Finding Meaning in Sustainability Consulting

Any sustainability consultant worth their salt will have thought at some point, “Am I just perpetuating the system I say I want to change?” Many of us will suffer that self-doubt regularly, wondering whether we are driving real change or just window-dressing the status quo. Lipstick, pigs, etc.

It wasn’t always so. I was early into sustainability reporting and lucky enough to work with some pioneering clients. The energy company TXU in the east of England (now defunct—nothing to do with me!) had signed up to the at-the-time emerging guideline for sustainability reporting called the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). And when they were still in their pilot phase I consulted on and wrote the first report to use the GRI published in the UK.

In the spring of 2001, the first adidas social and environmental report was published. Called Our World, it explicitly acknowledged the “less visible world where we manufacture our sporting products” in stating its ambition to be a warts-and-all account of their performance. Delivering on that promise, I encouraged David Husselbee, then Director of Social and Environmental Affairs, to include a bold table which showed the 22 prevalent labour rights issues in the 21 countries across Asia, Europe and the Americas where adidas sourced. Detailed aspects of challenges around Forced Labour and Wages & Benefits were unpacked, country by country. The legend made it clear this was the principal reason for suppliers in that country failing to meet the adidas code of conduct. Recording this was the first step to working with suppliers to fix it.

These were bold moves by my clients and I found the work engaging––even though it was just reporting. Why? Because I could see the strategic changes that resulted from the work I was doing. At adidas, David was able to draw on more resources and create a team to address the many social compliance issues they found in their supply chain. And over 15 years working with David and his successor Frank Henke, we helped move adidas from being associated with child labour to being recognized as a leader in sustainability with first-in-class performance on human rights and an eye-catching relationship with NGO Parley for the Oceans, making dozens of products from recycled ocean plastic.

Incrementalism is no Longer Enough

Here’s the kicker: Adidas improved steadily over years to reach the position they enjoy today—but even that is not enough. But as the futurist Alex Steffen commented in 2017, “All meaningful sustainability work is now disruptive.” It has to be, because of the urgency of the need for change. We now know from the IPCC that we have twelve years to make “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

We are overshooting planetary boundaries, while falling short on meeting basic human needs.

All aspects of society—i.e. not just on ecological. Last year, the American charity United Way concluded that 43% of American households could not afford all of housing, food, transportation, child care, health care, and necessary technology. We are overshooting planetary boundaries while falling short on meeting basic human needs. We need a new system. And quick.

Through 20+ years of sustainability consulting, I have tried to get all my clients to be as ambitious as adidas. On reflection, I have failed. I have pushed, but sometimes to no avail. And in that failure, I have become disheartened and discouraged. In common with all of us, I want my work to contribute something of value to the world. Sometimes I fall short. But I have been able to unpick this and set a plan to change through my work with the Reporting 3.0 framework.

Context is Key

Using a metaphor of a climb up “Mount Thriveability,” Reporting 3.0 sets out a process for true sustainability measurement, reporting and strategy that will create the world we want.

From the early days of the GRI, there was a call for reporting entities to set their performance in the broader biophysical, social and economic context. But this was almost always ignored. And Reporting 3.0 places the need to establish that context at the heart of its approach.

Reporting on an annual improvement of, say, 3% lower carbon emissions is meaningless without establishing that company’s fair share of carbon emissions to stay within 1.5 degrees of global heating over pre-industrial levels. Without context, we don’t know if their 3% performance improvement is good or bad or happening quickly enough or far too slowly.

To make this feasible, the United Nations Environment Programme has stated that we need to establish thresholds and allocations for all social and ecological impacts. And to that end, Junxion has signed a letter of support for Reporting 3.0 to convene a multi-stakeholder Global Thresholds and Allocations Council. We need a body that will identify the thresholds and come up with fair allocations and produce ready-reckoners for consultants like me to apply with our clients.

And these thresholds and allocations must be across all capitals – human, social, intellectual, natural, built and financial. Because to measure a company’s commitment to a genuinely sustainable strategy we need to know the degree to which a company is preserving or diminishing the stocks of all these capitals.

Blending the Personal and the Professional

To guide us all on this transformation journey, Reporting 3.0 has produced a strategy continuum which clearly shows how far we have to push our clients or our companies so that we have thriving businesses operating in a new economy.

As the strategy continuum shows there are four levels where we need to work: the nano (personal), the micro (single business), the meso (industry or sector) and the macro (the whole system). In short, we need changed mindsets before we can have changed systems.

Reporting 3.0 explicitly acknowledges the personal challenge––or “career risk” that is implied in taking this work forward. It calls on us all to conduct a gap analysis between our individual personal ambition as it impacts our work and what the world needs and then to backcast from there.

This is entirely aligned with some of Junxion’s current practices: in our strategy work, we use a guided meditation technique to help organizations set a vision for a world made better by their work––one that is far beyond their usual day-to-day imagination. And then we set a plan to work creatively towards that vision. Yes, decisions are made about what is feasible, but crucially, after, not before the vision is set and the options creatively explored. We have the freedom to make those choices—to imagine better.

That same backcasting technique, when applied to the world we want to live in, is explicitly normative. It is setting what the future needs to be according to agreed needs and limits, and then imagining the path towards it from where we are today.

Meaning Matters

Last year, Junxion developed the communications strategy for the UN Principles for Responsible Banking. It was a project I loved and it was only through exploring Reporting 3.0’s work that I fully appreciated why I enjoyed it so much. The Principles are explicitly normative: they call for banks––indeed the whole global banking industry––to align their business strategies with the targets in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement. They demand banks backcast from what the world needs and shape their business strategy accordingly.

“Meaning comes from being connected to what inspires us.”
As the organisational behaviour practitioner Lani Morris says, “Meaning comes from being connected to what inspires us and being called towards what could be.”

For some time, I have been dispirited and impatient at the lack of progress towards the world we want and need. Reporting 3.0 has helped me understand that through exploring my role and by committing to making bold, norms-based demands of my clients, I can “return to myself.”

Beyond the tools and the ideas, the real power of Reporting 3.0 lies in its capacity to bring together purpose and meaning. To enable me to sound my own unique note in the universe.

That is what I have found in my climb up Mount Thriveability. And so let us all sound our unique notes in the universe. Let’s be audacious, together.

Adam Garfunkel is an owner and Managing Director at Junxion. He’s been involved in corporate sustainability for more than 20 years, writing award-winning reports. This is an edited version of his talk at the Reporting 3.0 Implementing Thriveable Transformation conference in Rotterdam on June 17, 2019.

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