If necessity is the mother of invention, why hasn’t business become sustainable?

Leadership Blog  |  4 minute read

Justin Temblett-Wood

Written by Justin Temblett-Wood

If necessity is the mother of invention, why hasn’t business become sustainable?

Human impact on earth-system processes has put the planet in crisis. The parameters within which human societies can be sustained are exceeding planetary boundaries and the environmental consequences are being felt in seismic repercussions. 

And so, given the size, scope and immediacy of our sustainability emergency, why haven’t humans managed to solve it yet?


It’s partly political


We know it’s not a technology deficit, scientific misinterpretation or incapacity to transform systems that’s the issue. We know the technological innovations and ‘clean’ options exist but the cost of their deployment is prohibitive and the only groups capable of operating at a global scale — governments, nonprofits and businesses – all have competing background commitments preventing them from advancing sustainability agendas with the required urgency.

On a planet of nearly 8 billion people, most sustainable breakthroughs are hindered by global politics because nations are so far from the same starting point. Eradicating poverty in all its forms is crucial to sustainable development and yet there’s no uniform solution for improving access to sustainable livelihoods.  

These miscellaneous starting points mean the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals are not legally binding, instead relying on individual countries to make their own sustainable development policies, plans and programmes. 


Our leaders don’t have enough at stake


There’s something else underpinning our globally sluggish response though and that’s ‘at stake-ness’. World leaders need to have something at risk beyond the problems the planet is presenting in order to act on them. 

Most governments are looking to see what the consequences of green subsidies, policies and initiatives are before deciding whether or not to put their nations’ economies and industries at risk. But sustainable breakthroughs will only happen if these leaders put their own positions, livelihoods and reputations at stake to pursue sustainability.

While he was the CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman intrinsically understood the dilemma at stake-ness posed to the organisation’s sustainability successes and refused to report the company's quarterly earnings to stakeholders as a result. 

It’s a bold and extraordinary example of a leader putting their identity at stake. Investor, shareholder and board relations all suffered as a result, but it enabled Polman to lead in relation to his sustainability commitments.


What radical transformation looks like


Ørsted, an energy company that was once one of the most coal-intensive in Europe, recognised how its work was damaging our society in 2010. Their response? They decided to transform into a business based on renewable energy, becoming the world’s most sustainable energy company in the process and the only one in the world with a net-zero emissions target validated by the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi).

We worked with Ørsted during their transition to a business model that was both financially and environmentally sustainable, helping them create a purpose-led leadership and organisational culture that could deliver on sustainability commitments. 

We work with a lot of companies in this way, many of whom are challenging traditional industry conventions. Success is about leadership, cultural change and contextual management, but it doesn’t have to be hierarchical – change can also come from the middle of organisations and radiate outwards.


Vulnerable leadership creates the largest impact


Ørsted and Polman both showed a capacity to put their roles and themselves at risk in order to achieve change. This is one of the basic tenets of what we call vulnerable leadership. It moves us away from ego-based direction, that looks to control systems and people, towards radical change. 

If leaders don’t put themselves at stake then they’ll only ever be able to play small within the existing system. The greatest leaders and changemakers in the world have always been able to put themselves at stake to further a cause.


Change can come from anywhere in an organisation


Sustainability might sound relevant only to a Board member or an executive-level manager, but sustainability advances don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) be top-down mandated. 

In our Breakthrough Sustainability programme we divide sustainable breakthroughs into four contexts: Think | Accelerate | Influence | Resilience. 

These areas of work are not sequential, so they create a good model for movement anywhere in an organisation. They’re a great way for teams to create and achieve breakthroughs at a departmental level. Some examples of this include:

  • Taking visible ownership of the sustainability agenda
  • Acting from the future
  • Driving internal conversations
  • Analysing the assumptions holding your team back
  • Implementing changes without waiting to be instructed

It’s all about having the confidence to take permission, instead of waiting for it to be granted. This aligns us with the behaviour of great leaders, no matter where we find ourselves in an organisation.

Looking to create an impossible future? Get in touch to explore how we can help you ignite your sustainability ambitions.


Published 19/01/2023

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