Individuals vs. corporations: In defence of personal action

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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!.

First Follower Leadership Lessons – Stabilized and Enlarged

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”

Be a leader

Be a first follower

Change the culture.

Further reading:

Can Nudging Play a Role to Promote Environmental behaviour?

John Shook: Lean Transformation Model

How sustainability is going to change your life

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A lesson from the 90s

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.

Dystopian Anger: Our Why

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At Future Shift, we’re lucky enough to have an office on College Green and left work on Wednesday, stumbling into the protest in support of Ukraine and its people. People are angry. Angry that we still have this narrative forced upon us every day whilst the rich and powerful succumb to monstrous acts of greed.

Anti-Russia Protesters on College Green (source)

Recently, more than ever, I’ve been thinking about the reason that Oscar and I started Future Shift. Our why.

We were sick to death with the status quo of our environment. Our environment, where deceit has become more common than the truth.

Where we are fed false hope after false hope that those in charge are fully supportive for a change to our ‘now’. The ‘now’ is a place where the simple existence of our planet has been thrown into jeopardy by the resource-guzzling structures that have dominated the economy to date.

Our position, as sustainability consultants, is intertwined with conflict between people and businesses that truly want to innovate and disrupt, yet are held back by a huge lack of resource support from a government that has promised net zero.

This is amplified by a ‘Build Back Greener’ campaign in light of hosting COP26. Subsequently followed investment to increase our coal mining capacity, expand Bristol Airport and drive public transport into the ground by increasing rail fares whilst cutting rail and bus funding.

The establishment has done everything in its power to desensitise the narrative of demonic greed.

When a dictator becomes so powerful because of the belly of oil and natural gas he’s monopolised (oh yeah, that resource we are still dependent on, that has every country salivating with entrenched jealousy) creates a humanitarian crisis, it does well to survive the 24 hour news cycle we have created.

A change has to come in our lifetimes and we started Future Shift to rip up the current state of ‘now’. To innovate alongside the fundamental cogs of this planet, businesses. To propel those businesses that intend to disrupt their sectors and demonstrate that there is a better way of doing business than is institutionally embedded to us.

Future Shift was born from anger. Dissatisfied with the rate of positive climate action, faithless that those responsible for change are capable of actioning what is needed. Yet still hopeful that we, however small we may feel, can shift that status quo to a system that can coexist with our planet.

Being angry is exactly what we need to be. Being angry at the current state of our world gets us out of bed in the morning. Channelling this anger into working action is the fuel that powers the Future Shift engine (watch out EV market).

I’m pretty sure this entry turned out to be a lot more politically driven than I originally intended. But f**k it, I’m angry.

The Sustainability Youth Deficit

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Originally uploaded Mar 23, 2021

Not long after Oscar and I started up Future Shift, we soon realised that the current state of sustainability in business was a space dominated by those over 50 and, when it comes to sustainability we think that this presents a problem.

The voice for change often comes from those who are listened to least. The youth have stubbornly campaigned for years, utilising their social media niches to highlight the importance of addressing the global climate emergency.

Yet we live in a world where older consultants are often the voice of reason a CEO will turn to in their time of need. Whilst this consultant provides a wealth of experience that drowns a newbie’s CVs in comparison, is it not time that we started to listen to the younger generation’s a bit more to solve this increasingly difficult situation the ‘adults’ have gotten us all into?

After all it took Greta Thunberg who, at the age of 16, mobilised the progressive force of schoolchildren to turn people’s heads and start addressing the global climate crisis.

Younger generations are not just interested in having a seat at the table anymore, they want to set the table.

However, this requires a dramatic shift from the status quo…

The Divide

Climate change will affect us all differently. A 85 year old has a far smaller stake less in the future than a 15 year old school child – why should they care about what the world will be like in 50 years?

This divide in attitude is clearly reflected in a Yale study, that found that 73% of millenials said that global warming was personally important to them, compared to only 58% of the Silent generation. However when you consider that the average age of a CEO within the fortune 500 companies is 58 years old (Crist Kolder Associates.) and has increased by 11 years since 2005, it is a worrying trend that businesses may continue to have less incentive to drive the change we need.

Right: Yale study (2021); left: Crist Kolder Associates (2019)

The younger we are, one’s ability to change the course of the climate crisis increases, yet the older we are, our responsibility for the climate crisis also increases . This trade-off has caused a huge divide, with the youth calling for action and accountability whilst the older generations stick to the status quo or, at best, apply incremental changes in the name of damage limitation.

What Next?

Challenging times require challenging innovations, if the past 12 months and 3 days have taught us anything it is that we are all capable of adapting to quick change. Mobilising workforces through the virtual home office has become the norm and with that has come the imperative principle that many businesses need to utilise the right technology to overcome the virtual obstacles in their way.

“We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein.

This same principle is also crucial if businesses, the cogs of the economy, are to take action and frontier the sustainable movement of today. By using new technology and employing new ideas from young people we can implement real change, coincidentally we have just released our new online platform that can assist with this.