This piece is written by Jonathan Smales, Executive Chairman of Beyond Green
Last Wednesday I joined Unilever’s Sustainable Living Lab – a novel on-line debate facilitated by GlobeScan. The purpose was to reflect on some key themes in Unilever’s bold and innovative sustainable living strategy, marking the first anniversary of its publication.
The first thing to note, it seems to me, is what a remarkable cultural phenomenon this is in the field of sustainability. When I was MD of Greenpeace UK in the 1980s major corporations were of course inherently the bad guys: evasive, carefree and careless, unapproachable megaliths which had no discourse on environmental issues still less sustainability. Unless and until attacked on a specific campaigning issue they had little or nothing to say about the environment.
Waves of change came and went from Elkington and Hailes’ ‘new consumer’ of the late 1980’s and Schmidheiny and Timberlake’s World Business Council for Sustainable Development at and beyond Rio, to later work on corporate accountability and environmental reporting in the 90’s. This work laid the foundations for what is arguably now a flowering of myriad big business initiatives in sustainability. We’ve gone from the environment being ignored to becoming a reputational threat, to a marketing opportunity, to what is now seen in the best corporations as a great opportunity. If climate change is the greatest market failure the world has seen let’s create new markets. If aid can’t solve poverty let’s start environmentally benign new businesses that employ people and generate revenue. If the old technology threatens life on earth let’s quickly invent and design some new kit.
This is not to waft my inner Dr Pangloss airily over what is an area still fraught with profound contradictions, huge gaps between promise and delivery and, let’s be honest, continued widespread corporate negilgence. But would that we had a government that put sustainable living right at the heart of its programme as has Unilever? Would that we had a national equivalent of M & S’s Plan A. Would that we looked deep into our whole manufacturing process and examined cradle-to-cradle with the rigour of InterfaceFlor.
Beyond Green’s own philosophy is captured in the phrase, ‘How Shall We Live?’ The challenges of the 21st Century are so urgent and so different that we need remarkable change at remarkable speed. And it is no longer possible, if indeed it ever was, to be serious about sustainability without re-considering how we live well (individually and collectively) and with far greater social justice, but with a carbon and wider environmental footprint one-tenth of that we impose on the world today. We can re-design our cities, de-carbonise our energy grids and reconfigure the world’s agriculture…but there is no technological panacea in sustainability. It is not a design problem per se. We must embrace the challenge – indeed the opportunity – of living differently. And this is why Unilever’s work is a breath – even a blast – of corporate fresh air.