What I Have Learnt:

Lessons from Our Network

By Zoë Arden

We have often featured in Radar the perspectives and learnings of people who have worked in the sustainability field, whether that be in business, civil society, policy or academia.

In this 30th Anniversary issue, we are pleased to feature the collective advice of many of those in our network who have been working tirelessly to create a fairer, more inclusive and sustainable world. Wherever you are in your career, whether just starting out or a seasoned professional, we hope that this emboldens you and inspires you to keep fighting the good fight. With many thanks to all those who generously shared their wisdom with us, here is some of their advice...

We are all activists

Be bold, speak up, use your voice, get involved, be an activist in all areas of your life – as a student, an employee, a consumer, a citizen. You may have to take risks to drive home an important argument, but that conviction will be recognised by those that matter. Keep challenging the status quo, don’t let the rigid views of others limit the change that you want to see in the world. Never forget you can make a difference. It is no surprise that many of us are inspired by Margaret Mead’s quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

People on a march

Image © Jerry Kiesewetter vias Unsplash

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So much negative stuff is happening and it is easy to feel we can’t change anything, so allow for hope – it is possible for people to change things.

Be open minded, open hearted and keep listening

Meeting people who are different can open your eyes to diverse aspects of the world, provide a broader context and help you grow empathy. Go out and see what is happening and keep asking yourself: Is this the way we want the world to look? As your influence grows, listening becomes even more important. Listen to those whose future is at stake, listen to those who are being left behind, listen to the disenfranchised, listen to those who you don’t agree with. Always be open to other ways of seeing the world.

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Listen first, with compassion, and say the truth as you see it, realizing that none of us alone can see the whole picture and we all need each other if we hope to get closer to the truth.

Learn how to play different roles

At various times you may need to adopt different personas depending on who you are working with and the change that you are trying to bring about. Are you the ‘hair in the soup’ agitator, the troublemaker or the troubleshooter? Companies need to understand the way the world is changing and how they can create business strategies that embrace a new reality. To support them with this, understand when it is helpful to advocate, motivate, inspire, agitate, cajole or advise.

Focus on opportunities

Change comes more quickly if you concentrate on the opportunities and project a positive view of the change desired. Focusing too much on the problems will drive us all to despair. Help people understand the solutions and the transformation that is needed.

Good news newspaper

Image © Branden Harvey via Unsplash

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There is always more energy in the room when you discuss the opportunites. I have learnt you get change more quickly if you take this route.

Understand who has the power to create and/or block change

We tend to direct our efforts to the people and businesses who have the energy to go in the right direction. However if we don’t seek out those who are resistant or stand in the way, we will struggle to disrupt the status quo. Likewise identifying who has the power, whether that be visible within organisations or hidden in terms of who a business is lobbying or influencing. Learn to identify where decisions are made and how you can shape them.

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Why isn’t business lobbying on broader issues? If business doesn’t use its political power – lobbying and advocacy – the other stuff like products, partnerships and services doesn’t matter.

Embrace complex systems

Build your knowledge and seek out the facts, through formal learning and practical doing. Understand the complexity of the systems and world in which we live and the system wide consequences of our behaviour. Don’t isolate yourself in a silo.

Picture of European Newspapers Reacting to Brexit Vote

Image © iStockphoto.

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Whatever you’re looking at, it’s more complicated than you think.

Work with personal values, as well as the business case

There is some consensus that the sustainability field has focused too much on the business case. Yes, it is important to make the case that sustainability will create new markets and more resilient businesses, but there is also a need to work more with personal values and emotions.

Picture of person wearing t-shirt saying - you matter

Image © Eneida Hoti via Unsplash

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We need to make things cheaper, faster, make consumers happier, healthier - we need to present the personal case for the benefits of sustainability.

Integrate sustainability into your job, any job

Consider how you can embed sustainability principles into every job you do. Think first about how you can become competent at something, preferably within the wider business rather than in a niche sustainability role, and then find and pursue your passion.

Picture of person wearing t-shirt saying - you matter

Image © Ian Schneider via Unsplash

Connect and collaborate

Having experience of other sectors including civil society, finance and government can help us achieve better results. Think of moving between sectors, be a ‘tri-sector athlete’, generating a career informed by multiple perspectives. Or have friends across sectors. For too long, differences between NGOs and business have restricted progress on a range of environmental and social issues. The role of the NGO as a watchdog is absolutlely crucial, but we need to know when to set this aside – to move interchangeabley between confrontation and collaboration is key.

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If corporates are going to be part of the solution and they need to be, civil society has to find ways where we don’t simply treat them as the enemy. Pick your battles – don’t be confrontational the whole time.

With thanks to our contributors...

Anthony Abbotts Rockwool
Robert Barrington Transparency International UK
Mike Barry Marks & Spencer
Seb Beloe WHEB Asset Management, SustainAbility Council & alumni
Chris Benjamin PG&E
Merene Botsio Care International
Lindsay Clinton Intellecap & SustainAbility alumni
Bianca R. G. Conde Fibria Celulose S/A
Chris Coulter GlobeScan & SustainAbility Council
Maggie de Pree The Human Agency, League of Intrapreneurs & SustainAbility alumni
Rob Frederick Brown-Forman Corporation
Jeanne-Marie Gescher author of Becoming China: The Story Behind the State & SustainAbility Council
Niel Golightly Shell/City of Houston & SustainAbility Council
Eva Grambye Danish Institute for Human Rights
Gary Kendall Nedbank & SustainAbility Council & alumni
Geoff Kendall Future-Fit Business Benchmark & SustainAbility alumni
Janice Lao Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels
Hendrik-Jan Laseur Lead the Change & SustainAbility Council
Clarissa Lins Catavento & SustainAbility Council
Geoff Lye SustainAbility Non-Executive Director & alumni
Hiro Motoki E-Square
Diane Osgood independent
Kavita Prakash-Mani WWF, SustainAbility Council & alumni
John Schaetzl SustainAbility Lead Non-Executive Director
Koann Skrzyniarz Sustainable Brands
Lorraine Smith independent & SustainAbility alumni
Shankar Venkateswaran independent & SustainAbility alumni
Dominic Vergine ARM
Patrin Watanatada Bernard van Leer Foundation & SustainAbility alumni
Peter Zollinger Globalance Bank, SustainAbility Council & alumni

About the author

Zoë Arden

@zoearden

Sustainability story creator, strategist and researcher. Passionate about helping change agents in business be more effective. SustainAbility Associate.