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Is 2019 The Year Sustainability Goes Epic?

With the urgent need to evolve the way we do business, a new approach is appearing. It’s being led by a small vanguard of big thinking companies who have gone truly epic in scope and scale to create change on a level never before attempted. By rising to the challenges of our times, are we finally seeing a response from business that’s worthy of the planetary reality we face?

Something new is emerging…

With the urgent need to evolve the way we do business, a new approach is appearing. It’s being led by a small vanguard of big thinking companies who have gone truly epic in scope and scale to create change on a level never before attempted. By rising to the challenges of our times, are we finally seeing a response from business that’s worthy of the planetary reality we face?

 

Who are the vanguard?

There were some early signs of this over the past few years; Walmart’s Project Gigaton pushed an epic sense of scale, Carbon Productivity was ambitious enough to suggest an economy-wide reimagination of how we account for our use of fossil fuels, and of course there’s Tesla, striving to drive change on a massive scale with its mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”.

However, it was Interface, the eternal pioneers, who first took this to a more integrated level with their new Climate Take Back mission. At a time when many are exasperated by how little is being done to fight climate change, it aims to actually “reverse global warming” not just mitigate the damage, not just adapt to temperature rises, but to actually reverse them. And now, in early 2019, perennial disruptors Patagonia have stepped up with their declaration that “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet”– the whole planet!

 

Why is this happening?

This radical change of scale is happening for a couple of reasons. First of all, you can’t deny the role of visionary individuals. Yvon Chouinard has dared to think big since he founded Patagonia in 1970 and the legacy of Ray Anderson, the late founder of Interface, has been built on by Jay Gould and Erin Meezan, to re-capture and re-define their leadership role.

Secondly, the vast majority of businesses who got serious about sustainability over the last decade, set themselves 2020 targets that are about to expire. Those who have hit their targets and unlocked the value of sustainability for their businesses are thinking about how to level up their strategies while at the same time recognising that the opportunity to carve out new leadership positions is wide open.

Finally, it is in part a response to recent events. President Trump’s threat to withdraw from The Paris Agreement has spurred on many businesses to double down on their carbon commitments and do what they know is necessary, regardless of what one administration considers to be expedient.

 

3 tips for getting epic right

The bar is being raised and the game is entering a new phase. If you want to step up to the plate and take sustainability to the epic level, there’s a few things you’ll need to get right…

 

  1. Think ‘System Level’

Ray Anderson, provocatively asked, “what’s the business case for ending life on Earth?” Both Interface and Patagonia defy the traditional business case for sustainability and get to the very foundations of what’s needed for a healthy, stable and functioning world that their companies can succeed in. The goals of their missions, to “create a climate fit for life” and to “save our home planet” are about protecting the commons that all business relies on, reimagining how human systems can operate within the natural systems that underpin our societies.

 

  1. Show it’s Possible

The most obvious critique of this type of mission is that they’ve overreached, “what a bunch of dreamers. Heart-warming for sure, but they’re clearly naïve” you might say. While the gulf between where we are today and where we need to be for a “climate fit for life” and to “rescue our home planet” is vast, both have shown it’s technically possible to pull off their epic ambitions. Interface borrowed from the work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Climate Drawdown initiative to show that it is technically possible to reverse global warming through a range of man-made solutions and through the power of restoring nature. Patagonia too have identified agriculture as a sort of silver bullet opportunity with the potential to stabilize levels of climate-causing emissions. Having a scientific foundation for Epic Sustainability not only gives you a rebuff to the doubters and naysayers of the world, it also points the way to the action that needs to be taken to deliver change.

 

  1. Trail Blaze

The third challenge is how to make epic, practical. It’s all well and good having a grand mission but unless you build a ladder connecting the actions needed from individuals, the business, the industry and so on, no one will have an actual clue how to make it happen. The secret here is understanding that you don’t have to do it all yourself. Epic Sustainability is about trailblazing, showing the way forward and inspiring others to follow: spreading the word is a legitimate deliverable when changing the world. With meaningful actions identified at different tiers of the system you’re trying to change, you’ll have a plan capable of taking on the enormous task at hand. Then begins your great journey.

 

I for one think we’re going to see more companies step up this year and ‘Epic Sustainability’ will set a new benchmark for what leadership looks like. Who knows, perhaps in time, this could be the early signs of our entire sector levelling up.

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