Nov 22, 2011
Unilever, working with The Guardian, today launches its on-line debate on sustainable living. As a part of this initiative, Unilever invited a number of folks to write short essays on the topic that have been compiled into a bound collection, Inspiring Sustainable Living, also published today on line. My contributed essay is set out below.
Exiting the Valley of Death
Start-up companies have named the most dangerous moment in their development as the ‘Valley of Death’ – the moment between proof of concept and the beginning of mass production and significant sales. It is the place where most dreams perish in the face of conservative capital markets that doubt an entrepreneur’s abilities to beat the competition.
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Sustainability has reached its own valley of death. After two decades of intense activities, we have excellent data on the nature and scale of the problem, an abundance of cases of successful experiments, and the growing attention of political and business leaders. Yet we cannot leverage our insights, resources and passion to contain our production of carbon, manage the scarcity of water, or dampen the speculative fluctuations in the price and availability of basic foodstuffs. De-materialised products, rentalised markets, renewable power and sustainability standards are amongst the social innovations that have provided inspiration and advances in offering consumers greener choices. Yet whilst our call to arms has been for transformation, we are, in practice, celebrating incremental changes in the spirit of increasingly desperate optimism.
Yet although we bemoan the lack of much-needed speed-to-scale in advancing the sustainability agenda, scale is something we know a lot about – in selling mobile phones, going to war, watching the World Cup, or in catalyzing fundamentalism in its many forms. Markets, governments, and communities in action have been societies’ three historic instruments for achieving scale. Business, the world’s most fashionable vehicle of change over recent decades across richer nations, can in quick time sell billions of packets of crisps, tens of millions of cars and millions of handguns. If the price is right, businesses can innovate, produce and deliver, and citizens will turn out en masse and do the right thing, namely buy. But the logic of the business community has, to date, limited its ability to deliver sustainability-aligned products and services at scale. Today’s backward-facing markets, in the main, only reward companies for doing the right thing on the margin. Despite exemplary businesses, innovative products, technological advances and the fact that most people do care about other people and the planet, most profits are still made by selling lots of stuff that is produced, and then used, in environmentally unsustainable and often socially-destructive ways.
Government and the power of public policy
Government, after religion, is arguably our most venerable institution for scaled action for the broader interest – in principle, at least. Most obviously, it does much to define what should not be done, set out through the rule of law. Fiscal policy also plays a critical role in driving consumer behaviour, with feed-in tariffs (or their equivalent) crucial for advancing renewables, whilst perverse fossil fuel subsidies encourage unsustainable lifestyles. Governments have soft as well as statutory and fiscal instruments. The decline in smoking throughout wealthier nations resulted from a combination of public education and a gradual restriction in social space for exercising the habit. Public education, from classrooms to billboards, has played a major role in socialising a deeper, inter-generational appreciation of sustainability, from climate to waste to health management. And governments are big spenders, with contestable public procurement globally amounting to US$4-5 trillion annually, and some have indeed moved, albeit slowly, in greening this voluminous purchase of goods and services.
Public policy counts in achieving scale, and so enabling business to do what it does best in ways that are sustainability aligned. The nexus between business and government is critical in shaping options facing citizens as consumers, voters, employees and investors. Both together have the power to make or prevent change, complementing each others’ strengths and offsetting each others’ weaknesses. The US’s environmental shortfalls can be directly attributed to the power of businesses that benefit from the status quo, whatever the cost. Meanwhile, Denmark’s new government has come to office with a mandate to double the country’s carbon emission reduction targets to 40% by 2020 and to deliver an energy system powered largely by wind by the same date, providing a strong domestic basis for building its next generation of global exporters. The Korean government, similarly, is driving forward with the nation’s business community an integrated, green economy with every intention of taking global markets by storm. Brazil and China, also, are leading in shaping domestic policies to incentivise green business, whilst simultaneously advancing their immediate development agendas.
Social norms and collective action
Citizens’ norms of concerns and behaviour in large part define the difference between nations like Denmark and Korea, and those failing to progress, such as the US. These are in no small part shaped by governments alongside business. After all, citizens did not stand up and demand the internet, they merely responded to the increasingly persuasive offer. Yet this closed loop is not the entire story. Germany’s decision to green its power system was built on a deep sensibility of its citizens towards the environment, just as others have tapped national sensibilities, including problematic ones like nationalism and other aspects of identity. At a far smaller scale, after all, support for ‘fair trade’ products from coffee to cotton was borne in Europe’s churches, community centres and political movements. Major events can also be important turning points, such as Japan’s recent nuclear disaster.
People, that is, citizens acting together, are our third way of fracturing and seeking to replace incumbent social norms and outcomes that are no longer acceptable. The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere demonstrate vividly that people can and do rise together and say ‘enough’, even to those with the destructive power and the willingness to exercise it. OccupyWallStreet – and its thousand or so companion protests – show us that people from every walk of life will join together, despite their huge differences, to challenge what is just plain wrong. But these dramatic cases also illustrate the potential poverty of social movements that can declare ‘enough’, but do not identify, cohere and secure the next steps. Although these unfolding histories are far from complete, the concern from Cairo to the City of London is that these cathartic societal experiments might fail to deliver the much-needed new economics. There is no sign that the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned with Egypt’s dirty and weakened economy. Equally, there is no obvious sign that the US and UK governments are inclined to respond to OccupyWallStreet’s call for reform of the financial sector, the lifeblood or life-taker of the real economy, with anything but platitudes or worse.
Exiting sustainability’s valley of death is not about public policy, business initiative, or citizen action – it is about all three and their dynamic alignment with each other. Citizen actions that create scaled change will be collective, not necessarily on the streets, but as social norms confirmed in bars, taxis, workplaces and schools, and only in the end at the point of purchase. Shaping new social norms that underpin citizens’ collective action is a task where businesses and governments have an important catalyzing role to play. Government policies are a product of artful politics, occasionally inspired by crisis and leadership, shaped by business interests, and underpinned by the ultimate need to satisfy the public in all but the most despotic cases. And, finally, to achieve scale, progressive businesses will have to help to create the political space to shape the right enabling policies, edging to one side their resistant competitors, and mobilising citizens’ support in encouraging governments to do the right thing. Only with such alignment will public policy play a fulsome role, opening the opportunity for us to exit sustainability’s valley of death.
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