DOES SUSTAINABILITY NEED A LITTLE MORE POPULISM?
Those promoting sustainability need to create better narratives to generate support.
Despite reports of climate change, modern slavery, extinction and the collapse of ecosystems, the necessary changes are not taking place. Could a solid dose of populism be what it takes to inspire action?
For many, populism is more associated with those who oppose the climate and sustainability agenda. The ‘hands off my burger’ brigade, those fighting against environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) and arguing for the use of gas stoves in the USA. Those who like to share pictures of their snow-covered gardens on Facebook as evidence that climate change doesn’t exist. The petrol heads. Disgruntled politicians appearing in newspaper articles about meat-free Friday in the Parliament’s canteen. Populism has evidently thrived in the argument against – not for – sustainability.
We do not pin our hopes on a populist oversimplification of the sustainability problem or how it can be solved but, at the very least, those championing sustainability should be more mindful of the narratives they communicate. Whether addressing individuals and households or decision-makers in politics and business, what kind of scenarios are they asking people to choose instead of ‘business as usual’? The need to convey a vision of a better and more attractive future, a future that people may be willing to work towards making a reality, is at the heart of such communication.
At the moment, the opposite is probably true. A lot of people associate sustainability with having to say ‘no’. No to the burger, no to holidays in the Med. No to quality of life and no to the things that bring joy to our life.
It’s this uninspiring conceptualisation of the issue that circular economy gurus William McDonough and Michael Braungart tackle in their classic book ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’.
On a recent visit to NHH, McDonough reiterated this point: He asked why are stuck in a ‘doing less bad’ understanding of the economy. Why are we so fixated on cutting everything to zero? He argued that the goal should be ‘doing more good’. We need to learn how to design products, services and systems that are genuinely regenerative, that make the air and water cleaner, life better, the economy richer.
This might sound a bit utopian, and it can definitely feel populist, but there are many examples of this being done. One example is the global flooring manufacturer Interface's new ‘factory as a forest’ – a factory that is designed like a plant, that emits cleaner air and water than it takes in. What factory worker wouldn’t want to work there and appreciate making clean water and clean air?
That being said, we know that we are nowhere near all the factories in the world being designed like plants. We are nowhere near sustainable businesses and lifestyles being the norm. At the time of writing, it was recently announced that supermarkets in the UK have started rationing fruit and vegetables. After a year of extreme weather conditions in Europe, of heat, drought and flooding, there are slim pickings in the vegetable aisles. The question, however, is whether the way forward – to a world in which enterprises are truly sustainable – is via a ‘doing less bad’ strategy of cutting, reducing and minimising, or whether a ‘doing more good' revolution at the business-model level is what is needed. Big, ambitious changes that excite people and are attractive.
After all, do we really want vegetables to be rationed? However, the example of the British vegetable shortage may sew the seeds of a populist sustainability narrative for those pushing for change. After all, it’s a small glimpse of what a ‘business as usual’ future may look like.
We can’t motivate people to take steps to avoid that future by suggesting that they start rationing now in order to make rationing less severe in the future. We can’t solve our climate and food problems by just doing 'less bad'. Instead, we need to create and convey a motivational narrative about an alternative, greener world, and the steps that can lead us there. It’s not going to be easy – neither to write the narrative nor to realise it. To make it happen, our Israeli-American friend Raz argues, we need chutzpah. The Hebrew expression refers to a form of boldness that borders on arrogance and perhaps verges on crazy. To succeed with sustainable business, we probably need a lot more chutzpah.
When the directors of Interface decided to build a factory that functions like a plant, or when William McDonough works with some of the world's largest clothing manufacturers to design fully circular and regenerative textiles for their clothes, they don't start from the premise that incremental ‘less bad’ solutions will get us over the finish line. They aim high, think radical thoughts, create good and engaging narratives, and try to motivate us to think that there is a world better than one with slightly less vegetable rationing in the supermarkets.
It won't be easy, but we have no other choice than to make it popular.