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Sustainable Innovation

A new force for sustainable business: Our common humanity

A new force for sustainable business: Our common humanity
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‘Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.’

David Whyte[i], from his poem ‘Start Close in’[ii]

I recently conducted several interviews with colleagues from across the world exploring the connection between human-centred organisations and the wider environmental agenda. All of those conversations went through what I came to understand as the ‘hopelessness phase’, which describes a sense that we are running out of time to respond to global environmental emergencies, and that our attempts to respond have so far been wholly inadequate.

This sense of hopelessness was supported by data on climate emergency[iii], biodiversity decline[iv], global inequality[v] and recent news. We discussed the ousting of Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber by activist investors who wanted the company to be more concerned by financial underperformance than with wider environmental issues[vi] (Faber had been a strong advocate of purpose-driven business and of ‘humanist capitalism’, which he explained in a speech in 2016[vii].) There was also dismay at the view from Tariq Fancy, an ex-Blackrock CIO for sustainable investing, who said that many ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) funds had no impact and ‘create a placebo effect to delay the overdue regulatory reforms in government we need’ to address issues like climate change. Indeed, it seemed to many people I spoke to that responding effectively to climate change, biodiversity loss and global inequality is, in Whyte’s words, ‘the step you don’t want to take’.

But Whyte’s poem, ‘Start Close In’, also resonates in other ways and provides a pivot towards a more hopeful and human perspective ­­– one that starts with ourselves, and that challenges what many regard as the ‘false choices’ between, for example, commercial success and environmental success.

The most powerful and hopeful parts of these conversations started with experiences of living and working through the Covid pandemic, from which two vital lessons emerged. The first was that Covid had served as a reminder that what is most important to us is each other. Isolation showed us that, ultimately, we find meaning through our relationships with family, friends, colleagues and community.

The second lesson was that society, government and, crucially, organisations, all proved to be capable of rapid and collaborative change. For many, the fact that we were able to come together as a global community, abandon orthodoxies, and take action was a real sign of hope. Systemic change, it seems, is possible. It requires deep cross-sector collaboration, it requires governments to act, and it requires compliance, not just to save ourselves, but to save each other.

So how do we apply the lessons from the pandemic to the challenge of speeding up our response to the environmental crises we face? Here are three approaches we can take:

1. Humanity and nature are inseparable

Much has been written about the power of the natural world to help us through the pandemic[viii]. During lockdowns, time spent in our gardens, woodlands, fells, parks, mountains and coastlines spoke to a deep and urgent need for connection with something beyond ourselves. This renewed understanding of the value of the natural world has profound implications for our understanding of our relationship with it.  

Some of this is recognising that we are intrinsically part of and connected to the natural world. So when we connect with each other through our relationships, through empathy and compassion, we are also connecting with nature; when we cherish each other, we are reaching beyond ourselves and into the wider environment that nurtures, nourishes and sustains us. Maybe living sustainably isn’t just about the planet; it is also about us and our relationships with each other.

Whyte puts a mirror up to our pandemic experience when he writes:

Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness.’

For too long we have succumbed to the idea that ‘nature’ is ‘out there’, something external and separate to us. In fact, there is no separation; humans are part of the natural world, as are our relationships, hopes and meaning.

2. Challenging false choices

Too much of the debate around environmental issues has framed decisions in a binary way. The Danone shareholder activists are a key example of this, as they understood commercial success and environmental success as separate choices. This understanding puts us in danger of waging ideological battles instead of practical ones.

We need to think more about interconnection and interdependence. Indeed, the key practical perspective from all of my conversations was that ‘there is little point in any organisation pursuing individual success if the wider system needed for that success is failing.’ Every organisation is indivisible from the context within which it operates. Individual or organisational success is dependent upon wider environmental, social and economic successes. All organisations have a part to play in nurturing the health of the systems upon which they depend. In the same way that the virus has shown that, as a global community, none of us are safe until all of us are safe, perhaps none of us are truly successful unless all of us are succeeding.

3. Building human-centric organisations

One of the key lessons from the pandemic is that relationships matter most. Covid has made it clear that all organisations are simply groups of people working in service to other groups of people. People aren’t assets of an organisation; they are the organisation. If we take a more human-centric approach to designing, managing and leading our organisations then we put the need to care for each other at the centre of our purpose. Caring for each other also means caring for the natural environment and the other species that live in it.

Cultivating this sense of our common humanity and shared purpose is the route to integrating care and concern for the natural world into how our organisations work. If we take the humanity out of our organisations then we take away everything that is of value and we again sever human purposes from the natural world.

Whyte again: ‘We belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do.’

At the end of my interviews, most of the conversations had found the measure of the fight between hope and hopelessness. Everyone I spoke to recognised that human-centric organisations are vital forces for good in the world, rooted in things that are real and that serve others rather than artificial or self-serving objectives. If we are to tackle the huge environmental crises we face, then we must put our humanity at the heart of our approach. In doing so, we will transform the way in which our organisations can lead.