“Critics are the true optimists because they believe things could be better.”
- Jaron Lanier in The Social Dilemma
I saw the above quote while recently watching the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma (great and scary piece of work). I immediately thought – yes! – and stopped feeling so guilty for often raising a certain criticism in the sustainability space.
What is the critic in me saying? Not to sound cynical, but I want to temper a very goodhearted but somewhat naïve approach that we see all too often among sustainability professionals. Namely, that all people will have an epiphany, realizing the importance of sustainability and start making the right choices out of the goodness of their hearts. Because of the deeply-held purposeful beliefs of these professionals, many seem to think that, of course, everyone will see the light. It is idealistic and hopeful, but I am afraid that this approach is holding us back.
We do not have time to wait for everyone to have a change of heart toward sustainability. Indeed, if we have seen significant process in the last 3-5 years, it has not been due to morality, but primarily to rational business-led responses to market opportunity, risk and regulation. A case in point: What is the primary driver for making the lyocell process closed loop? Is it the impact piece - reducing waste and keeping chemicals from leaching into the environment? No. It's financially driven. The chemicals used in the process are expensive, so businesses recycle them to reduce costs. I could say the same for resale models and many other innovations.
Instead of pulling on the heart strings of the C-Suite or the consumer, we need to tap into the narrative that most resonates with this audience. By and large, with many audiences, it is the business case that will most swiftly convince people to act sustainably and create systemic change. If people see that they will make money (or not lose money), or that they are getting a superior product or service, then they will do it. Period.
There is a silver bullet after all: correct incentivization. Changing minds is valuable but a longer term solution. And we need to act fast.
I know that many people feel it is difficult to nail the business case for sustainability. And I whole heartedly agree that, historically, this has been a challenge. But things have changed, and we have the means to level up our narrative on this topic.
Money and sustainability have at least one thing in common - they are often represented by the color green! So let's get a little critical together and see how to make things better.