It’s a challenge to distill the incredible and inspiring (my California self says “mind-blowing and life-changing”) eight weeks of the Business Sustainability Management course at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) into my top five takeaways. But after turning in week after week of rigorously marked 400-word assignments, here goes!

One theme in the many thought-provoking discussions during the course was the overuse of the word “sustainability”. The word can be all-encompassing, meaning different things to different people, thought it’s not quite as misleading and bland as “green”. In the introductory video to the course, Dame Polly Courtice, Founder Director of CISL, says that “The simple definition of ‘sustainable’ is, ‘a resource or an activity that is able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.’” 

My immediate thought was that the definition is ironically reminiscent of “conservative”: “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change” – though of course it’s immediate and radical change that is called for in order to be sustainable. Already in the first ten minutes of the course, complexity and contradiction took a seat at the table.

As David Farrell, a Senior Associate at CISL, said in a video at the end of the course, “…this is not an ideological thing. There are fundamental physical principles, laws of nature that stand with us, that we cannot carry on the way we are, we live on one planet that is governed by the laws of nature, and we cannot abuse them. Either we bow to them, and modify and moderate our behaviour, or the system and the laws within it will impose itself on us. That’s our choice.”

1. We need to think long-term. Business, finance and government are all engineered for short-term thinking. As Christiana Figueres, a key figure in creating the Paris Agreement, said recently, “We’re moving from quarterly thinking and planning to quarter-century thinking and planning.” This long-term thinking around sustainability needs to be integrated into business strategy, woven into the business plan. Ideally the Head of Sustainability is the CEO. Yes, sustainability practitioners and experts will create and implement sustainability plans, but the CEO needs to have the vision and take the lead. On a national level, we should question the role of GDP: a relentless increase of GDP is not progress. In 2020 we used up the Earth’s resources on August 22nd, aka Earth Overshoot Day. The planet just can’t keep regenerating fast enough to maintain this level of consumption of natural capital, which doesn’t always have an associated price tag. What’s the cost of pollution, for example?

2. CISL’s report, Rewiring the Economy, focuses on the role of business, finance and government to lay the foundations for a sustainable economy. Within a ship metaphor, the report describes business as the engine, finance as the fuel, and government in the wheelhouse, steering the ship. Throughout the course there were differing opinions on whether regulation lags behind or leads change. The answer is probably both: it takes time for regulation to be created, but it often requires regulation to effect real change across the board. Partnerships between business, finance, government, nonprofits, and civil society can have broader, deeper, and more lasting impact than any entity would have on its own. Tutor Elspeth Donovantold us the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

3. In the last module, we read some of John Kotter’s work. Two of his points stand out to me. One is to create a sense of urgency. We have seen that with Covid: the whole world has mobilised quickly. It’s proof that we can do the same to fight the climate crisis, to remain within planetary boundaries — or if you prefer something tastier, within the doughnut

In Devon over the summer, I took a time-lapse video of Storm Francis. You could see the clouds racing over the sea, darkness and light skimming across the water. I thought, if we could see our planet changing this quickly, all of the effects sped up so they’re clear as day, it might make people react. It’s the frog in boiling water paradigm from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: we don’t notice gradual change, and all of a sudden we’ve been boiled alive.

Kotter’s second point, to plan for and create short-term wins, is a way to implement long-term thinking one step at a time, which back in Africa could mean eating an elephant one bite at a time. Take the long view, and break it down into manageable, achievable chunks. 

4. It’s not only CEOs who can spark change. Every one of us can be a leader and a sustainability champion. As The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick said, “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” I was thinking of that recently while swatting a pesky mosquito, thinking, “But I’m meant to be that mosquito!”

So how can you avoid being pesky? Build up the sustainability business case, carefully, so all it takes to implement a plan is to press the button. Yes, radical change is needed, but the most important thing is to simply start. Take the first step.

5. There is cause for optimism. Avoid reading too many depressing headlines. There is a huge amount of activity and funding in sustainability and there are many great minds solving challenges, as my friend Kristin Macdonald, who is working at Cleantech, pointed out to me before I started the course. Often it’s politics that get in the way, but business has the power and dynamism to implement change without waiting for policy and regulations to catch up. Christiana Figueres’ website is called Global Optimism and her podcast, with Tom Rivett-Carnac and Paul Dickinson, is called Outrage + Optimism. Global optimism — and a pinch of Greta Thunberg’s outrage — sums it all up.

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I’ve never taken an online course like this before, and the people and the platform have been incredible. Particularly my small group forum and the London WhatsApp crowd have been amazing, and that WhatsApp group continues to be supportive and full of resources (and yes, wine recommendations) on a daily basis. Many thanks to Jes Ng for starting that group, helping organise the graduation, and providing the fantastic graduation backgrounds shown above. It’s exciting to follow and participate in everyone’s journeys.

As David Attenborough said on his recent Instagram video: stay tuned!

Contact Madelyn.Postman@leidar.com to talk more about sustainability in your business.

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