Corporations will lead the sustainable transformation

by leveraging agility, adaptability and innovation capabilities

Interview with Wayne Visser, a globally recognised Cambridge “pracademic” and thought-leader on sustainable and responsible business, and the author of Thriving: The Breakthrough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society and the Economy.

About Professor Visser

He is a Fellow and Head Tutor at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), Professor and holder of the Chair of Sustainable Transformation at Antwerp Management School and Founder and Director of CSR International and Kaleidoscope Futures.

Wayne is the author of 40 books and held previous roles as Director of Sustainability Services for KPMG and Strategy Analyst for CapGemini. 

Can you define sustainability?

It’s how nature, society and the economy reach a state of thriving, now and for all time.

What is the future of sustainability?

Sustainability in itself as a concept is limited. If you think about the word  “to sustain”, it simply means “to endure”, and there are some problems with that as it’s not very inspiring. It allows a lot of companies, economies and societies to be less ambitious because they can follow the path of just minimising damage. The future of sustainability is thriving or what you might also call “regeneration” because at the moment, we’ve been trading off positive and negative impacts. We’ve had, in some sense, positive economic and social impacts and almost entirely negative environmental impacts. This certainly isn’t sustainable, nor is it a long-term solution for thriving in nature, society and the economy. 

The concept of thriving is about moving from these breakdowns in nature, society and the economy to breakthroughs. There are six major transitions that we have to go through. For example, in nature, we have two breakdowns: the degradation of ecosystems and depletion of resources. So we have to go from degradation to restoration of ecosystems and from depletion to renewal of resources. We do that through the eco-services economy, where we really start to use our business activities to restore nature and through the circular economy, where we close the loops of materials and energy in society.

In society, the breakdowns are disparity (inequality) and disease, so lack of health and well-being. The transitions we have to make here are from disparity to responsibility and from disease to what I call “revitalisation”. These transitions lead us through the market to an access economy which is all about inclusion, diversity and no discrimination, as well as a well-being economy where we really look after people and improve their health. 

The two breakdowns in the economy are disconnection, which is about the unequal access to technology, and disruption, which is about the crises that we face and the real catastrophes that we go through. What we have to do is move from this disconnection to rewiring the economy, and from disruption to resilience and we do that in the market through the digital and risk economies. 

These six transitions are the future of sustainability; it’s a future in which we create thriving and regeneration in nature, society and the economy all together instead of trading them off.

Do you think we can become a fully sustainable society?

We can become more sustainable but we are quite a long way from that, mainly because we haven’t yet found a way to stop growing our economy quantitatively and start growing it qualitatively, i.e. to make growth about human development and learning and services more than about consumption. We have a long way to go in order to change the concept of growth. Innovation is going to take us a long way in that we’re going to get a lot smarter on how we use resources, on how we look after nature and people and improve their health and well-being, as well as on how we use technology to connect people and give them more power to do things. 

But at the same time, we need a culture and values shift, to say that we can’t have economies or even companies and societies continually striving for more physical growth because that, in the end, just won’t work. I don’t think most businesses are open to stopping their economic growth ambitions, nor are most politicians open to it, because our whole society is built on growth. There’s a psychological element of thinking that in order to progress we need to keep growing. There are two types of growth: quantitative and qualitative. In quantitative growth, the economy is getting bigger; in qualitative growth, the society is getting better. It’s this difference of growth that we have to shift towards.

Sustainability is how nature, society and the economy reach a state of thriving

What role do you think sustainability should have in the educational field?

The role of education is to equip people with critical minds so they question and they look at the world as holistically as possible. In other words, so they can see the connections between disciplines, between parts of the economy and between nature and society. Therefore, education has to equip people with systems thinking and the leadership skills that will enable them to create the solutions that we are going to need to thrive in the future.

Do you think there is a real change in companies and shareholders / investors on sustainability?

There is definitely a change going on. I’ve been involved now in sustainability for more than 30 years, always working with businesses, and we are a long way ahead. If you are any kind of credible or established large company, you are aware of sustainability, you have a sustainability strategy, you are probably reporting on sustainability. There’s been a lot of progress and I would say on the financial side, it’s been growing for some time, but the tipping point has been more recent with the likes of BlackRock really taking a stand. And climate risk has really tipped so that now, most large business investors at least have sustainability on their agenda and see both risks and opportunities. 

However, that hasn’t fully filtered through to the markets. It will take some time, for example, for the biggest funds to completely disinvest from fossil fuel companies, but the process has started. We’ve come a long way but we haven’t figured out how to do what the World Economic Forum calls “stakeholder capitalism” and what Dominic Barton, former Managing Director of McKinsey, calls “long-term capitalism”. We’ve had a few leaders that have set those long-term goals, but for now, the markets still reward extremely shortterm behaviour. Therefore, the structural change that we need in the financial system especially, hasn’t really happened yet, even though there has been a rise in socially responsible, environmental and sustainability type investments.

What are the factors that, in your opinion, play or will play a more important role in the sustainable transition of companies?

One of the things we are seeing right now from a system change point of view, is a phenomenon called convergence, which is effectively reinforcing feedback loops that create a tipping point and then change happens extremely fast. Right now, there is a convergence between new technologies and technological opportunities; between that and changing social norms. The younger generation really do “get it”, and are demanding to work for companies that they can feel proud of and the politicians are “catching up”. This depends on where you live, but in general, there is a strengthening of policy to support sustainability.  Of course, the changing social norms manifest themselves also in different consumer habits and in social movements with people being activists for certain causes. The convergence of these three drivers will be the main factors that cause companies to change.

What role does remote work have in the sustainable transition?

It has the advantage of giving us flexibility, allowing us to work in more diverse teams all around the world and can dramatically lower our carbon footprints. It certainly brings a lot of solutions with it, but it also creates problems and this is something we’re only just starting to get to grips with, having been living with the Covid crisis for a year and a half now. It has adverse effects, by and large, on wellbeing, partly because people are isolated and having a virtual connection is not the same as having a physical interaction. Also, people do not have well set-up working spaces at home both in terms of ergonomics, where they have terrible chairs and tables and probably work half the time from the sofa, plus lots of disturbance if they have children at home as well as other disturbances. So it can increase flexibility, decrease time spent in congested commuting and reduce carbon footprints, but we also have to look after both the mental and physical well-being consequences of remote working.

The younger generation are demanding to work for companies that they can feel proud of and the politicians are “catching up”

What role does the most advanced technology play in the sustainable transition?

There’s a huge role for technology and across all the 6 transitions I have mentioned, technology can and will play a very important role. For example, if we look at ecosystem restoration, there are drones that are being used to rapidly reseed and replant forest areas. We’ve got robots that are being used to do weeding on agricultural fields. Some use precision herbicides, so chemicals are very precisely applied to the weeds and can cut the chemicals used by more than 90%. Some use lasers so they don’t use any chemicals and that’s a good thing.  

If we look at the renewal of resources, the second transition, there are so many circular economy examples, but let’s take the company Circularise; they use both blockchain technology and artificial DNA to trace plastic throughout its value chain. Most plastic in products is actually multiple layers of different plastics, which is part of the problem as it makes it hard to recycle. So all of that information about which materials are included and how to treat or recycle them can be digitally encoded. I’ve just bought a new pair of jeans, and I was delighted to find that the brand Lee has been Cradle to Cradle certified, which means they fully embrace the circular economy, to make textiles and fibres recyclable. 

And then, if you go into responsibility, there are, interestingly, some technologies that can help to make society more inclusive. If you look at people with disabilities, for example, there are different technologies that either give them artificial limbs or more and more limbs that can be controlled by thought. You also get technology where people who are blind can wear a kind of vest and walk as if they could see because they get signals on all the obstructions in their environment. There are many ways in which we can use technology to bring those who are outside of the workforce into the workforce. 

Do you think society is aware of the importance of the sustainable transition? What about companies?

Do you think society
is aware of the importance of the sustainable transition? What about companies?

Most are aware that we certainly have to make the transition to a low-carbon or even a net-zero, net positive economy. There’s less awareness on other issues, such as biodiversity loss, which is just as catastrophic. We have lost two-thirds of our wildlife populations in the 50 years since 1970 and this still rapidly continues to go in the wrong direction. For most people and most companies, it’s not really on their agenda or on their radar, although companies who have a direct biodiversity impact like the mines are more aware of it. 

We’ve started to see the trend of regenerative organic agriculture, and that’s a very positive trend, but it’s still extremely small and I expect to see the same kind of resistance that we had from fossil fuel companies to climate change. Even so, I expect the agricultural companies to transition to regenerative agriculture and, of course, the transition to a plant-based diet, which has to be such a big part of cutting our negative impact on nature, health and animals. People are aware of the different parts of the puzzle, but there are far fewer companies and people who realise how big the transition is, how urgent it is, and how multifaceted it is. 

It really has a lot of interconnected issues that we all have to solve at the same time. It has to be a just transition because those who suffer the most are often the most vulnerable, the most marginalised and the poorest. So we have to look at all of the issues together and to have that understanding of how systems are interconnected.

Remote work can increase flexibility, decrease time spent in congested commuting and reduce carbon footprints, but we also have to look after both the mental and physical well-being consequences of remote working.

Who do you think should lead this sustainable transition? The governments, companies or society?

Of course, the answer will always be “all of the above”. If we take the example of South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s, it really was millions of actions by millions of people and organisations in so many different ways. And because it’s such a complex interconnected system you never know which is the one that’s having the most impact. It could be a very tiny action that ripples through the system and ends up changing the whole system. Look at Greta Thunberg and her impact on teenagers. So we do need action by all of them. But generally, governments and the public, and customers, in particular, don’t lead. Normally they follow when they see they need to follow, that it’s been made convenient for them or they don’t have to pay more, or in the case of the government, when they see that the voters are changing. 

Businesses have the most potential to take a lead because they are so agile and can adapt much more quickly. Often innovation is built into their culture, so I put a lot of my hope on first-mover action with business. The government does then need to step in and customers need to support the changes that are being made so that the market grows. But in second place, I would put the social movements, as these are far more powerful than people think. It really is important that we have the Climate Strike movement, that we have the Extinction Rebellion movement, that we have the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s all of these things that start to change the norms of society. Once institutions detect those norms are changing, they actually change themselves. We really need to invest in and support as much as possible the social movements that are happening all around the world.

Could you please leave us a final reflection?

People often ask me if I am optimistic or pessimistic, and I always say that I am optimistic and I’m hopeful. The reason is not because we’ve reached some state of grace or bliss or perfection, but because of all the people who are working on this to make the changes happen, and because of all the innovation that is happening. Also, I understand how systems work and that whilst systems can break down very quickly when they get overstressed, they can also break through to a more highly functioning state; that they can evolve, in effect. Presently, we’re going through a massive cultural evolution which is changing our society, our economy and our relationship with nature. There’s far too much pessimism around right now. I say that not because it’s unjustified, but because it disempowers us. It’s far more effective if we can focus on the hope and then work to make that justified. Hope is based on action and optimism as well. Hope is realising that there is a possibility for change, that we are not doomed by fate and that it really is up to us. It’s knowing that there are more and more people, companies, governments and movements stepping up and making positive changes.

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