Dumb sustainability down to scale it up?

Sensemaking / Dumb sustainability down to scale it up?

Sally Uren, Deputy Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, looks for simple ways to make sustainability standard practice.

25 Apr 2012

Sally Uren, Deputy Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, looks for simple ways to make sustainability standard practice.

Photo of Sally UrenEarlier this month I chaired a panel discussion, asking just what it will take to move sustainability from the margins to the mainstream. It's an important question. While sustainability has been on the corporate agenda for several years now, it's far from the norm. The mainstream investor asking questions about sustainability cuts a lonely figure, for one... Meanwhile, resources dwindle and social inequalities grow.

The panel wasn't short of ideas to take us from a few impressive pioneers to a mass movement. We could seduce sovereign wealth funds into reworking their mysterious machinations. Or harness the power of public procurement, making green a requirement, not an add-on. Or we could address (once more) the need to make the business case for sustainability (why is that still so hard…?).

Yes, I thought, we're on to something here – practical tips for taking sustainability from the niche to the heart of things! But, alas, the conversation, now with the audience involved, quickly threw up why none of these strategies might actually do the trick. Suddenly, things got very confused and a bit stuck. I'd like to think that this turn of events wasn't entirely down to my chairing prowess, but more because sustainability is complex, and there are no easy answers.

However, what really struck me was that sustainability practitioners, as a group, tend to overcomplicate things. Yes, we do. So – gasp, horror – perhaps to scale up, we need to dumb down a little?

There are possibly three simple ways of taking pioneering practice and helping it flourish in the mainstream:

  1. Create new partnerships. This is how the Marine Stewardship Council has moved from a very shaky start to certifying or pre-certifying 10% of the global fish harvest. In a way you could argue this isn't mainstream at all, but in the UK, many retailers stock 100% MSC-certified fish.
  2. Co-opt the big guys. From sovereign wealth funds, to Chinese overseas investment funds, to entire government policy frameworks… It's only by engaging with the current power bases that significant change will be sustained.
  3. Communicate the concepts. Help society and business visualise the change you're trying to create. Take the London 2012 Games, which promises to be the most sustainable Olympics ever. It's an incredibly ambitious target, given that these global challenges are likely to be the last thing on the minds of the millions swarming through the gates. But if they travel sustainably, are provided with locally sourced food, and prompted to use the recycling facilities, sustainability will hopefully become real.

There you have it: my three Cs. They are by no means the only routes to scaling up – but they are probably a good start.

Sally Uren is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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