Looking ahead in January 2020 we probably assumed that the new year would hold much the same thing as the old one. In February 2020, doing business and living our lives was unimaginable without planes, trains and automobiles. But by March we all understood that restricted travel, freedoms and personal choices aren’t just imaginable: they can be non-negotiable.
We can put these tough lessons to good use though. Isn’t it true that alongside the suffering, COVID-19 has given us a glimpse of some better ways to work, live and to think?
> How much am I missing that time wasted in traffic queues, airports and planes?
> How much do I appreciate the clean air around and above me?
> Am I prouder to know 10 CEOs or 1 critical care nurse right now?
Because in the space of a few short months we’ve taken long strides – psychologically and culturally – towards building a much lower carbon lifestyle. We’ve all become adept at working out the risk and reward of every journey and encounter. We’ve mastered new working practices. And we’ve scaled up a digital infrastructure that is fit for purpose.
Let’s build on the positives
In the grip of the unprecedented human and economic toll of the pandemic, it’s easy to forget that humanity is still staring down the barrel of a climate crisis. It’s tempting to put off thinking about that a little longer but we believe that would be wasting a tremendous opportunity.
We’ve had many conversations with CEOs, sales leaders, customer services professionals and others throughout the lockdown and intriguingly they tell us that in many aspects of their lives they are being MORE effective. A lot of us have an opportunity now to move forward and build on the positives.
Of course this topic is way too big for one little marketing business in Wales. So we’ve teamed with Andy Middleton – renowned as a positive and pragmatic thinker and doer from the world of ‘business for good’ – to kick around some possibilities. Andy M says,
"Years back when travelling I came across a saying that at times of great winds, some people dig bunkers and others build windmills. There’s little doubt that coronavirus COVID-19 has created winds of unimaginable power. What we do with the energy they bring will define us as leaders and citizens for generations to come. "
We’ve come up with five big ideas to try on for size, and three practical commitments that you can make today to start building the world we want to live in. Our job here is twofold. To be the storytellers, as always. And to deliver our share of the transformation – because just like COVID-19, progress will come from a billion small acts, not some giant initiative.
We’re talking about hope
Here are maybe the two most striking lessons from the COVID-19 crisis:
We’ve learned that nature can still throw a punch and catch us cold, and that it takes personal resilience, responsibility and courage, alongside our collective ingenuity and industry, to come through.
And we’ve understood that those labelled underachievers by our education system, alongside those with the quietest voices in our economy, can turn out to be the most valuable members of our society when good turns bad.
So it’s probably no longer safe to assume that science and technology will magically shield us from the onset and impact of climate change, with no choices or ingenuity required on our part. Or that fixing climate change is someone else’s job.
Also if we undervalued the courage, empathy and commitment of huge numbers of people at the base of our economy, not to mention the sheer necessity of the roles they perform, what other virtues might we have overlooked? And what positive impact might those have on society and the broader economy?
Not just ‘less harm’ but ‘more good’
All enterprises – including ours and yours – make a huge contribution to building an economy and a society. We can also help build communities that are innovative, creative, responsible and resilient enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and to absorb those impacts which cannot now be avoided. After all we are the engines of the economy and an intrinsic part of the social fabric of society.
To make our contribution, we have to shift from not merely aiming to do less harm, but instead doing positive good. Leaving the planet and society in better shape than we found them.
"A company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders."
We can achieve this in many diverse and creative ways while still making an honest buck. Some of us won’t change our offer too much, but we’ll deliver it very differently. Others will innovate commercial solutions to directly address the new challenges ahead, turning problems into opportunities. The FTSE and S&P 500 would have a very different look if we measured businesses on their ability to make that shift, and not purely on their market capitalisation.
Those of us in the knowledge sector can start by working towards keeping the clean air and low CO2 emissions that the current crisis has forced on us. No one is proposing that 2020’s hermetically sealed existence is sustainable or desirable but we could easily find a better balance. The payback is that we continue to recoup a lot of that wasted personal and business time.
In our self-appointed role of agent provocateurs, here are five big ideas that can work individually to create the kind of transformations necessary to fix the planet and society. Look at them through the eyes of the entrepreneur, consumer, taxpayer and citizen, and let us know what you think.
Five practical, bold ideas to transform our world
1. Rethink our love affair with growth
Who might occupy the FTSE 500 if we measured enterprises by their ability to make a positive return to the planet and people, not just shareholders? Some – like oil and gas – will never make that shift, while renewable energy companies were born to make the world a better place. Others will do amazing things for humanity but some aspects of their activity will leave the planet poorer – for example by producing the batteries we need for utilizing renewables.
It’s a hard truth – but if we’re going to protect and regenerate the planet within the context of a vibrant economy, not all sectors are going to be able to grow. The managed ‘degrowth’ of the oil and gas industries would allow the renewables sector to grow sustainably, for instance. We can make similar tradeoffs right across the economy. The challenge to entrepreneurs and enterprise is to innovate on that positive side of the ledger. As this UN report highlights, doing positive good while making positive profits will take real ingenuity. But that’s all the more reason for starting sooner, rather than later.
The Netherlands offers an interesting perspective here. In April 2020, 170 mostly mainstream academics from 5 Dutch universities published this remarkably brief manifesto for change. Managing the growth-degrowth equation is at the top of their list. And in the same month, Amsterdam unilaterally picked up the gauntlet by adopting a city-scaled version of the same principles. It is planning its future development to a model developed at Oxford University, dubbed Doughnut Economics by its originator, Kate Raworth.
2. Shift to Regenerative Agriculture
Farming in the developed world is in crisis. Yields are falling despite a 7x increase in the use of artificial fertilisers over the last 40 years, and heavy use of herbicide and insecticide. So the financial cost of farming is way ahead of returns, and that’s bad business. Meanwhile the soil is denuded – it’s been estimated that it will be dead and inert in the space of one more generation. And the nutrient density in our food has decreased by 50%. What started 70 years ago as a crusade to feed a growing global population has become a war of attrition with climate, biodiversity, farmers and people on the losing side.
Regenerative Agriculture – both a science and a movement – has the answer. It gives us productivity to feed the world (equalling the magic number of 200 bushels per acre for wheat). It can be practised at every scale. It does not use artificial fertilisers, saving carbon emissions and money. Better still, it builds soil. Soil is not the same as dirt. Soil contains huge amounts of organic matter and microorganisms, which sequester carbon dioxide from the air.
The United Nations has estimated that if we converted 2 million of the 5 million hectares of degraded farmland around the world to regenerative agriculture, it would stop the growth in greenhouse gasses for at least 20 years all by itself. The conversion requires investment – around $300 billion. But the regenerative farms can be up to 20x more profitable than their conventional counterparts.
So in part, this is a growth – degrowth equation again. Should we degrow Big Agriculture and conventional farming, and invest in Regenerative Agriculture in its place? Private equity business Farmland LP is doing just that – buying conventional farms and converting them to regenerative farms on route to double digit profit. Their first fund returned 67% to investors.
3. Levelling access to opportunity
In February 2020 the UK Home Office unilaterally labelled anyone with a salary below £25,600 ($31,600 US) as unskilled, underachieving and – if you were a migrant – undesirable. By March 2020, thousands of hospital patients were thankful to these undesirables for their lives. We are measuring achievement with a crooked yardstick. And we compound that error by taking too much credit for our success.
If we own a big house, drive a new car and take foreign holidays, isn’t it down to our talent and hardwork alone? And isn’t it fair to label the poorly paid as victims of their own lack of effort, education or initiative?
Yes, you have talent. But there were others who helped you nurture it. Yes, you’ve worked hard. But you also got a few easy breaks – we all did. What if access to those opportunities wasn’t a matter of birth or circumstance? How about we unleash the real potential of everyone in society. And if your talent is for caring and giving, we salute you and reward you. We’re going to need all the ingenuity, creativity, talent, empathy and compassion we can muster.
The Bridge Group is a not-for-profit consultancy spanning enterprise and university sectors, focused specifically on the social and economic costs of inequality. Their research highlights that disadvantaged state school students in the UK are half as likely to achieve a strong pass in English and Mathematics at GCSE (age 16) than pupils in independent schools. But those that do make it through to university and beyond are likely to outperform their more privileged counterparts when they enter the workplace: in a survey of 7 top law firms, state school educated employees are 75% more likely to feature in the top 10% of performers than independent school pupils. Just one example of how we are squandering a huge pool of talent. What can we – as enterprises – do about it? Start by working through this cross-industry employers’ toolkit.
4. Prioritise community wellbeing and resilience
We now know that hospitals are best used for critical care, and that their precious resource is most effectively protected by promoting good health, resilience and wellbeing. So what if wellbeing is a better marker for success than GDP?
In May 2019 New Zealand announced its Wellbeing Budget. Many of New Zealand’s citizens had not directly benefited from the country’s strong economic performance, so the government shifted its priorities to focus on improving lives, not just livelihoods.
But there’s a good argument that community wellbeing and resilience starts at the grassroots. We’ve seen communities come together in amazing ways during the COVID-19 pandemic – proving all that’s needed is common cause and the freedom to act. How difficult would it be to deepen and broaden the movements that have started in early 2020?
Here in Wales, in an area of outstanding natural beauty called Gower (AONB – an official designation of environmental protection) community growers Cae Tan (pr. keye tan) puts a box of organically grown, fresh vegetables on 120 kitchen tables every week. They’re part of a movement – Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) – that is re-establishing the lost connections between communities and their food supply. Cae Tan is a social enterprise, employing two full time growers funded from profits. It re-invests a generous proportion of its income in training and mentoring for other CSAs.
This model of deeply connected, ethical community enterprise is purposefully parochial. But especially when you include wellbeing and resilience in your calculation, it can scale efficiently. To produce 1.3 million locally grown veg boxes weekly – one for every home in Wales – would create 11,000 CSAs, operating profitably and employing 22,000 people. Currently there are 35,000 conventional farm businesses in Wales (215,000 across the UK), 98% of which are reliant on government subsidies. In the US last year, President Trump bailed out US farms to the tune of $20 billion. It’s food for thought.
5. Aim for progressive redistribution
In Scandinavia and German-speaking Europe, capitalism combines free enterprise with relatively high taxation to create strong social safety nets for individuals and communities. The US would claim that there’s too much for free in that kind of freedom. Instead, it cherishes the freedom to fall, to fail and to rise anew, for individuals and enterprises. It favours low taxation, unchecked innovation and a hoped-for trickle down of wealth subsequently to all levels of society. The UK sits – not always comfortably – somewhere in between.
But even in the US, the federal government steps in to support industry and individuals. Whether that’s the banking crisis of 2008, the subsidies granted to the fossil fuel sector and agriculture, or the furloughing of workers in 2020, vast budgets are brought to bear. Though usually not before a lot of people experience a lot of anxiety.
Let’s cut to the chase. Why shouldn’t we put the hindsight up front? The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) dates back to the 1500s and Thomas More. It’s finding favour as a way to fix the growing inequality in high income economies; as a way to demonstrably promote wellbeing; and as a way to buffer economies and individuals from future shocks such as AI’s impact on employment and – the greatest of them all – climate change.
With UBI the state guarantees every individual a non-means tested income for life. UBI’s supporters on the political right theorise it could replace existing benefits – housing, disability, unemployment – and allow the state to shrink. For the left, that’s a dereliction of state responsibility. Income security from UBI supplements the state’s role in promoting wellbeing – through better mental and physical health for example. All would likely agree it can promote mobility in job markets by allowing more risk-taking. And so on.
Support is approaching some kind of critical mass but agreement on the exact nature of UBI and other tools for progressive redistribution is still some way off. However the time to join the debate is now.
Three things that you can do now
"Commit to harnessing the power of this biggest disruption to ‘business as usual’ that’s happened in our lifetimes and make sure that whatever grows out of the other side of this is fit for purpose, life and thriving communities"
1. Become a BCorp
BCorp is the embodiment of ethical capitalism, balancing profit with a wider purpose. It is also a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good. Join Ben and Jerry’s, Patagonia and Systemiq and sign up here
2. Help build the Jigsorium
If you have a business challenge related to climate change or sustainability it’s likely that someone, somewhere has solved it. Or you may know how your piece of the puzzle works, but not how it contributes to the bigger picture. A ‘scriptorium’ used to describe a room where texts on every kind of knowledge and wisdom were cherished and shared. Today’s equivalent would be a ‘Jigsorium’.
"The Jigsorium is an idea for a place to share solutions to the existential challenges of our time, and to see how they contribute to the larger whole. Should we not build a Jigsorium together?"
3. Reimagine for Regeneration
Rebuilding is a radical act that starts in your imagination. It begins with ‘What if…?’ Until our kind of human evolved no one had ever asked that question. But in an evolutionary eyeblink, it powered us towards and through the agrarian, urban, industrial and information revolutions. Now it needs to change our trajectory again, towards sustainability and greater equality. Governments can’t ask ‘What if…?’ Only individuals do that.
Over to you…
Andy Middleton is founder and chief exploration office at TYF. TYF’s mission is to help people fall so deeply in love with nature that it changes the way they live every day. More broadly, Andy’s work inspires and enables leaders to deliver radical and transformational innovation to help solve carbon, biodiversity, resource and wellbeing challenges by re-thinking education, ambition and engagement. Surfer, dreamer, thinker, doer, everyman and businessman, Andy helped found the Do Lectures and roots himself in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
Andy Williams believes in the power of stories to change the world. More unique to our species even than walking on two legs, stories are how we experience being human. He is the proud custodian of a small meadow, a wild gardener, cyclist, and now mature enough to admit he’ll never make a surfer. He is co-founder and co-MD at Cohesive, telling stories about purpose and in business for good. He roots himself in Monmouthshire, Wales.