Massive upheaval in US politics may seem seismic for the sustainability of corporate sustainability.
But, fear not. We are merely experiencing the aftershocks of the really big societal changes that happened a generation ago when millennials were but a twinkle in the eye of bellbottomed lovers.
It was then that society began to realise the world could not survive the throwaway fantasies of the 1950’s Madmen.
Truly seismic changes to our way of thinking about the environment and the rights of people took place over the last several decades – 1972 Stockholm conference, the 1987 Brundtland Report (which defined sustainability) and the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that produced the UN convention on climate change, among other things. This modern mind-set became entrenched in the thinking of millennials who learned the science at school and developed a different attitude to the natural world.
This change came relatively slowly and with a lot of opposition from vested interests. That resistance was gradually stifled by the obvious logic of the arguments, the evidence of the science and the transition to a new generation of decision makers. This did not necessarily mean that everyone agreed with the consensus, but the naysayers became the minority. A powerful group all the same.
What’s happened now is that those same naysaying hardliners are having their unexpected day in the sun. Just look at the jowls, wrinkles and dominant gender of the Trump team and check out what industries they represent.
It is the re-emergence of these old crocodiles that is causing the after-shocks society is feeling now. But aftershocks are finite, decrease in severity over time and soon stop, allowing us to rebuild. They make us realise that we can’t afford to be complacent about what’s important and we will never make progress unless we bring the majority along.
Keeping the story of sustainability alive
The story telling lessons the sustainability movement learned in the latter part of the last century will come in handy as we puzzle our way through sustainability communications in the next four-to-eight years. Check out our latest bulletin for top tips on communicating sustainability. But meanwhile, here are five must-dos.
1. Don’t preach: It’s that churning feeling you get when watching a holier-than-thou TED Talker telling you why you’re a bad person and what you should do to be better. While preaching and finger-wagging is usually the preserve of the sanctimonious Greens (what, you don’t compost?), corporate storytellers often suffer from the same need to hold the high moral ground. Don’t be tempted to climb on a green pedestal when sharing your stories.
2. Think jobs: Technology is killing jobs but green tech has the promise of creating work throughout society, including for the so-called working and middle classes. Job creation is the hot political currency of today. Use this to communicate the benefits of sustainability.
3. Keep it simple: Sustainability is complex but it doesn’t have to be. So much sustainability storytelling is either too technical or too trivial. It’s not easy to find the sweet spot, but it is vitally important to enhance understanding and connect with your audience by making things easily understood and relevant to their lives.
4. Be Human: Humanise sustainability issues and talk about effects that everyone can understand and sympathise with. For example, we all benefit from the electricity from burning coal, but everyone suffers from the bad effects of air pollution and mercury in our rivers. Nobody, from whatever political spectrum, wants to encourage asthma in children. So talk asthma, not particulates-per-million.
5. Remember the business case: The most effective weapon used by proponents of corporate sustainability in the 20th Century was the business case. This showed how business was part of society and there were different social groups – the stakeholders – who influenced the success and profitability of the enterprise. Balancing the needs and demands of all stakeholders produced the business case for pursuing sustainability.
The really good thing about change for the worse is that it encourages a clear focus on the problem and creates an urgency to find solutions. Aftershocks remind us of opportunities only fools would ignore.