DISCUSSION Force for good pioneers forum – the beginning

by Yolanda Villafuerte _______23rd February 2011
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The first force for good pioneers forum meeting took place on the 11th February at Linklaters. It marked the beginning of what we hope will be an extraordinary exploration and dissemination of what the future for business looks like.

Some days start better than others; breakfast and a taxi ride with Dianne Dillon-Ridgley. She was kind enough to travel all the way from Iowa to come join us for this meeting. She is an extraordinary woman and in many ways, a super hero. She is currently on the Board of Directors at Interface, she is the founding chair-emeritus of Plains Justice, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable economy through community partnerships across the Great Plains, she served as the U.N. Headquarters representative for the Center for International Environmental Law since 2005 and was appointed by President Clinton to the President’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1994 and served as Co-Chair of the Council’s International and Population/Consumption Task Forces until 1999. The list goes on…

As Dianne pointed out during our taxi ride to Linklaters, people’s perception of our reality, particularly in this time of financial crisis, are skewed. There is an acute concern with the economy, and we primarily frame our lives around this concern. It is our means for control and growth – whereas concern with the environment is peripheral and during times of crisis, it wanes.  This formula is the wrong way around – it is not us/the economy that own nature, it is nature that owns us. A paradigm shift is required in order to be able to progress into the future.

The meeting began with a presentation by B9 Energy Group and their quest to re-engineer the shipping industry. They are a lone voice seeking change in an industry that produces 4% of global carbon emissions. In the last 2 to 3 years the landscape has completely changed and bigger solutions are now required. Drawing inspiration from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (yacht sailing) and utilising green steel and anaerobic digestion to produce the extra fuel required, B9 are currently developing a cargo ship that runs on 100% renewable energy.

This will be a high-profile and striking vessel that will also help deliver the message that the low carbon economy is about innovation and can be attractive. It will capture people’s hearts and minds by updating old technologies (sailing) to the cutting-edge of today. The positive aesthetics of it also provide the necessary visuals to drive sustainability.

The proposition is strong for civil society is tangible: a beautiful, green and as efficient cargo ship. This is important because when change is needed, communities need to embrace that need.  How to build that social consensus and what do people actually buy into? As Ogilvy pointed out, people are tired of hearing about the environment and the disasters that await us. With B9 for instance, it is not about the environment but about building on the romantic notion of sail ships. This helps push for that paradigm shift we know is needed, it helps connect communities to the reality of what living in a low carbon economy might look like and in a way that allows them to feel the future with less fear.

Though “fantastic visions” are needed, the sustainable value in them has to be found. One cannot escape the business case for it, and the business case is always to be found. Tomorrow’s Company Triple Context argues that that in order to create long-term sustainable value a company has to leverage and integrate environmental, social and economic drivers to the fullest in their business models in order to be successful. We need to go beyond the triple bottom line in order to achieve enduring business success.

Need to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 – which is enormous – and as we approach 2050, the “fantastic visions” we talk about now will be the norm. Ships like those B9 are producing will be the norm. It was argued that one way of achieving things, of pushing forward now to achieve that shift, is by pretending that we are already there. We are in 2050. If we can collectively immerse ourselves in low carbon economy thinking and acting now we will start to see results. Like B9, the middle steps are to be skipped.

The real advantage of engaging and adapting now means when the oil barrel is actually just too expensive, you’re ahead of everyone else. This was Ray Anderson’s thinking when radically adjusted Interface’s business model – from a heavily intensive petro-chemical company to one that aims to be fully sustainable – in the 1990s. Indeed, since 1995 Interface have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 82%, all the while their sales have increased by two thirds and their profits have doubled.

For now, a business model that pushes this hard may be seen as whacky, but this won’t remain the case for long.

Bridging that disconnect now is not without its challenges. How do we move these issues out of the philanthropic range and into everyday reality? A common problem is that CSR is sometimes seen as just that – corporate philanthropy.

It remains that if sufficient “fantastic visions” are produced, they will allure is all soon enough.

What followed was a discussion on the potential themes and topics of discussion for the force for good pioneers forum:

Abstract People Accountability Specific
The balance of masculine and feminine values in business
·    The role of visualisation in changing behaviour
·    Language and transitions of language – “nature is a reality but  environment is a construct”
·    Culture & psychology – paradigm shifts
·    What are the principles around sustainable innovation
·    Organisational change management – how do you embed best practice
·    How to foster the conditions for innovation and change
·    Reform of 4 year political cycle – making democracy more aware of long term issues
·    Preventative medicine
·    7 billion people milestone – sustainable consumption – “people are never a problem, just a challenge”
·    How do stimulate and harness consumer activism around change
·    Comparability – Robust and holistic accounting
·    National vs global verification schemes
·    Green buildings
·    Green finance – infrastructure
·    Vancouver – case study
·    How to drive change across industries
·    How do companies feed into sustainable cities and “smart living” etc
·    Waste streams to feed stock – bringing systems together
On the taxi ride back Dianne shared another pearl. Someone once asked Ray, “If we should be so concerned with low carbon impact then why should there be carpet at all? Should Interface even exist? What is the value in it?”

His answer was simple yet poignant: It should exist because it makes people’s lives better. Carpet is beautiful, is useful and provides comfort.

Perhaps the ultimate answer is the “beauty” answer.

Terms such as “sustainability” and “green” will eventually fall away; it will just be the way things are.

For now, it is not about what the business case for sustainability is – rather, the question is “what is the business case for not being sustainable?”

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