Alexis de La Tour du Pin, Executive Director of the MSc in Sustainability Transformation and Chair on Environmental Transition at ESSEC Business School, with a focus on sustainability transformation, why sustainability is essential, and what will make it happen.
Sustainability Transformation – Triggering the Change, by Alexis de La Tour du Pin.
Stepping over the threshold
For some time now, persistent inequalities, climate change, food insecurity, and biodiversity loss have been growing issues and threats. But somehow, in spite of our collective footprint, these issues seemed far away in our mindsets. Indeed, a sustainability plan was a ’nice-to-have ‘, much like a ’digital plan‘ used to be very secondary 10 or 12 years ago for large companies and organisations in general, while now it is core.
Sustainability is now more important than ever because it seems we’ve reached a tipping point and there is no turning back. And indeed, a variety of growing streams of pressure have pushed the global perception of sustainability stakes over a threshold.
Some of these streams of pressure overlap, with some of them causes, some of them consequences. But overall they create a constellation of pressure – natural disaster pressure, consumer pressure, media, finance, regulatory, political pressure – that has shifted our perceptions for good. But also – and maybe more importantly – employee pressure, as I believe the COVID crisis has probably been the most instrumental factor in generating this threshold effect.
In 2020-2021, many employees throughout the world were able to return home, sometimes reconnect with nature, turn inwards, towards themselves and/or their family. Employees came to realise that they needed more meaning to their job, and needed to work towards a more sustainable world.
One striking example was that of a global tech firm that called all of its employees to return to the office in 2021 when COVID seemed on the downturn, but was then forced to back down. The firm realised that a large percentage of their employees were ready to quit rather than go back to what appeared increasingly to them like an endless, absurd race for performance, epitomized by commuting. In this light, it is absolutely key for managers and corporate leaders in general to tackle sustainability as a core strategic stake. Working together towards having a sustainable impact brings meaning back to the table.
From transition to transformation
Two points can be stressed here. First, there is no turning back. More than that, there will be an acceleration in the pressure for sustainability, with a feedback loop in the sense that all of these streams of pressure mentioned above will nourish each other.
Second, that perceptions have become reality. Today, there is no need to justify why sustainability has become so central in the major issues affecting business, society and the planet. This is not to say that sustainability isn’t an interesting debate in itself for the simple sake of debating – but not beyond. This ship has sailed. Sustainability must become central to corporate strategies, individual lives and societies.
Let me give you an example. I recently worked on a “sustainability workshop” with the R&D team of a global food manufacturer. This team of very savvy scientists were debating with me whether organic food really has an impact on health, arguing that many studies pointed to the absence of proof, that there were sanitary risks linked to not using phytosanitary inputs, and so on. I agreed that reality was more complex than it seems when it comes to organic food – after all, it’s just a label, with its limits. But I stopped them at once, as the debate was fruitless. Because perceptions have won.
Indeed, increasing numbers of consumers will prefer organic food as opposed to non-organic food. And regulators and legislators, not to mention finance, will continue to push in this direction. All in all, things point to a landslide. As such, whether organisations and their leaders are convinced or not, the only choice is to bring sustainability to the core of their strategy, and to keep consumers, shareholders and employees happy.
In many ways, we have passed the ‘transition’ stage. Business and industry require a full transformation now – meaning a process that is deeper and that permeates every aspect of the organisation.
But there is no playbook as to how this transformation can happen, and that’s what’s exciting. Almost everything must be imagined. If we were to return to the analogy of the digital world of 10 years ago, back then, if you applied what had worked in terms of digital transition in the 2000s you’d fail to succeed a digital transformation in the 2010s – because the context had changed and a more profound shift was needed.
Triggering the change
So first, I believe we must create an “agile” playbook, based on experience (existing knowledge) and intuition. A playbook we can adapt on the go. And if I had to give the general outline of this playbook, I would imagine 5 key chapters:
- Impact measurement
- Innovation & entrepreneurship
- The priority – transform mindsets at every level of organisations and societies. More specifically, within organisations, we must start with accompanying and coaching senior leadership, including boards of directors, for they have both the strongest power of inertia, and the strongest leverage to transform their organisations if they set their mind to it. In terms of sectors, finance is a priority, and for the same reasons. Because immense forces of inertia remain there – more so than in any other sector – and because finance powers our entire economy and has the greatest leverage potential to transform it all. The case of transformation in the financial sector will be very interesting to scrutinize in the coming years, with pressure from economists such as Gaël Giraud, an advocate for a full reboot of finance, or from NGOs such as ReclaimFinance.
- In order to transform mindsets – the need for a variety of talents. The world not only needs new leaders to show the way, but also diplomats and creative facilitators to accompany this change and avoid cleavages, and storytellers to inspire us with better futures. That’s where education comes into play, with the development of hybrid talents. Beyond mindsets and talents, this transformation requires 3 elements:
- New, clearer standards: It is paramount for organisations and regulators to work towards simple, global norms for sustainability. We need simple regulations, and trustworthy labels – for blurred lines and inconsistent definitions are the seed of distrust and perceptions of greenwashing, which in turn generates disappointment and inaction. What exactly does a company mean when it claims it offsets its CO2 emissions by planting trees? A tree captures carbon, but planting a tree does not mean that the tree will grow. It doesn’t mean that the tree will not impoverish the soil and weaken biodiversity (if unadapted or invasive species are planted, or same species are systematically planted). It does not mean that this tree would not have been planted anyway through other means of financing. And finally it does mean that the company will work on reducing its direct emissions. We need to agree on what exactly it is we are talking about, so trust can thrive and impact happen.
- Simple, widespread impact measurement tools. Assessing our climate footprint is complicated enough, though a harmonization of norms is indeed happening, and tools are emerging. But what about measuring our social impact? What about our footprint on biodiversity? What about measuring the full impact of a product’s life cycle? This is much less standardised and more subjective for social impact – and generally much more complicated. Companies and their employees need accessible tools, though if these tools are too simple, or too automated, measurements will risk turning to the absurd, and disenchantment will settle in. Conversely, if impact measurement tools are too focused on the complexities of the real world, their use will not be able to be generalised. This delicate balance is an exciting challenge to tackle.
- Sustainability innovators & entrepreneurs: Many more intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship endeavours are required to achieve the planet’s – and humankind’s – urgently-needed sustainability transformation. Moreover, the need is for increasing numbers of people to think laterally and launch imaginative projects, whether they pertain to the NGO, public or corporate world. These are needed so that people can find jobs, finance projects to back, and corporations to start shifting their strategies. In the age of digital disruption, incumbent corporations have often adapted thanks to intrapreneurship or startup acquisition. Similarly, sustainability transformation will accelerate thanks to these channels of creativity.
So, we have seen that sustainability has moved from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a must have. And far from being secondary is now of primary importance to address the very present challenges facing business, people and planet – among them persistent inequalities, climate change, food insecurity, and biodiversity loss. A threshold has been passed – one of awareness and understanding of the need to change. And now, action is the way forward beyond that threshold. Mindsets, talents, global standards, measuring impact and innovation & entrepreneurship are key areas to tackle in the way forward. From a transition to a true sustainability transformation.
- To further your insight into acquiring the knowledge and skills to make the transformation, discover the ESSEC Business School MSc in Sustainability Transformation
- Link up with the MSc in Sustainability Transformation community on LinkedIn
- Link up with Alexis de La Tour du Pin on LinkedIn
- Read a related article: The CEO’s Journey to Sustainability: The story of Jochen Zeitz and Puma.
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