This past week in Montreal, Canada, The COP 15 Biodiversity summit took place. The headline soundbyte from the kickoff was UN Leader Angtonio Guterres naming humanity a ‘weapon of mass extinction.’
Not a cheery thought, but on the face of the evidence, warranted.
The global biodiversity summit offers a powerful reminder that arresting climate change is only one part of environmental sustainability. Environmental sustainability, in turn, is part of a still-broader whole – one that considers the wellbeing of people, and the way our economic, social and commercial relations are organized.
Conceptions of corporate sustainability “maturity” exist to reveal this pattern – an expanding sphere of care. Foundational maturity levels address tangible things and simple causality: things like reducing risk factors for workplace accidents, or reforming energy use to reduce emissions. Higher levels address stakeholder perspectives and complex causality. This is true in the whole, and in the part. Let’s consider a hypothetical example.
Suppose an airline, at a foundational level, builds a new strategy around bio-fuels to decarbonize flight. That alone, represents a huge sustainability achievement. And yet, as that strategy matures, the airline will need to deal with hitherto-unseen stakeholders, and second-order effects. New questions will arise: How might we scale up bio-fuel production without contributing to deforestation? Without impoverishing subsistence farmers? Without displacing indigenous people? Without intruding on biodiversity? Without driving up the cost of food and increasing hunger?
Just to be clear about the point we’re making, it is laudable and vital that this airline is working on decarbonizing flight. What we’re saying is that this is a beginning, not an end. At the start, the airline progressed on climate and clean energy. At the more mature sustainability level, the airline addressed the SDGs as a system, not a menu.
Building on this example for just one more observation: the airline’s most perplexing sustainability questions could not be answered alone, without the support of an engaged supplier. If our hypothetical airline “stayed in its lane” and bought bio-fuel as a commodity of untraceable origin – potential externalities would accumulate in the shadows – producing unquantified and unbounded risks for shareholders and stakeholders alike.
This observation applies across industries. The pattern is driving exciting collaborative innovation in auto manufacturing, steel, cement, mining, buildings, and more. Mature levels of sustainability require collaboration in an “ecosystem” of value-chain partners, working together within a shared vision.
This is a paradigm shift from transactional to interdependent commercial relationships. The shift in mind-set needs a companion change in tooling. And that change is so new, it seems appropriate to look for an analogy to guide the definition of features and functions.
As a candidate analogy, consider the hedgerow.
No longer mere relics of a simpler time, hedgerows are now being restored. That’s partly because hedgerows improve both the economic productivity of crop production, and the biodiversity of the landscape – at the same time.
And there’s the first requirement of re-tooling commercial relationships for sustainability: The pursuit of a non-zero- sum game. A project of growing the pie. A relationship of interdependency. Symbiosis. A logic of both/and.
The ways hedgerows perform such wonders makes for an interesting read but to spare you time, the central function is connectivity. Hedgerows are to dna as fiber-optics are to data. And connectivity is a vital feature of retooling value chains for sustainability. In practice that means information flowing in standardized formats, between members of a value-chain, producing greater transparency around shared sustainability goals, barriers, strategies, plans, and achievements over time. Scope 3 emissions are a beginning, but not an end.
It’s an irony for the ages that our human capacity to learn, share knowledge and act in co-ordinated ways has made humanity, as Angtonio Guterres says, a ‘weapon of mass extinction.’ But we can still muster those same aptitudes to reverse this effect. Restoring physical hedgerows is a start. Drawing on the lesson of hedgerows can take us further still.