3 Options for a More Sustainable Society

In September, 165 university and college student leaders from across Canada came together for three days with national business and sustainability leaders to explore real sustainability solutions. The Co-Operators Group convened this amazing IMPACT! conference at the University of Guelph, Ontario. I was on an opening night panel with three other cross-sector panelists.

Spurred on by insightful student questions, at one point, I thought it was appropriate to acknowledge that we all have different comfort levels with various options available to us as corporate sustainability change agents. I outlined three things that we can do to make businesses sustainable (the link is to a short video of my spontaneous response). This blog builds on the options that I outlined which are open to us when we wake up and decide to take action to change the current unsustainable business model.

1. Take to the streets

As a North American, I am accustomed to seeing riots and demonstrations somewhere else. In August, rioters in the UK and Israel showed their dissatisfaction with the status quo. It takes a lot to get Canadians and Americans into public demonstrations and general dissatisfaction with the “economic system” is not usually one of them. Until this fall. The upsurge of the Occupy Wall Street / We Are the 99% movement from mid-September to hundreds of cities in North America and 1,700 cities worldwide, shows that the public demonstration option is very much in play as that movement evolves.

2. Create a parallel economy with new business models

Abandon the status quo business models and build better ones from scratch that are variously called hybrid organizations, social enterprises, B Corporations, and fourth sector companies. The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and the Transition Network are working with local communities to build resilient, more self-sufficient, more robust, local economies all over the world. They are using exciting new forms of ownership and capitalization to form more sustainable enterprises, very analogous to the cooperative movement, to develop a local parallel economy.

3. Morph unsustainable companies into sustainable enterprises

Help companies be more profitable as they build on their sustainability initiatives during their sustainability journey, playing the business game using today’s metrics and rules. As they gain confidence that they really can be more responsible without any financial sacrifice, they legitimize metrics that give them credit for their social and environmental efforts as well as their economic contributions. That is, they will build sufficient courage to become re-purposed sustainable enterprises.

Some people choose “none of the above,” and wallow in despair with an occasional therapeutic rant. I have chosen door #3, and provide resources to sustainability champions who have selected the same option. I applaud those choosing door #1, although it may be difficult for them to change hats and work with companies as trusted advisors if they are known as “radical” activists. Or maybe not. We’ll see. Those choosing door #3 are providing a rich diversity of sustainable business models from which the rest of us can choose.

Hopefully, we’ll all meet at the same place, even if we use different doors and paths to get there. The destination is sustainable enterprises thriving in sustainable communities in a more democratic and equitable sustainable society. I expect some IMPACT! participants will get there before the rest of us. I hope they leave the light on. We’ll be there soon.

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4 replies
  1. Michael Donnelly
    Michael Donnelly says:

    Nice points. I am afraid that the first has shown itself to fall into the classic “them and us” divisions that for some reason fall to a default setting in groups of people who are seeking to cooperate. We sub group to people of our own mindset. It has happened in Occupy as it has in society at large. We need new models – structures that have defined boundaries that people can work within and that are negotiated and led by people who know what they are doing.
    I like the idea of demonstrating what the new alternative looks like. This is akin to building prototypes to demonstrate what is possible. They lead, inspire, prove, and provide a learning space for others to follow. Ultimately the third option – transitioning existing organisations and communities is where it is at. Much like retro fitting houses to be energy efficient, we have to recognise what is there is there and it is where we are starting from. Every community, every company, every local authority and public agency will have to undergo this journey and the job os to create the conditions where that is more likely. It comes down to change processes – creating the potential for leadership to emerge and to have that shaped and guided by methods of genuine change. Luckily there are many working on this right now – TNS, Future Search, Art of Hosting, Authentic Leadership, Appreciative Inquiry and many others. What is called for is an accelerator pedal on the movement – whether this be a huge visible crisis (economic order changing; a catastrophic climate incident; oil price spike; water war) or a blossoming of global change agents who are able to coalesce to demonstrate why and how it works. We are still disparate in this work.

  2. Bob Willard
    Bob Willard says:

    Michael, I agree that we are disparate in this work. That is our strength and our weakness. It is our strength because we need diverse and innovative efforts to accomplish the necessary and organic revolution. It is also our weakness if we fragment our efforts too much and compete with each other instead of collaborating. Leading change is messy, especially when the status quo is so strong. We need to pull all the levers.


  3. shane
    shane says:

    HI Bob, thanks for post i’ll retweet it on twitter as good question… it was short so you probably didn’t cover all the areas that you may have wanted but didn’t highlight option two in your concluding sentence?? vibrant area worth consideration.. i’d like to draw your attention to Transition Network economy initiative called REconomy https://www.facebook.com/pages/REconomy-Project/154533571322356

    also want to debate what you said;

    “I applaud those choosing door #1, although it may be difficult for them to change hats and work with companies as trusted advisors”

    i think this view was valid 10 years ago… there’s now quite a long history of interplay between people coming from the anti or protest movement and then playing valued roles in corporate culture and vice versa. Big bang for me was Greenpeace working with Sydney Olympics including companies such as Coke etc.. but if you look at many rusemes nower days you’ll have people with a past in both campaign and corporate swapping over.

  4. Bob Willard
    Bob Willard says:

    Shane, I agree that the Transition Network and BALLE have excellent blueprints for a more sustainable local economies. I share your optimism that any activist NGO can be a useful partner with organizations that they have taken to task on their sustainability track record. However, it is still unusual to find such strange bedfellows soon after the NGO has publically named and shamed the corporation. Possible, but rare.

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