledgeable individuals to provide advice and support.
A product is something that solves a problem by increasing the ease or standard by which something can be done.
Product-led consulting, then, is solving the problems that can be solved with a product as a starting point, and then addressing everything else (the interesting stuff) through consulting.
Think about it like cleaning a dirty oven. The product we’re leading with in this case is the oven cleaner that you spray onto the grime and let sit for a few hours. Consulting is the manpower to wipe things up.
See, if you hired a professional oven cleaner to clean your oven, and they came with no tools for the job; started wiping away at the grill, dry as a bone. After a few hours of sweaty work nobody would be too impressed with how things were going.
Now if this professional oven cleaner came with a toolbox of sprays, foams and wire brushes, you’d (both) be in far better stead. A quick spray and lather of the right cleaner on the grill and the cleaner can spend the next hour or two getting stuck into the microwave or showing you how to clean the trickiest spots – i.e. using time for the useful stuff.
On the subject of cooking, think Walter White episode 1 vs Walter series 4. Of course we’re going for the superlab meth (product-led consulting) over the RV meth (productless consulting) – especially if the superlab meth is cheaper than the RV product!
How do we use product-led consulting?
Right now, we use a platform (our product, see image below) to cover the simpler bits of the B Corp accreditation to create a simpler, better managed and more time-efficient journey to certification. We then use our consulting time with clients to do what we like to call ‘dreamwork’, where we talk about the interesting things like transitioning an organisation’s missions, high-level management of sustainability issues and business resilience.
Snapshot – a company about 20% of their way through B Corp certification using our platform!
Why product led consulting works for companies?
It’s cheaper. B Corp consulting usually costs between £500 and £800 per day of a consultant’s time (not us though!). Through the use of our platform we can offer 6 months of engagement and support for experts for under £2000 (just a few day’s worth of a normal consultant’s support). For startups and companies where money is a barrier to getting proper support, organisations can receive support for £49/month. We will always be accessible to all businesses.
It’s better. The Shift Platform allows our clients to access the tools, templates and best practice examples from across the internet, as well as a concise step-by-step guide to completing a specific task that has been assigned to them. Because we’re an online platform, we are constantly improving our content, adding video tutorials, better best practices and updating our calculators to match the latest scientific standards.
It gets the whole team involved. Using a platform to consult business sustainability projects like B Corp means that a lot of new doors open for management. We can easily manage a team of 4-10 by assigning tasks on a 1:1 basis. This ensures that B Corp-related tasks can be performed by someone in a relevant department and encourages that all important culture shift that B Corps are always talking about.
In the mid 90s there was a buzz in the air. A new technology was on the horizon and the business world was starting to get their head around the opportunities associated with it. The internet was just around the corner and it was going to change everything.
You can bet your bottom dollar that your average successful 50-something business(wo)man rode the dot-com wave – in some form or another – all the way into the doorway of their second home in Padstow.
As Peter Thiel (PayPal) recounts, “The dot-com bubble was a goldrush: there was money everywhere, and no shortage of it, and no shortage of people to chase it … Appending .com to your name could double your value overnight” (Zero to One). The titans of business today were forged in the dot-com furnace – fueled by limitless information.
The dot-com wave irreversibly changed everyone’s lives. For the better? That’s not what this blog is about. The important point here is that today, 20 years after the large-scale adoption of the internet, we spend a sizable portion of our days thinking about the internet. In the eight hours a day we spend at work, we spend at least two of those hours thinking about the internet.
An important clarification: what I mean by “thinking about the internet” isn’t the time we spend navigating the internet, but the time that we spend making decisions in which the internet is a player. “Thinking” in this should could be more accurately thought of as consideration.
The next dot-com bubble
In the mid 90s, the internet was a fringe concept: open to debate and not universally accepted as a norm. At this point, the innovators and early adopters were turning the wheel and setting sail towards new ways of conducting their business which included the internet. The laggards and late majority, had their fingers in their ears and took the “I don’t think the internet’s going to change our business too much” stance (Context if you don’t understand these groups).
In the end, it was those who had full faith in this new way of thinking (pre-2000 in the graph above), changing their internal decision making to adopt an unproven and futuristic way of thinking who shaped the world we live in today. Those who were resistant, were forced to join the future at some point – and most likely don’t have that second home in Padstow today.
It will be no surprise — especially given the nature of our work at Future Shift — that I will pull this internet analogy into the world of 2022: a world just starting to adopt sustainable thinking into business. If you add 20 years to each of the values in the X axis in the graph above, you are seeing a picture of what the future trends will look like for sustainability being adopted as a core element of a business day-to-day.
For businesses and the people that work in them, thinking about sustainability today is just like what thinking about the internet was like 20 years ago. One had to think about a complicated, risky, futuristic system that we’re all moving towards, and no one had any idea of the social consequences. I can completely understand why people are opposed to making complicated, systemic changes — there’s definitely a lot less brain-ache involved with keeping your fingers in your ears (but I guess that’s why only 2.5% of the population are innovators). It is the job of this 2.5%, who quite like the risk and brain-ache to make thinking about sustainability accessible to everyone – just like Microsoft, Google and Apple did in the 00s. This is the business challenge of our working lives (unless you are in your second home in Padstow) and one that Future Shift is embarking on now.
The Microsoft’s, Google’s, Fa***ook’s and Apple’s of the world succeeded because they took the unbearably complicated concept that was the internet and made it so simple your nan could use it. This is the nature of the sustainable business arms race of the next 20 years. The internet’s market size is about $2 trillion. If you’ve heard Mark Carney speak on sustainability in the financial space, you’ll know that $2 trillion are baby numbers compared with what must be circulated to combat the climate crisis.
How sustainability is going to change your life
So, how is sustainability going to change your life? If you are a director or working in the innovation space, then everything you’ve already read is for you and how sustainability will penetrate your every business thought over the next 20 years.
For everyone else, think about your day-to-day job — and I want you to be honest here — and answer the question: “do I think about sustainability in my every-day decisions?” (sustainability here means how this decision will compromise the ability of people to live forever). If the graph above is anything to go by, only 3/10 of you can answer yes to this, and that’s pretty accurate in my experience of working with developing sustainable thinking in businesses.
Here are just some examples of how sustainability will be involved in your day-to-day, for some of the most common roles in a business:
Procurement – “keeping our supply chain in line with carbon limits/taxes is the bane of my life!”
Operations – “what is the climate-related disaster risk for our factories in Bangladesh? This is the second factory closed down due to flooding this week!”
Recruitment – “no innovative or progressive graduates are looking to work for my business”
Sales – “no-one wants to buy our individually plastic-wrapped dishwasher tablets any more”
R&D – any future facing role will have to be resilient to climate risks. This is perhaps the only role within a business, where thinking about our longevity as a species is close to enough, but people in R&D are kind of cheating because it’s their job to think about the future.
HR – “Climate migrants have created new challenges for language and ethnic diversity in our workplace”
In reality, a lot of these problems are on people’s minds right now and will become every-day consideration in the all too near future. When we get to a sizable chunk of the world thinking about these ideas before they are risks, that is when we transition into a sustainable society and start to address the fundamental sustainable issues we face today.
“Invest in emotional intelligence and emotional resilience because for the first time in history people will have to reinvent themselves multiple times throughout their life”
Yuval Noah Harari on what children should be taught today.
How Future Shift are going to change your life
Our mission in the world is to redesign sustainability for business. Our mission for our clients is to change everyone’s job description to include sustainability principles, thus nudging people to start thinking about sustainability and pulling sustainability into the equation when making day-to-day company decisions, however seemingly futile.
If we change enough people’s job descriptions, we begin to redesign what sustainability means to business – not some limitation or harsh boundary in which a business can operate, but an ideological shift within a business’ inner workings that can be induced by nothing more than the ability to see the world a little clearer.
The start of the year’s cycle brings feelings of new beginnings, aspirations and resolution. So I thought this would be a better time than ever to share some reflections on the first year of Future Shift and the astronomical learning curve we’ve faced in the last 12 months.
A few years back, Howard T. Odum started my thinking about how ecological systems describe the things we as humans do very well. Odum talked about how the laws of nature can be used as a tool for criticising and ultimately progressing human society. There are two advantages to looking at things the way Odum does. First, he’s right that we are undeniably part of natural systems and their laws. Second, it gives us 3.5 billion years of experience to guide our actions.
I’ll be calling on some of the lessons from these past years of life to explore why Future Shift will be working towards mediocrity. I will share my reflections from the last year of building Future Shift and how this has led me to believe that businesses are best thought of as living systems.
Let’s look at forest succession. Succession here is the process of change in a forest like we see in the UK, from bare land to climax forest.
One: We start small.
All things must start small. If they start big, they’re prone to large imbalances because they require artificial, external forces to get there (like large amounts of investment for businesses or petrochemical-based fertilisers).
Two: We start simple.
This has been a big lesson for Future Shift in our first year. As much as we wanted to deliver every idea that came to mind we would find ourselves burnt out at our desks at 9pm with no focus on what simple things were the lifeblood of our business. It is simply a fact of nature that almost every complex system has been a simpler system before then and an even simpler one before that etc. etc. until you get to an idea (in the case of business) or a seed (in the case of a forest). For those in the ‘seed’ stages of startup development, I would practice simplicity like a mantra. Don’t get caught up in complexity but practice focus on the simple things. Complexity is a state that you will arrive at without knowing it – it’s a fact of nature.
I think of a Future Shift example of our internal consulting methodology and actually how that has become more simple over time rather than more complex. But I am wrong here. The simplicity that I’m talking about here is subjective simplicity i.e. how simple it is to me in my head. The methodology is still as complex as it was before I thought to be simpler, I’ve just managed to visualise something equally as complex in my head. This is the process of learning I suppose. The two diagrams below describe the same things but with vastly different complexities.
Three: We grow for a while, but not forever.
When the forest reaches the end of its growth, that is not the end of the forest. It’s just getting started. Climax forests are set to provide services to the entire natural world for thousands of years (unless someone comes along and cuts a third of all global forests in just a few hundred years). It’s a similar situation for businesses. Nothing is meant to grow forever, not even Apple dogecoin. There are limits that exist as laws of nature that will make sure that a single individual doesn’t grow larger than an entire country. Little can be said for our laws of humanity.
Steady state is the ultimate state of nature, and this is something that we (hopefully) get to think about at Future Shift within the next few decades. This is age old thinking for people, as well as nature actually. Adam Smith (considered the father of economics) was pretty sure that nations will settle at a steady state – just look at us now.
I wasn’t sure whether to go with balance, equilibrium or mediocrity for the name of this final lesson from nature. Balance seems to be something that is achieved by people who are spiritual, equilibrium by the scientific but mediocrity, we can all do that. I for one actually excel at being mediocre at all sorts, and this extends to what I do in Future Shift. It used to stress me out, but the big difference between me in 2022 and me in 2021 is that now I’m being mediocre on purpose.
Let’s just clarify what I mean by mediocre. Doing things in a mediocre way means choosing the middle way. No extremes, straight down the middle. It means accepting that you are not going to be extremely good at everything as a default position which, for me at least, diminishes a lot of the dizziness of freedom I experienced in Future Shift’s first year.
My mediocrity argument is this: if you, as a person or business, do many things in a way that is neither extremely good or bad, you will before long witness your system achieve balance/equilibrium. This condition of granular mediocrity and systemic stability will enable the emergence of innovation.
In short, stable systems succeed. A good example of this in nature is in the recent episode of Green Planet, where David transports you to an ancient forest. This forest has been in equilibrium for millenia, free from biological extremes of any sort. The system is infinitely complex: every plant, insect, fungus and animal plays it’s part to ensure stability. The subject of the video below is the Corpse Flower. As you watch, notice it’s extraordinary complexities and remember: this plant is the product of a stable system, where every job by every ant, bacteria and orangutan is done with sincere mediocrity.
If anything you just read hit home, the Open University is giving away big plant posters in collaboration with Green Planet. Get one sent to your office to remember some of the lessons for our wisest teachers.
We were very proud to share our new logo with you all a few weeks ago. The starting point for our new brand was change. Change because that’s the reason we come into work in the morning and leave at night satisfied and hopeful for tomorrow. And here she is:
Ultimately, this is a nice shape that has elements of a leaf, an F and an S, is cyclical and green so can be interpreted in many ways but is always going to be a logo that suits a sustainability company with the initials F. S. This blog entry however is a deep dive, so we will be going into the logo’s symbolism (and beyond).
The logo shape is inspired by the Greek letter delta, used in maths and engineering to denote change. I used the uppercase letter delta (the triangle below) a lot in thermodynamics calculations and always loved how active the shape was: one, it’s an arrow and two, it sometimes looks like a door or portal which your numbers would step through changing state. We settled on the lowercase delta because it holds dimensions of our initials. The lowercase is still used in calculus to denote change (Wikipedia).
The two shapes contrast nicely with the uppercase representing structured, methodical, human change and the lowercase representing cyclical, chaotic, natural change. It’s an obvious choice to go for the lowercase symbol because true sustainability must conform to nature’s rules of order.
This ramble is to do with how we see the world only in the context of human understanding, especially in maths, engineering but most importantly in economics and business. We do this, I presume, because we’ve never been very good at calculating anything that is changing – there are just too many added complexities. In a very similar way, we simplify almost everything into heuristic models (tools for thinking) that we can easily wrap our brains around.
I heard a great example of this in a Reith Lecture (1967) called Only Connect by anthropologist Edmund Leach (pictured above in an early mirror selfie) about jellyfish and watches. This bizarre comparison was made to explain that our society: businesses, institutions, governments, fac**ook groups, are understood within our human brains only in ways that we can fully grasp, not in ways that are necessarily true. That is, when we think of a watch, one can imagine the cogs and springs fitting together and ticking along nicely. But when we get to a jellyfish – whoah! There is absolutely no way that anyone can configure all of the connections that allow that jellyfish to tick… or pulse rather.
We then see businesses (and I’ll keep to this example as a section of society) as ‘well oiled machines’ and ‘ticking like clockwork’ and never a ‘well fed or energetic jellyfish’. We, and our interactions, are of course far more complex than clockwork and it is to dumb down the true beauty of human society to put it in the same category as springs and cogs. We are dynamic, flexible and utterly resilient, and this is something to be admired and remembered, especially in the context of societal projects like climate justice and biodiversity regeneration.
“All the way through I have been urging you to keep on remembering the total interconnectedness of things as distinct from their separate isolated existence. But there is more to it than that. In most cases the connectedness is dynamic, not static” Edmund Leach (1967)
What do we mean when we say the word sustainability?
This may seem like a trivial way to begin this guide but this is an absolutely vital start if we’re going to address the first hurdle one must climb when talking about sustainability.
When you think about what sustainability is, like, the picture or definition that pops into your head; I can almost guarantee that what you thought is different from what I and practically everyone else (yes, I’m talking to all four of Future Shift’s loyal blog readers) thinks sustainability is.
Unlike, say, a pencil, which in this part of the world will almost certainly conjure up this image (left), sustainability in our collective mind looks more like this (right). On the right is what is called a floating signifier in linguistics. A signifier because it points to a specific image or idea and floating because the image or idea is unspecific amongst a population. The word sustainability floats around without a common definition which makes it almost impossible to talk about.
And I will start with my hypothesis here: that because the definition of sustainability is not agreed upon (and in some cases not fully understood by those advising sustainability), greenwashing is endemic in the world of business and sustainability consulting. This is because of a structural problem and not any malintent on the end of sustainability consultants, but all the same something that should be talked about and addressed through education and sound communication.
This is where my definition of sustainability comes into play. Just like an anthropologist must be aware of their positionality (their social or political stance relative to what they’re studying), you must be aware of my stance: which is chiefly biological. That is, that sustainability is a status of a business or person that would make this person or business exist within nutrient, water and carbon cycles indefinitely all the while not relying on existing structures of inequality to do so.
Now that the definition and hypothesis is out of the way we can get to our greenwash guide. I’ll run through three things to look out for to spot greenwashing in sustainability reporting.
1. Lack of independent reporting body or framework
This one’s especially important for large or impact-driven companies (companies that have impact at the heart of their business model or value proposition) that have sizeable budgets set aside for sustainability reporting.
If a company is working within a given framework (like the Science Based Targets Initiative for carbon reporting for example) or have brought in an independent reporting body to do the heavy lifting with respect to the numbers (like a university or research institute), they are already taking a big first step towards cutting out bias and greenwash from their sustainability report. Riverford Organic Farmers partnered with the University of Exeter and independent researchers Savanta to sort out their carbon foot-printing and plastic packaging reporting respectively and a produced a stellar, evidence-driven sustainability report as a result.
On the flip side, if a company is doing everything in-house, using their own reporting methodology, you’ll have to do some digging before their reporting approach can be considered greenwash free.
2. Lack of accountability
Accountability is important in reporting and there are tricky ways that companies get around accountability for things like sustainability commitments. One law to live by is that numbers always speak louder than words.
If words are chosen instead of numbers to define a commitment or action taken towards sustainability, then you need to look out for weasel words. These are words like ‘supporting’ ‘encouraging’ and ‘promoting’ which sound all well and nice, but when it comes to sustainability reports, an action to ‘encourage staff to be more environmentally friendly’ carries with it no accountability. This is because the extent of encouragement is up to the company here. It could be just putting an A4 print out over the printer telling staff to print two sided; a valuable nudge, but as a serious sustainability commitment, this is nothing more than wordplay to ensure a company is not held accountable for doing not much at all.
A better way to approach this ‘encouraging of staff’ can be seen from Riverford Organic Farmers who give a free lunch to anyone who cycles to work. There is no ambiguity here and, though not a number, is something that Riverford can be held accountable for if they fail to deliver.
3. Commitments without clear roadmaps
This one’s high up on my pet peeves list and perhaps for me the most telling sign of greenwash. Let’s take Net Zero commitments for example, something that every company seems to be churning out these days.
Something I see all too often are half-commitments that don’t have a clear cut way of how to get there. An example I came across recently is Bristol’s Net Zero 2030 commitment which is mapped in this 120-page report. Their commitment relies on so many forces that are out of their control making it very difficult to actually call this a true commitment; more greenwishing than malicious greenwash, but still reduces the integrity of commitments all the same. Some of the assumptions are that the UK energy mix will be pretty much zero carbon by 2030, all 20-25,000 new homes in Bristol will be built with no carbon emissions, and that citizens will replace gas boilers (which have a life expectancy of 15 years) with air source heat pumps within the next 8.5 years.
This last one, where Bristol residents have to replace fossil fuel boilers with an electricity-powered alternative is particularly tricky as it passes on a pivotal part of Bristol’s commitment to the consumer. If we don’t see significant policy-led incentives for consumers (especially those who don’t have the disposable income to replace a working boiler) to make the shift, this commitment can be considered greenwash on a city level.
Good roadmaps, based on existing technologies are vital for sustainability plans that are free of greenwash. There are countries and companies that are net zero right now, so waiting for the system to change to suit your commitment leaves commitments and sustainability plans empty and false.
Look out for the three mentioned things in sustainability reporting to spot the green from the greenwash. At Future Shift, we are committed to evidence and science-based sustainable transition and reporting. We dig into the norms to create valuable resources that allow our clients to steer clear of greenwashing and implement true sustainability.
So there’s a race problem with net zero is there? Well yes, but we’re not going to be talking about racial inequality today. Instead, in this entry we’ll be digging into the UNFCCC’s framing of their recent campaign: Race To Zero.
A little background on Race to Zero. It’s the world’s largest ever net zero commitment alliance that covers half of the world’s GDP and one quarter of carbon emissions. The UNFCCC is an international climate change treaty. Their official objective is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. This objective is inherently global due to the transboundary nature of gaseous emissions and climate systems. Now to my problem with race. Race to Zero has used a flurry of race-derived language for their campaign. Terms like High-Level Champions, the StartingLine and Leadership Criteria form a large part of the campaign lexicon and set a precedent for how this project will be thought of over the next 30 years. The decision to use this kind of analogy is one that I think perfectly demonstrates some of the biggest issues with Western ideas of environmental justice.
The Starting Line
When thinking about the kind of image a “race” signals, a video I saw on Fa***ook a few years ago comes to mind. In this video, teenagers are told they will win $100 for finishing first in a race. They are then told to take a step forward for certain advantages they’ve had access to – a personal tutor, private education etc. We end up with a pretty good visual representation of inequality in the school system as Boris and David both step one step to victory. If we transfer this analogy to the Race to Zero, we can start to imagine a more accurate “Starting Line” for this race. Qualification for this race requires a lot of reporting to rigorous standards; which means expensive consultants and the campaign immediately takes a hit on the inclusion side of things. In reality, competitors in the global south (who are starting some 50 years behind the Western economies in this race) are actually far more climate positive than competitors in developed regions that form a large part of the parties in this race. They use low-technology, human centred methods of production that are aligned with the natural system they rely on; but they won’t be recognised for that. They will instead be shunned by other international institutions for being uncompetitive on the global market. So there are a lot of companies, nations and industries that are not even allowed on the starting grid, no matter their low impact or alignment with the overall goal: emitting an environmentally just amount of carbon.
The Rules of the Race
The rules of this race are governed by an umpire who is ruthless and has a firm grip on the competitors. The rules of this race are of course the same rules that govern how we function and progress as a human race: the market economy rulebook. To cut a long story short, mother nature has never had a seat at the market economy’s table and thus, this race will be governed by rules that deny nature’s role in decision making.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them, right?
As humans, we have never been so good at sticking to a fair set of rules, be it that time one race enslaved another for a few hundred years or that time women had a lower social/economic/political standing than men… oh wait. If there are rules, we will cheat and historically the biggest culprits when it comes to disregarding a fair set of rules in modern history are the same groups that are hosting the event. Uh oh!
The Finishing Line
A race with a starting line implies that there is also a finishing line. This is perhaps the most subtle but destructive part of the Race to Zero framing. Much like how the “when I get this promotion…” or “when I buy this new car I’ll be happy” mentality is conducive to poor mental wellbeing in today’s world, the implication of a finishing line or endpoint is a wild and nonsensical thought when it comes to natural systems. The concept of natural (as opposed to human) time itself – and I wont get too spiritual here – is anything but linear. Just as there are no straight lines in nature, there are no beginnings and no ends, only cycles and new beginnings. To imply that when we reach net zero our climate change problem is somehow also at its end is Western idealism at its finest. No grounding in anything but what aligns with our ideas of how the world works in our collective brain, however dissociated from the truth.
The Awards Ceremony
When we begin to approach 2050, I’m sure that there will be a lot of people in a New York conference centre patting the suited back of one and other for their Net Zero race participation medals.
What we as a collective entity are participating in is not a race, it’s a survival cycle. To be champions of this survival cycle we must (together!) see deep realisation of where we exist in relation to nature as well as innovation and prosperity. Let us not overlook those who have already won the Race to Zero.
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