Making sense of the sustainability debate

Published: 3rd Dec 2017 by Debbie Griffiths
Categories: CSR,  Sustainability

The CRS profession has entered its own echo chamber.

For anyone interested in corporate responsibility and sustainability (CRS) who couldn’t make it to the Institute of CR and Sustainability (ICRS) annual debate, here’s a 5-minute run down of what went on and what this sustainability professional made of it all. 

Research findings

The results of the pre-event survey confirmed what I already suspected. Sixty percent of respondents had at least one university-educated parent, compared to the statistical 6-12% of the rest of the population. CRS professionals are more likely to be friends with teachers (60%), accountants (49%), scientists (41%) and lawyers (39%) than lorry drivers (8%), postal (10%) or call centre workers (11%). We get our news from the BBC, Guardian and FT, while the rest of the country turns to social media, free newspapers and tabloids.

The majority of us agreed that the CRS profession has, indeed, entered its own echo chamber.

No explanation necessary

But, as one of the speakers, Mike Tyrrell, asked: what’s wrong with being in an echo chamber?

Everyone I spoke to over coffee agreed it was lovely to be together in one room with fellow practitioners and be able to talk about what we do without having to explain it. Or face blank looks and polite smiles even after explaining what we do.

Debating masters

To get us warmed up for the main event, the charity Debate Mate treated us to an impressive and enjoyable masterclass on the art of debating. Their topic: great minds think alike. The two sides of students and young professionals were equally polished, passionate and persuasive. The confidence and quick wit of the 12-year-old schoolgirl was truly awesome. Go girl!

The ‘opposition’ won the debate with the argument that great minds are exceptional individuals who think differently. It was a hard act to follow, even for the eminent line up of great CRS minds, who held a knighthood, MBE and a couple of doctorates between them.

Filter bubble

First up, Sir Jonathan Porritt. It’s a good 20 years since I first heard Jonathan speak and he still inspires me. He’s like the David Attenborough of sustainable business: he knows his stuff, knows how to talk about it with all audiences, oozes genuine passion for his subject and isn’t afraid to speak bluntly and challenge the establishment, including the CRS fraternity. I share his frustration at the slow speed of progress on sustainability. The clock is ticking down, yet we’re still talking and tinkering.

Dr Phillipa Coan highlighted US research into the ‘green glass ceiling’, which stops people of diverse ethnicity and socio-economic background getting to the top in CRS. This is a problem that hampers much-needed innovation for behaviour change.

STEMettes co-founder, Anne-Marie Imafidon, gave us her insights into the parallel bubble of technology, where a lack of diversity within the industry limits the enabling possibilities of technology in society as a whole.  

As ‘echo chamber’ and ‘filter bubble’ are negatively perceived, Mike Tyrrell suggested using the terms ‘ideas incubator’ and ‘think tank’. Same people, same thinking, but generally a more positive response from the outside world.

Diversity of mind

The Q&A covered lots of ground, from specifics about socially responsible investing (SRI) to the broader notion of the future of work in a world of AI.

The most dominant theme, however, was how to create more diversity within our profession. How to bring in more people from the working classes, people from other professions, people outside of London.

It didn’t take long before the talk inevitably reverted to Brexit and those in forgotten towns who felt left behind by the liberal elitist world, which CRS is clearly a part of. How could we bring them in?

Missing the point

For me, the panel was missing the point here. I’m an ICRS member from a northern, working-class background (who’s not afraid to end a sentence with a proposition!) I was the first, and second last, in my family to go to uni and you’ll find van drivers and cleaners as well as accountants and scientists in my Facebook friends list.

So, I felt compelled to point out that it’s not about who we can ‘bring in’ to diversify the CRS world. It’s about us getting out of our bubble and integrating into the rest of society.

Scaling up sustainability

Claudine Blamey, ICRS Chair, summed up the session superbly, concluding that we’d agreed that great ideas come from great, diverse minds, but those great minds needed to collaborate with like-minded people to turn their innovative ideas into tangible action. 

While our CRS ideas incubator has produced some great thinking, our challenge now as a profession is to make our thinking relevant so that we can scale it up. To do that, we need to break out of our echo chamber. How do we break out and scale up? Unfortunately, there was no time to debate that.

On reflection

Having had time to digest everything I heard, I believe it’s crucial that people actively listen to different points of view, even those we dislike. Before trying to make our point of view relevant to others, we need to know what they are thinking (or not). We need to be able to answer the question ‘what’s in it for me?’ before asking them to change their mind and behaviour.

And while I thoroughly enjoyed the Debate Mate exhibition, and I admire the access they give kids from state schools to develop the skills and confidence to go head to head with their peers from elite establishments, I fear that it simply perpetuates the status quo rather than promoting the innovative change we desperately need.

The problem with traditional debating is the competition between opposing sides. For and against, either or, right or wrong, winner and loser, victory and submission. It’s what’s wrong with British politics, with the House of Commons the ultimate adversarial debating chamber. It’s what is wrong with a yes/no, leave/remain referendum. There’s no desire to find some common ground, no room for consensus, no place for crucial collaboration.  

Get moving

We need to stop seeing the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’ and start getting to know each other better.

Yes, it’s intimidating – but equally so for both parties. So, make use of your natural interpreters in the middle, like me, who are confident operating in both worlds: the one I’m from and the one I’d like to see.

Come on CRS leaders: get out of the echo chamber, out of London and out of your comfort zone. Go meet people feeling left behind in Britain. Any leader who’s prepared to make that move will reap sustainable benefits. 

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