2021: How can we do this better? Take sustainability off the to-do list
As we head into 2021, there is no excuse not to understand ‘why’ sustainability is critical. Climate change made Australia’s recent devastating wildfires more than 30 per cent more likely to occur, and record ocean temperatures are harming marine life and causing sea levels to rise across the planet. If humanity’s future is at all important to you, you’ll know that the way people across the planet act and interact as they live and work, needs an overhaul.
2020 has been a tough year across the globe. People were often quick to kick tasks into 2021, and to be fair next year’s to-do list seems already full of hopes and expectations including vaccines, sporting events and of course COP26.
But let’s strike off sustainability from our list of new year’s resolutions. It’s not that our systems don’t need to work harder for society and the environment, but more that in treating sustainability as an independent entity, we are in danger of defining change in a way that can’t make a difference.
Sustainability is not another thing to do, an addendum to an ever more complex checklist. Sustainability is an approach; a way of doing things. Sustainability is ‘how’ we do things.
Once you see sustainability through the lens of ‘how’, it opens up a host of solutions and opportunities that can help your plans take shape.
Over the years, I’ve found that asking just this one question can unlock a more sustainable approach: How can we do this better?
A well-facilitated discussion or structured thinking session responding to ‘How can we do this better?’ can unlock new ideas, deepen understanding, broaden perspective and define shared ambitions. Keeping each of these four components in mind helps to hone the insights and will help you identify additional intelligence and viewpoints that you might need.
‘How can we do this better?’ is beautiful because it is subject agnostic. You could be working in product development, updating procurement guidelines, designing your diversity and inclusion programme, planning your employee rewards or working out your household recycling. It is definitely NOT a question reserved solely for sustainability officers, speaking just to their teams or consultants.
Key to starting the conversation is understanding the intention of your activity. If at work, your organisational purpose may already be articulated in a statement. Good purpose statements are gold. They have future-focussed thinking built into them. What could your purpose statement mean in the context of your activity? What is the biggest, most significant impact that it could have? How does your planned activity help ‘make sustainable living commonplace’ (Unilever), ‘power the sustainable development of communities’ (CLP), or bring your own purpose to life?
If your organisation doesn’t have a purpose statement, looking at its values, vision or mission will help you determine the direction of travel towards your ‘better’. Your vision is where you are heading, your mission is what you do, and your values are how you want to go about it. Your purpose is your ‘why’ and underpins all of these.
Just like individuals, an organisational purpose echoes the Japanese concept of ikigai. Ikigai helps outline your, or your organisation’s, reason for being and encompasses what you love, what you are good at, what you can be paid for and what the world needs.
Consider the three-legged stool, with its legs of planet, people and profit. You need balance to keep it steady. The tools you decide to use to keep the stool from tipping are the strategies you implement to deliver your activity.
In 2020, it has often felt like the floor that the stool rests on is in flux, as organisations have had realised that the welfare of employees, customers and suppliers need more attention and resources. The ‘S’ of environment, social and governance has certainly gained welcome traction and helped broaden perspectives to encompass more than the traditional philanthropic approach. We have seen a rapid increase in focus on the importance of human connections as well as physical and mental safety and wellbeing.
I’m choosing to be hopeful in 2021. Whilst 2020 has brought unprecedented difficulties for many; it has also shown us that we can make drastic changes if the will is there. Globally we have recorded the biggest drop in CO2 emissions since World War Two, largely due to the reduced transportation enforced by the pandemic. While it’s not enough and won’t solve the cumulative excessive emissions, the reduction has revealed the scale of what is possible. Equally, the UNEP calculate that a low-carbon recovery could cut 25 per cent off the greenhouse gas emissions expected in 2030.
So how can we do better in 2021?
When planning your intentions for 2021, ask yourself ‘How can we do this better?’. Remove sustainability from its bubble, and make it the approach you take — how we build the world we want, and need, to see.