How to think about sustainability

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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.

Further watching: Triple bottom line (3 pillars): sustainability in business | Sustainability Illustrated – A great illustration of the three spheres of the economy.

Further listening: ‘Only Connect…’ |The Reith Lectures | Edmund Leach – A Runaway World

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.

How to Spot Greenwash in Sustainability Reporting: A Beginner’s Guide

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Originally uploaded Jul 20, 2021

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.

Sustainability 101: The Big Picture Part I

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Originally uploaded Mar 29, 2021

In Lesson One, Origin and Definition, we looked at our collective home (the earth) as if it were a spaceship. This is a useful way to see the earth when it comes to systemic issues such as sustainability. We can use a crisis in a fairly simple system – the control panel signalling a malfunction on a spaceship – to represent a far more complex system – the climate crisis on earth. But first we’ll get the definitions out that way.

What do we mean by systemic? I know this word is thrown around these days and is used to signal thoughts of frightening, large scale problems: systemic racism, systemic sexism and so on. In a social or political context, systemic often means as a consequence of issues inherent to a system, scary because the system is rarely defined in the news and media, leaving us to wrongly construct a malicious ‘system’ in our heads which the source of all of society’s ills. This is neither accurate or constructive and throws the blame around to the point of the cause becoming obscured by ignorance. There are many social systems that sexism and racism exist within like a nation, an economic system, the judiciary system. Which one is it, Vox? Let’s not fall into the Vox under-thinking trap. A system is something with a boundary, within which interactions give the system certain characteristics. By this definition, we are all systems, with our skin the boundary and the various biochemical interactions happening inside us giving us the pretty neat property of living. With our spaceship-earth analogy, the boundaries are the metal and glass exterior of the ship and the atmosphere of the earth; both boundaries that mark the point where lifeless space becomes a habitable environment. The interactions that occur within these boundaries are physical chemical reactions like combustion and social exchanges, which give rise to characteristics of the system such as technological advance and climate change. Looking at something as a system prompts us to look at the whole first, the big picture, before getting bogged down with complexities – it’s all about making the infinitely complex simple. A few thousand years ago Aristotle noticed the following:

The whole is more than the sum of its parts

That is to say, that the properties of a system cannot be explained (or solved) by looking at its component parts, just like consciousness cannot be explained by the individual neurones in your brain. Similarly, we can’t explain our unsustainable collective behaviour by looking at single policies, individual actors or events.

Why is this important?

Recognising that our species’ destruction of the living world is a characteristic of a complex social and physical system rather than the result of the actions of one orange man is a tough pill to swallow (and by tough I mean it takes a different way of thinking in order to get your head around). Thinking in systems that have interactions, emergent characteristics and boundaries is something that is a little abstract, but it is the only correct way to view a problem like sustainability and its solutions.

We must start to look at some of the more comprehensible characteristics we know are apparent in our global system (because we’re measuring them) and the interactions that have led to our crisis. Seeing in systems works as a tool for thinking about solutions too, and this is made especially easy when we know what our system, spaceship or planet has got to look like 100 years from now. Next time we will look at the system of spaceship earth in today’s crisis state next to a future world that is aligned with sustainable visions for the future. We will use this comparison to determine the interactions and characteristics that need to occur in order to achieve a system that is in equilibrium with nature.

Sustainability 101: A Brief History of Sustainability

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Originally uploaded Jan 5, 2021

Now that we have covered the more science-y need for the rise of the sustainability concept, we’re ready to explore the positive actions people have taken over the last sixty years or so to grow this potentially humanity-saving idea.

This lesson will take you through some of the major events and ideas that have shaped what sustainability means today… but first we should start at the beginning.

The emergence of stable agrarian civilisations some eight to ten thousand years ago suggests a planned strategy for survival, alongside nature within these communities. Polynesian communities have survived on small islands with limited resources for three thousand years using rahui, a form of environmental governance restricting access to certain resources.

Sketched reconstruction of a Māori horticultural settlement 600-700 years ago (Source).

Environmental preservation to an end of sustained wellbeing is as much an instinct as it is a philosophy or technology. Just as your dog doesn’t like to go to the toilet near their bed, we have created an external environment based on these instincts (now common knowledge), that have allowed us to live in cities of tens of millions.

Now let’s get familiar with the graph/timeline concoction you see above. The graph bit shows how often the word “sustainability” appears in books. The timeline bit shows a selection of notable events or ideas that have shaped our understanding of sustainability over the last sixty years (Source 1, Source 2). If we use the abundance of the word “sustainability” as a proxy for popularity in science and culture, we can see the effect of each event on the prevalence of the concept over time.

Okay. Starting in 1962 I’ll take you through to today with some James Bond-related reference markers

1962. The same year that the first Bond film was released, Silent Spring hit the shelves. Rachel Carson (left in the image below to avoid confusion) was an environmental scientist whose book looked at the use of synthetic pesticides (notably DDT) in the US agricultural system. The title of the book comes from the absence of birdsong in springtime as a result of pesticidal use. Now named one of the 100 greatest non-fiction books of the 20th century, Silent Spring has been hugely influential, leading to the banning of DDT, establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency and small but penetrative grassroots environmental movements in the US. David Attenborough named Silent Spring as the book that changed the scientific world the most, second only to Darwin’s Origin of Species.

1972. A decade and six Bond films later and on the eve of the last Sean Connery appearance, Limits to Growth was published. This rather academic book was commissioned by the Bond-villain-supergroup-sounding Club of Rome, and set out to find the limits of our world. The authors looked at the world like one big spaceship (like the analogy used in Lesson 1) and simulated the complex, systemic interactions between humanity and our natural world – all very complicated but I will return to this in Lesson 3. The main take home from Limits to Growth was that if we carry on with the trends of resource use and population growth as they were in 1972 we would hit a crunch point in 2072, where humanity would experience a “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity” – big talk. Their predictions were however criticised for not accounting technological solutions, so please don’t take their doomsday prophecy with a pinch of salt.

If Silent Spring tugged at the general population’s heartstrings, Limits to Growth put a tear in the eye of our scientists. With the dawn of the silicon age and with it the ability to handle large data sets and model global scenarios, Limits to Growth set the ball rolling for what the climate scientists are doing today with their graphs and forecasts. This was a very important book for the scientific community because it made us look at environmental issues and sustainability at a global scale and far into the future. Perhaps even more importantly it laid out the simple message that business as usual means a threat to our very existence (note this message was given 50 years ago – yikes!).

1987. Eight bond films and at the end of the Roger Moore era, Our Common Future (The Brundtland Report (Ms Brundtland on the left) was published. This was one of the first major international governmental reports on sustainability. The term “sustainable development” was defined in its modern form here. The report placed environmental issues firmly on the global political agenda, pushing for intergovernmental cooperation to solve these large scale problems.

We can see from the sustainability-popularity graph that it is at this point that sustainability begins to become more of a household term.

1988. At the midpoint of Timothy Dalton’s short run as Bond, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is established. This marks a significant international push to monitor climate change so that the world’s governments can make climate positive, evidence based decisions.

1992. In the midst of a six year bond-film hiatus, the Rio Summit is held. This marked a major effort for countries to collectively combat global problems such as climate change and deforestation.

1997. In the heyday of the Pierce Brosnan epoch, the third of the yearly United Nations Climate Change Conferences (known as COP3) was held in Kyoto Japan. On top of symbolising more efforts towards international cooperation to fight climate change, what’s important about this one is the Kyoto Protocol. This was the first legally binding agreement between countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within given timeframes. A watershed in international environmental treaty making, the Protocol introduced emissions trading and clean development mechanisms as tools for countries to meet these targets. The efficacy of this agreement was largely undermined in 2001 when the Bush administration rejected the protocol.

2006. With the dawn of the Daniel Craig Bond franchise, another film takes to the theatres. An Inconvenient Truth was released when I was 11 and is my earliest memory of the wild climate graphs we see today. It raised global awareness of the effect of human-made greenhouse gasses and showcased the debate, especially in the US, to whether climate change was a human or natural phenomenon.

2009. A year after Quantum of Solace we entered the Copenhagen climate negotiations. COP 15 held high hopes to reach an agreement regarding emissions reduction commitments beyond the Kyoto Protocol which was set to end in 2012. This agreement is widely regarded as a failure due to the fact that the Accord was not legally binding. The Accord also set no real targets and was only drafted by five countries – ouch. The momentum for progressive countries shifts to national and regional efforts to reduce emissions.

2015. Spectre is released as representatives of each country gather in Paris. Here, the “well below 2°C” (sometimes 1.5°C) target is set. This is the biggest agreement since Kyoto almost 20 years and sets a clear target for countries to adhere to. Again, it is not legally binding and there is no penalisation for countries breaking the rules. In this same year the UN Sustainable Development Goals were established as a blueprint for a sustainable future.

2021. We’ve got a new Bond film on the horizon, No Time to Die, and a new COP. COP26, to be held in the freshly Brexited UK, could be an important one. With a crisis such as Covid-19, change tends to happen more freely and this could be an opportunity to rebuild the global economy in a more sustainable fashion. But that’s just political drivel, let’s see if anything meaningful can come of this year.

Thanks for taking this journey through time with me. I hope you now understand how perfectly the major events in the global sustainability movement align with the succession of bond actors. I will talk about how these events and developments have (or haven’t) worked to actually tackle the problem of climate change and global biodiversity loss in Lecture 4.

Class out.

Sustainability 101: Origin and Definition

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Originally uploaded Dec 17, 2020

I received a phone call from a friend of mine a few weeks ago to let me know he was applying for a job in design. He wanted some advice on sustainability and some good places to start for someone who hasn’t explored the concept past their own industry or the evening news. With sustainability now being woven into every job description, diet decision and dinnertime conversation from here to Honduras, I thought I’d give my take on the fundamentals of this complexity-riddled concept.

Despite the enormous amount of information available at our fingertips, there was no “one size fits all”, no introduction to sustainability and all of the concepts that surround it. This beginners guide to sustainability is for everyone, like my friend, who needs to embed sustainability into their jobs or for those who want to make better, more informed decisions about how we live our lives.

Before we begin this Sustainability 101 short course, remember you are attending the University of Oscar, so though referencing the important stuff, most of this is my take on the basics. (Before I squander all my credibility, I have studied the social and technical dynamics of sustainability for a few years, so it is a fairly informed take).

Lesson 1 – Origin and definition

There are many reasons for the “demand” for sustainability today, but I will give the two most concrete reasons: temperature and biodiversity loss.

1. This graph, probably first seen by many in the 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth” shows the average yearly rise in global temperature over the last 60 years – an extremely extremely short amount of time in the context of climate science. We’re going to agree with 97% of climate scientists here, that this is because of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses released by humans by burning fossil fuels. Nature relies on balance for its health and we are throwing this balance off.

2. Us humans have significantly altered at least two thirds of global habitats for life on earth. This has led to a 70% loss in global wildlife since 1970.

With these two facts in mind, we had to start thinking ahead, planning for the event that sustained life on earth may not be possible given our current human habits. Although we don’t like to think of it, humans are not separate from nature, we die when nature dies.

A good way to think of this is thinking of earth as a spaceship, with a control system (the world’s scientists), and a crew (the world’s population). The alarms have been set off by a malfunction detected by the control system and it’s now the job of the sci-fi movie protagonist to frantically float around adjusting dials and duct-taping broken tubing together. That’s us. The protagonist. Whether we’re frantic enough is up to you but some fixing will have to be done if we’re expecting a Disney ending. We’ll return to this analogy later, it’s a good one.

The concept of sustainability is fundamentally a strategy for sustained existence, thinking about how every action now affects the future – and this takes a hell of a lot of thinking. I think this is where the complexities begin. We have to think about abstract concepts like “global systems” and “the future” and “human existence” which is mind bending, and to be honest, no one really fully gets it. We however must place trust in those who do understand the complexities, our spaceship control panel, the IPCC and other scientific institutions.

In many ways sustainability is like religion, thinking about something bigger than ourselves and collective belief… and look, there I go! Getting carried away with complexities – that’s just how easy it is. Let’s keep it light.

A somewhat universally agreed definition of sustainability (actually sustainable development, but these two terms are so cloudy in what they actually mean they may as well be synonymous) is: “The ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This definition was coined in 1987 in the Brundtland Report, when the world was beginning to think of strategies for sustained existence on earth – more on this next time.

As we finish this first lesson a quick summary – Human actions over time now have led to the need for a strategy for the survival of future generations: Sustainability.

In our next lesson we’ll run through a timeline of sustainability.