Can Corporations Make the Big Pivot?
By Joe Brewer & Daniel Pinchbeck
Each year, the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego brings together 2000 leaders from around the world – men and women working to transform the role of business in society. The most recent event, held at the Paradise Point Hotel at the beginning of June, featured representatives from large companies like Coca-Cola, Unilever, 3M, and Disney alongside a slew of innovative startups like Lyf Shoes and Back to the Roots, marketing and research firms, industrial design companies, and nonprofits on the forefront of ecological design. Both in official presentations and behind the scenes, the conversations focused on the need for business to adapt rapidly to address the world’s deepening ecological and social crises.
What was apparent at the SB conference is that our civilization is already in transition. Sustainability experts in every sector of the corporate world work to transform their company cultures and unleash the power of business for social good. The movement has gone beyond greenwashing or lip service. Behind the scenes, product designers, marketing directors, investors, and business analysts held candid conversations about the need for a top-to-bottom redesign of the economy in the next decades, to prevent a devastating collapse.
The conference was marked by a new spirit of authentic engagement and willingness to innovate. Just a week after it ended, Tesla Motors open sourced all their patents to accelerate the spread of electric cars. The global conglomerate Unilever has pushed back against “short-termism“, (no longer giving quarterly reports to the London Stock Exchange), and announced its Sustainable Living Plan as a core business strategy across all 200 of its brands. Coca Cola announced the launch of the EKOCENTER Project that takes used shipping containers and turns them into portable community centers equipped with low-cost water purification systems, mobile wireless, electricity, vaccination storage and more.
At the conference, the CEO of Desso, one of the largest textile manufacturers in the world for indoor carpeting, spoke about how they are taking William McDonogue’s concept of ‘cradle to cradle’ design to new heights. Not only are they reusing 60% of all inputs for their global supply chain –a monumental feat of industrial design for this huge company — Desso is applying principles of biomimicry to indoor spaces, developing advanced materials that remove toxins from the air, as nature does.
In their own words, this is their core business strategy:
“Inspired by nature’s continuous cycle, this concept requires companies to use materials and design products in such a way that they will be positive to the environment and human health. In broad terms, this means using positively defined materials so that the goods can be returned and the materials recycled into new high quality products through two streams: technical or biological. In the former, the materials are fed back into the manufacturing process to make new goods; in the latter, they can go back as a nutrient into the soil.”
Featured speakers included Andrew Winston, a strategy consultant working with executive-level managers of Fortune100 companies. His new book, The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World, was officially released from the main stage and given to all 2000 attendees, subsidized by Coca Cola. Winston calls for “heretical innovation” to address the converging threats of planetary climate disruption, chronic resource scarcity, and radical openness in the new digital age. In a language that business leaders understand — return on investment, market risk, value chains, and operational metrics — he makes the case for a quantum leap into the realm of regenerative economics and ecological design. His may be the only Harvard Business Press book to call for corporate lobbyists to push for an end to oil subsidies, to demand a global carbon tax and government investments in renewable energy.
It is likely that none of these efforts go far enough. Yet each example reveals new opportunities for activists and ecologists to work with the business community. Corporate leaders are increasingly willing to address critiques brought forth by environmentalists, social justice advocates, and recent social movements including Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring – all of which were discussed prominently at the conference. It was surprising – and inspiring – to hear speakers on the main stage speak openly about Occupy, and the need for a strong and vibrant civil society.
During one memorable moment, Guardian editor Jo Confino spoke of the need for all of us to face the deep spiritual trauma that sustainability leaders must reckon with when they confront the severity of our ecological peril. Once we stop avoiding it, we can heal ourselves by becoming empowered change agents. That is the other side of the grieving process: the one that leads to direct action and seamless collaboration.
While corporations have caused a great deal of the damage, it is conceivable they can transform themselves to support a rapid evolution of global practices. As Daniel Pinchbeck discussed recently in Ever Conscious Manifesto (given out globally at H&M stores), multinational companies are the most powerful engines for planetary transformation that humanity has ever created. One could look at them as artificial life forms — made of legal code, ideas, supply chains, brand insignias, and so on — that we have injected into the artificial game we call the stock market. They are given only one prime directive: Maximize Shareholder Value. So this is what they seek to do, like robots.
More and more people both within and outside of these corporations are awakening to the realization that our current industrial practices, and our consumer society in general, threatens the immediate continuity of life on Earth. Current IPCC Reports propose a four to six degree Celsius temperature rise by 2100 – ten or more degrees Fahrenheit. Many scientists believe the timeframe is a conservative estimate, because of many feedback loops in the climate system that work together. Anything close to this level of warming would be catastrophic for the world’s already strained biosphere. With such a rise in temperature, most of the plants that we currently depend upon for food would be unable to grow. Global civilization could devolve into forced depopulation and desperate wars over resources.
The fact that companies are recognizing the severity of the crisis and transforming some of their practices is a crucial development. At this point, however, corporations are still locked into the short-term profit cycle. Winston, in his book, proposes corporations can “profit massively from the journey” toward sustainability. “The companies of the near-future will do many things differently to bring about, operate successfully within, and profit from a new reality.” His rhetoric makes sense as a strategy to inspire corporate participation. It is possible, however – if not unavoidable – that a deeper, systemic transformation of the economic paradigm needs to take place to support human continuity. This change must happen quickly.
Our current system requires constant growth — of economic transactions, consumerism, and GDP — to perpetuate itself. Despite efforts made by governments and corporations to become more sustainable, we still see CO2 emissions increasing around the world while the planet’s ecosystems break down. There doesn’t seem to be any way to radically address this without a new operating system for our political economy.
The deeper paradigm shift would be from competition to cooperation, or from late-stage capitalism to what John Boik of the Principled Societies Project calls “economic direct democracy.” As part of this transition, corporations would have to transmute into efficient machines for reducing waste, enhancing biodiversity, and reversing climate change. They would have to conceive of “profit” differently. How could such a rapid and systemic change come about? Nobody knows for sure – but we may remember the 2014 Sustainable Brands Conference as one step toward the requisite metamorphosis.
Joe Brewer, Culture Designer
Joe has three bachelors degrees in physics, mathematics, and interdisciplinary studies and a masters in atmospheric sciences. He is a complexity researcher, innovation strategist, experience designer, and serial social entrepreneur who brings a wealth of expertise to the adoption of sustainable solutions at the cultural scale. Among his notable achievements are the creation of an undergraduate degree program in Earth Systems, Environment and Society at the University of Illinois and design of new collaboration protocols for strategic communications among European NGO’s with WWF-UK and Oxfam, Great Britain. He was an active member of the Center for Complex Systems Research from 2001 to 2005, where he studied pattern formation in self-organizing systems. He was a research fellow at the Rockridge Institute in 2007-08 analyzing political discourse in the United States. He contracted with the International Centre for Earth Simulation in Geneva in 2010-11 to help build a globally-focused high performance computing facility dedicated to holistic simulations of the dynamic Earth. His experiences as a social entrepreneur and cross-disciplinary scholar weave together a combination of skills dedicated to open collaboration, interactive design, and empowered civic action for catalyzing change toward greater resilience in our turbulent world.
Featured Image: Cleantech, plan for an eco-business park in Singapore Source: Today