The cure for groupthink? Just ask

by John Stapel

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There’s no better way to lose perspective than to spend a lot of time listening to just one group.

In my case, that’s corporate sustainability professionals. My people, my ride-or-dies! If you’re going to focus to the point of myopia, you could do worse than to zoom in on this committed pack of experts.

But like any squad whose members lean on one another for collaboration, commiseration and celebration, groupthink is a danger.

So, as I set out to build the program for February’s GreenBiz 23 conference, it felt like a good time to get a second opinion on my hypotheses about what topics are most pressing, what’s most complex, and what risks and opportunities are on the near horizon. What critical insights are not already resonating in my corporate sustainability echo chamber?

We’re not achieving our goals, we’re running out of time, and the way we practice capitalism might be the problem.

With the mounting evidence, and associated anxiety, that we’re losing the battle — to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, to halt biodiversity loss, to transition to a clean, just economy — it felt even more crucial to test my assumptions.

Recently, with GreenBiz partnerships doyen Amelia Marinai, I spent a few afternoons with a hand-selected braintrust of sustainability-focused NGOs. They know the field intimately, but their approaches are often different from those of the corporate scrum. I was hoping these individuals would help me gain some needed perspective.

And they delivered.

The most illuminating set of insights in each meeting came from the following invitation: "What is one ask you have for the community of practice we’re all a part of?"

Some responses snapped me right out of my corporate sustainability tunnel vision.

The first ask: Get some ambition.

John Holm, vice president of strategic initiatives at the nonprofit consultancy Pyxera Global, was particularly plainspoken. His ask was for "sustainability professionals to understand that there isn’t any more tomorrow. It’s urgent. We can’t wait 10, 15, 20 years."

When I asked him to elaborate, he said in a follow-up email: The field "does not acknowledge that we need to change our consumption patterns" and "rarely frames solutions around profitable degrowth strategies" that would "require a fundamental shift in how a company does business." Instead, corporate sustainability broadly tends to reduce opportunities for systemic change to discrete tasks that avoid business model shifts, let alone tectonic ones. As an example, he held up the fast-moving consumer goods sector’s embrace of recycling and better packaging while ignoring that "we need to change our consumption patterns."

Risks and impact

We heard the same exhortation from others. One braintrust member asked the corporate sustainability field to see the whole picture, not just our own companies’ impacts, and implored us to think bigger and differently about what we can and should accomplish and where we’re falling short. Nonprofits have a comparatively high level of comfort with considering a topic Holm raised — one we corporate types tend to talk about sotto voce: degrowth. As my colleague Grant Harrison recently wrote in GreenFin Weekly, "Degrowth emphasizes the need to reduce consumption and production, and promotes replacing GDP as the indicator of prosperity."

If degrowth per se is a bridge too far, consider what we heard from Felicity Spors, head of sustainable finance at the Gold Standard Foundation, which certifies carbon-reduction projects. She asked that the community "take more risks based on real-impact metrics." When I caught up with her later, she explained, "I was thinking particularly of the finance sector. Currently, private finance is constrained by risk and return requirements and public finance is in short supply. Investors need to look beyond the internal rate of return on an investment and start valuing sustainable outcomes. This means that there should still be profit, but perhaps not as much."

There should still be profit, but perhaps not as much. Now that’s a radical ask.

Spors was referring to financial risk because, as she pointed out, "Investments that maximize [U.N. Sustainable Development Goal-related] outcomes" are "penalized by high-risk valuations." But the takeaway for me was broader. Her ask, much like "get some ambition," came down to considering that we’re not achieving our goals, we’re running out of time and the way we practice capitalism might be the problem.

To be clear, Spors wasn’t advocating that we walk away from the game. "Key focus areas should be consolidating finance sector impact frameworks and distinguishing these from ESG risk frameworks," she said, and "further developing impact metrics to make the value for the SDGs increasingly apparent."

While we’re considering the big questions, why don’t we "focus on impact, keeping a holistic vision of what we’re trying to accomplish"? That was the ask of Ella Warshauer of the RMI Center for Climate-Aligned Finance. In a recent RMI blog post, Warshauer and her coauthors pointed out that there’s a danger that investment portfolios will change toward so-called ESG investments "without contributing to decarbonization and transition in the real economy." Sounds a bit like Spors’ points above. But this might also mean removing barriers to entry in sustainable finance — starting with the many and oft-maligned sets of initials — that narrow the audience.

We heard this ask — to focus on impact — from experts in circular economy and supply chain as well. When we greenwash, communicate poorly — whose next-door neighbor has heard of the circular economy? Not mine! — and rely on impenetrable acronyms to make our points, we are effectively building a sustainability gated community, an echo chamber of the highest order.

Get some ambition. Take more risks. Focus on impact. Painfully simple but far from straightforward to execute on.

What is your one ask for this community of practice? Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

Props to Suz Okie, GreenBiz director of design strategy and circular economy senior analyst, who developed the questions we asked our braintrust. Thanks also to our friends and partners at CDP, Ceres, Field to Market, Gold Standard, Global Reporting Initiative, Pyxera Global, Recycling Partnership, RMI Center for Climate-Aligned Finance, Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, The Sustainability Consortium, U.N. Global Compact, World Business Council for Sustainable Development and WWF, whose contributions were immeasurable.