Sophie Turton, Director of The Joyful, is speaking to some movers, shakers and changemakers in the run up to this year's impact summit to find out what they think are the most important discussion topics around the key themes of this year's show, and their advice for how all businesses can grow with purpose.
Today, we’re talking to Mike Barry, scientist, change agent and former director of sustainability at Marks & Spencer in Part one of our two part series: leading the conversation about changing how we do business…
Why do you think it is important to use business as a way to drive positive change and make an impact in the world?
Well, I guess the obvious answer is that the world is burning! And 77% of the world's emissions that are contributing to the climate crisis have been driven directly by economic activity in the business system.
Climate crisis theory is a reality
In the last couple of years the climate crisis has become hugely apparent through the extreme weather events we’ve seen: mega drought in America and both floods and drought in China, Central Europe, The Mediterranean and all the way up to Britain; our climate is being rocked by 40 degree centigrade and temperatures across the globe.
The theory of climate change has become a dreadful reality in so many people's lives and we need to act now.
We’re heading towards a socio-economic crisis
From a scientific point of view, I also have a clear understanding of the bigger picture impact not just on our lives today, but what the longer term implications of where the climate crisis we’re experiencing at the moment will lead.
We are absolutely accelerating towards, not just a climate crisis, but an economic and societal crisis too.
Our economic systems are dependent on breathable air, farmable landscapes and resources from the earth. As the climate crisis intensifies and we don’t move quickly enough towards sustainable solutions, we are at very real economic and societal collapse.
World Overshoot Day in the UK this year was 29th of July. Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity's demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.
So by the time the Impact Summit takes place, we will already be 2 months into using 2023's resources, with still 4 months left of 2022 to go!
Clearly, we can't carry on like this and I am really
Why is it important to re-think our environmental business language?
There’s traditionally a lot of language around “managing social and environmental risks”.
And ‘risk’ is the old paradigm of ESG, corporate responsibility or CSR: “try not to do too much harm in going about your day to day business”.
But businesses have to look into the mirror and really think about their purpose and responsibility to the world they inhabit. We can't correct the course that we're on by just being 2% “less bad” each year. We can’t use up the planet’s resources for a year when we’re half way through it.
Corporate austerity programmes are constructed around ‘doing less’: 2% less energy, 3% less plastic, 4% less human rights abuse…. Looking at the scale of the problem and the speed at which we are accelerating towards it, ‘doing less bad’ is not an option, we have to do something completely different.
But could business also be the solution?
Oh yes, absolutely - there is a huge opportunity at the moment to explore systemic change, that the most progressive businesses are already exploring.
Let's look at the car industry for example and the shift we’re seeing from the internal combustion engine to the electric vehicle.
I sat with the Board of a very famous global car company seven years ago, and asked them what they thought of Tesla - Tesla was worth about 50 billion US dollars at the time. They laughed and said “It'll never take off! People don't want electric, it's expensive, it's difficult, it's ugly, it's poor performance, the future is just more efficient diesel and petrol.”
Now let's look at the food industry, another established sector that has the potential to be torn apart by fundamental and systemic forces.
● Food accounts for over a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions
● 78% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication (the pollution of waterways with nutrient-rich pollutants) is caused by agriculture
Food, therefore, lies at the heart of trying to tackle climate change, reducing water stress, pollution, restoring lands back to forests or grasslands, and protecting the world’s wildlife.
The food industry is also uniquely vulnerable to the problems it’s causing - drought, flood, fire.
How can we create fundamental and systemic change?
And you know what, the progressives are already exploring how to completely transform the food industry. We're starting to see vertical farms, regenerative agriculture, the hyper transparency of food - wherever you look, the beginnings of a new food system are emerging. And it will happen as fast as the changes that happened to the car industry driven by Tesla a few years ago.
And that brings us to another reason to change now - we are being asked to by the consumer.
More and more consumers are starting to realise that a slow approach to change isn't good enough.
They are seeing the planet changing with their own eyes and experiencing the floods, the fires and the droughts.
Business has thus far responded by capitalising on the desire for more sustainable products and essentially charging more for them. But we, as consumers, can and should, turn around and say “no” - why should I pay more for products that don’t exploit people and the planet? And we would be absolutely right!
Why should I have to pay more for better products? Why should I have to listen to a PhD thesis every time I buy them to ‘prove’ they work? I don't want them to be difficult to use and I don’t want to feel marginalised or ‘weird’ for wanting to use them!
So the race is now on for businesses who can democratise sustainable consumption. Another commercial opportunity for the purposeful and bigger picture thinking business!
We need to make sustainable consumption accessible to everybody. And we need to make it globally democratic - not just to the 10% of people who can currently afford it.
Transformation in business is more than possible, it’s necessary
The future is exciting!
It’s also going to require a more purposeful, selflessness and bigger picture approach than business is used to.
Sure, there are massive challenges to this new capitalism, there’s immediate issues, like the war in Ukraine and the UK’s current horrific cost-of-living crisis - both essentially self-inflicted catastrophes - that could have ironically, been mitigated if we’d been thinking about the bigger picture earlier. But the more we flex these ‘bigger picture thinking muscles’ and the more holistically and purposefully we think, the easier it will get and the momentum for change will increase.
What business is doing now is the start of the conversation, not the solution, and that’s the exciting part - the very best of mankind’s ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity is yet to come!
In Part 2 - Mike and Sophie explore what businesses can do right now to start these transformational changes and make a more positive and sustainable impact on their people, the planet and their performance.