questions for a sustainable world

Questions for a sustainable world

“I don't pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.” Arthur C. Clarke

The future we want

It’s easy to assume that the status quo, the way we do things now, is either the only way to do things or the right way to do them. However, in our increasingly connected, interdependent world, the idea that we should ask questions about the purpose and direction of our organisations and systems is becoming more important.

The role of business in engaging with solving global environmental and social challenges has been brought into sharp focus by the launch in 2015 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – 17 Global Goals for a more sustainable future.

Businesses are increasingly being asked to demonstrate how they are playing a role in delivering the goals and leaders are responding. For instance, at the launch of the SDGs, the CEO of Unilever Paul Polman, said:

Unilever is involved in the SDG agenda as we fundamentally believe these are challenges that need to be addressed for economies, businesses and society to function.

So, if business needs to focus beyond profit towards a place where they can demonstrate ambition and progress in delivering social, environmental and economic benefits, what are the questions they need to consider that will help them on that journey?

What’s it all about?

The quest for a sustainable future is all about questions. Some are big and some are small. Some are about the nature and purpose of our systems of value, and some about how we value our loved ones. Sometimes the smallest questions have the biggest answers.

Human beings are good at asking questions. We start off very good indeed.

Children’s ability and commitment to asking questions often outstrips our ability to answer them. This is not merely that an incessant stream of ‘why?’ questions is tiring, it’s also that some of the time we genuinely don’t know the answers to the questions we are asked or are unprepared to deal with their true implications.

As we grow up, we often keep questioning, but the scope of those questions can narrow due to the practical need to balance a sense of wonder with passing an exam or earning an income. We still question aspects of life but more often the questions are more about the details and less about the overall purpose. This ‘bounded rationality’, keeps our questions within a less examined frame of reference and is one of the challenges our species faces in breaking away from unsustainable ways of being and creating new ones that may differ slightly or radically.

Some questions demand answers

“A prudent question is one half of wisdom.” Francis Bacon

In simple terms, sustainability is about one of two things; doing the same things very differently or doing very different things.

Maintaining our status quo commits us to a collision course with the very real limits to possibility on this wonderful though populous planet. To follow a path to sustainability we need to ask and then answer some fundamental questions of economics, finance and business. Not just “can we do business with less impact?” but “how do we connect our ambition and purpose with delivering a flourishing future?

Whether we want to focus on our role in achieving the SDGs, or simply on the long-term success of our organisations in a fast changing world, we need to ask ourselves some or all of the following questions:

  • Why do our systems of value and production function the way they do and must they always do the same?
  • As organisations, can we develop a clear purpose that engages not only in profit but also in delivering social and environmental value?
  • Are our business models fit to deal with the challenges of the future?
  • Must profit for one always mean loss for another?
  • How do we move to positive-sum enterprise, where meeting our own needs delivers those of other too?

Immense logic and ingenuity have been applied in the creation of our systems of value and enterprise. Yet the current rules of the game for capitalism are undermining its own long-term existence.

Any game includes winners and losers, creativity, luck, cooperation and competition, and should do so to deliver creativity, innovation and the chance of individual and collective choice, reward and wellbeing.

Changing the rules of the game such that capitalism seeks to deliver sustainability wouldn’t affect the range of possible outcomes and types of choices within the game. Indeed, it would guarantee that we all had more chance to play for longer, and indeed might guarantee that more of us might ‘win’.

Unless we ask the big questions “What is the point of capitalism?”, “How do we value a sustainable future?” and “How do we ensure that our companies are architects of the future, not its victim!” we will be unlikely to find answers which meet the scale of the challenges that we face.

Joss Tantram
Founding Partner – Terrafiniti LLP

Joss Tantram is an expert in sustainable strategy, reporting and management, with 20 years’ experience in the private and not-for-profit sectors in the UK, Europe and worldwide.

Joss leads Terrafiniti's strategic services and their innovation initiative, Towards 9 Billion.