Sustainability Officers and Experts feeling the heat of collapse … how to react?

Edition 25 | May 2024

While we are welcoming 250 more subscribers to the Lighthouse Keeper since the last edition of April 12, we observe a growing discussion on Linkedin by Chief Sustainability Officers and other Sustainability Experts about the difficulties of dealing with the coming reporting regulation, what to be held accountable for, and how to react to the growing disruption in discussions (internally and in public).

I do observe that none of them have so far acknowledged that what they personally feel now (physically and mentally) is part of ‘the predicament’ of a collapsing economic system, as Dana Meadows and William Catton called our destiny decades ago, projecting an unchanged path towards endless growth, causing collapse. And here we are, exactly at the culmination point at which the polycrisis (or metacrisis, as some call it) presents a situation in which there are ‘no solutions’ any longer, just a bit of wiggle room to navigate and intervene.

I certainly feel the pain of those in functions in which they have to ‘deliver’. It would personally drive me nuts, I admit, but I am in a different situation right now. As co-founder of r3.0 I started a journey that was purposefully designed to leave the ‘treadmills’ of corporate, consultancy and big NGO pressures, and the last 12 years running r3.0 have been – disappointments included – the most fulfilling for me so far. Each disappointment was a lesson in better understanding collapse. I’m privileged by having created a ‘dream come true’, but also taking all the career and personal risk when leaving Deloitte in 2012 to start r3.0. I still remember that people called me ‘naïve, a dreamer, a non-conformist’ and over the years I have received many more titles, the worst was a Harvard Business School Professor that called me and my colleagues the ‘Taliban of Sustainability’, defending his awkward incrementalism in deluding ESG ‘as if’ it was the same as sustainability. But well, I am beyond these ad hominem accusations, knowing they only mirror the lost soul of the accuser.

In the last couple of weeks, I have written a couple of Sunday Thoughts that – seen retroactively – suggest that there is a common theme. And so, for this Lighthouse Keeper edition, I want to use them as a potential inspiration, hopefully helpful to those CSOs, experts and practitioners that are so much feeling the heat now. I’d like to just mention three examples first in which the problems were articulated (thanks to Anastasia Kuskova, Nick Wyver and Joe Franses for posting them on Linkedin). Then, I will go back to the root causes that lead to this frustrating ‘culmination point’ – our predicament – right now. Not to teach anybody a lesson, but to simply explain what got us here. And then, I’d like to build acknowledgement for collapse (missing so far in the deliberations of the problem) to help put some relief gel on the wound, making them understand it’s not their fault, but they are part of a treadmill that simply won’t have easy solutions at hand for them. And finally, the work we do on collapse resilience at r3.0 may actually deliver some of those things that CSOs can do over time to ease their minds and/or rethink their roles in the predicament. How does that sound? O.K.? So, let’s try:

Can CSOs and Sustainability Experts still deliver?

Just in the last weeks three Linkedin posts caught my attention: the newest one by Anastasia Kuskova, CEO of Sirius:

Earlier I saw apost by Nick Wyver of SB+CO, issuing an ‘urgent call to action from CSOs and practitioners’, and offers fault lines that prevent practitioners of effectively implementing the EU CSRD:

In an equally desperate outcry Joe Franses, Vice President Sustainability at Coca-Cola, had a similar rant about the ESG Progress Reporting moloch a couple of weeks ago, nicely described as ‘Interoperability.’ You readers know that I think this is a perfect myth at the cost of a simple, authentic’ and manageable approach towards ‘context-based’ reporting, just to create an artificial ‘license to exist’ for all of the standard setters. I don’t have to repeat that here. Readers will have noted that Joe also received quite some backfire, given the ‘questionable’ role Coca-Cola had in the past and that partially also explains why we are at that situation. But that’s not the main issue here.

Summing up these anecdotal examples I recommend to also read Robin Hicks article

As Hicks mentions: ‘One of the most critical issues for CSOs is that the role is expanding and evolving at a faster pace than many companies recognise, and they are not being sufficiently supported. According to a global census of 2,200 sustainability professionals, opens new tab by Acre, a UK-based recruitment firm, one-third are very or moderately dissatisfied with the resources they have to do their jobs.’ He continues: ‘If pressures such as constantly changing regulations, standards and budgets fall on one individual, the risk of burnout is real, the former CSO of a big hotel group told me, adding that the role left him feeling isolated. The backlash against environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles, and the pushback against corporates for greenwashing and greenhushing, has pressured CSOs to justify their existence, as the job has evolved beyond compliance and “box-ticking”. If CSOs do not have the support they need to do the job of genuinely transforming the business, they will struggle to keep their heads above water, the hotel group sustainability head said.’

Here we are, but why?

Overwhelming bureaucracy, complex interrelations of standards; ESG called ‘woke’ (while it is so weak); the way how sustainability got organised in companies as a single department, driving others nuts because they distract from the ‘real work’ to be done; little to no budgets; boards that delegate responsibility (while that’s not delegate-able); corporate lobbies blocking important progress and companies obfuscate with drastic consequences (see example around fossil fuel companies); standards that gave in and let loose of sustainability and just pampered ESG Progress Reporting to please the financial markets and raters and rankers; difficulties with data availability; myriads of consultancies that thrive on complexity. The list could continue and continue. But I’ll stop here.

Each of those points could have been solved if we did what was obviously necessary since Limits to Growth in 1972 and the warnings of the predicament were taking serious by the time they were issued, or if we simply did what the Agenda 21 (in 1992) proposed, or what GRI G3 had in stock (the first version of Triple Materiality), or a proper context-based SDG process, or taking the 2015 Paris Agreement by the word. But no, we failed on all fronts. Governments, corporations, NGOs, civil society. We preferred protection of vested ‘rights’ over development, continued colonization, ignored the science. At some moment there is a price to pay, and we will all lose.

It’s time to admit that, as all datasets on Climate Change, Ocean Temperatures, Ice Shield melting, Biodiversity Loss, Resource Scarcity, and all the related stress factors on humans just cross all projections towards the more negative side. It all happens much quicker, and will continue to happen quicker. Politicians are unable to deliver on necessary regulations and all ends with weak compromises that cement incrementalism. With all the consequences unfolding. 52 degrees centigrade already now in Brasil, Mexico, India, South East Asia in March, April and May, droughts and floods destroying homes and cultivated land of millions of people as we speak. But even in Europe, now being the fasted warming continent of all, we get severe weather warnings daily, and billions of asset losses per year, and growing. Not all of it is insured, and less and less can be insured in the future, and actually not bringing back what got lost.

Right-wing cocooning in countries to deflect from overall necessary international coordination, serving ‘me first’ fantasies.  Egomaniacs wage war for the illusional romanticism of old heroism. ‘Woke-Ism’ as a Northern hemisphere phenomenon. All of this puts industries and corporates under increasing threats to not function properly. What the hell is sustainability to do then?

Collapse of our economic system is now inevitable, and that’s potentially the biggest awareness threshold to cross, a bitter pill for sustainability experts and practitioners to chew on; they definitely wanted it differently, avoiding those consequences. It can lead to desperation, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Those who have read Joanna Macy’s book ‘Active Hope’ know what I’m talking about.

These developments were the reason for my last 4 Sunday Thoughts. I will place them here again and use them for two reasons: first, creating awareness that can lead to acknowledgement of the predicament; and second, to take that as the basis for a final chapter called ‘From now on – what to do?’

From Anger to Grief to Love for Regeneration and Just Transitions

Please use these ideas as invitations to let go of certain untenable assumptions, ideas we still cling to due to their cosiness and peaceful grounding, and because we still think sustainability could actually be achieved. These assumptions gave us peace of mind, but don’t hold water any longer. Unfortunately, I admit! I wished it wasn’t so! As a sustainability enthusiast none of this is your fault. Or maybe just a little bit … you still use cars, you buy at the temples of sin (aka supermarkets), you still fly in planes to business meetings and conferences, you still meet in airconditioned venues. But hey, let’s not be too harsh there. The points I’d like to bring up have much more importance. Even as a sustainability champion nobody is free of the ‘daily sins.’

(Also find the links to these four Sunday Thoughts below if you find them too small to read)

So, here’s my first invitation to let go of the idea of: ‘Avoiding Collapse’

Yeah, this is a tough one. It may take time for its realization. You may feel confronted! You may want to absolute refuse to believe it. Oppose it completely. But is it really wrong? Don’t force yourself to a definitive answer today. Let it simmer for a while.

Then, what about this: ‘Degrowth by Design’

Can we let go of the idea of continued growth fantasies in a closed system? And why is growth needed at all? Why does your company is so keen to grow? If you ask small and medium sized entrepreneurs, I know that the majority has absolutely no intention to grow. Why do we compete to grow, while the losers need to suffer. Why do we need to grow to keep bankrupt social systems and our debt dependency alive? Is that human at all? And is then the idea of degrowth really such a bad idea when we know as a matter of fact that we run out of necessary resources for renewable tech between 2035 and 2050 anyway? And can we spend more time to think how to grow human capital, social capital, intellectual capital and relationship capital while we degrow material throughput, and develop ideas how to be happy with less? Is this oh so absurd? Are these discussions happening in your sustainability departments at all? Why not? Could these questions not be the essential ones when talking about future business and developing a sense of purpose in the world that will inevitably come? A world much different than what we are used to right now? Remember, there is also ‘Degrowth by force’.

Now, let’s tackle this: ‘Corporations Can’t Be Sustainable’

This is probably another tough thought. Phantom Carrying Capacity! And our companies cause it. Well yes, they do, even with all the reductionist programs in place we’re not leaving the phantom carrying capacity space. It is one of the reasons for the inevitability of collapse. Does that trigger the question what other organizational forms with what sort of products and services may then have a chance of success? Could it be that it needs reporting that proves system value creation? That it is necessary in order to calibrate the business model accordingly? What about cooperatives? What can we learn from worker co-ops, consumer-ops, producer co-ops, bioregional learning centers?

Lastly, here’s another idea: ‘Collapse Reporting’

So, you are actually really putting all your energy in ESG Progress Reporting that won’t contribute in any way to sustainability? What, really, you may think, all this stress, that complexity for nothing? Take a deep breath, but yes, that’s exactly what happens. You might have been told to ‘start at the beginning, don’t get overwhelmed, it will take some years until the ESRS, the CSDDD, the Taxonomy or interoperability will deliver more insight, more fine-tuning, more impact. Just give it a couple of years.’ Well, that’s not gonna happen. As if all that reporting lives in a vacuum and the world will stand still.  This will all be run over by the increase of critical events. Do you remember how low simmer sustainability was during COVID? That was just a taster. Anything can happen at any moment. Will ESG Progress save us then? Hm, you will say, but I have to do it, it’s legally required. There’s not much to do about that. True, but could it potentially be done differently, with a real purpose?

Admittedly, these four Sunday Thoughts are a rollercoaster ride when first reading them. How many times did you think ‘ah, come on, stop it! This is too much!’ Is it? The exact chronology is unknown. We only know collapse in its many shades is happening and will continue to happen at many places all the time from now on, with differing effects on the victims, and differing effects on the world economy (and the financial markets). What the hell, you may think, what if nothing, absolutely nothing, can be relied on any more? And does all of this not add more to my confusion than it helps? Again, time for a deep breath.

From now on – what to do?

First things first. Take as much time as needed to play with these positions. You may think ‘oh well, but that doesn’t help me in me in my most immediate stress.’ Well, we’ll see. Take time to do thought experiments in the sense of ‘what if any of this really happens, what would we actually do, how would we change? Are there alternatives?’ Keep them for yourselves if you like or discuss them in your team as ‘think the unthinkable sessions.’ See if you can come up with scenarios. You might even come up with first conclusions, for yourself or for your company. And then think about your allies, inside and outside of the organisation.

In parallel ask yourself if you really did everything in the reporting space that could help loosen the stress? The Sunday Thoughts mention the UN Sustainable Development Performance Indicators (UNSDPI). They propose a ‘third way’ of ‘authentic sustainability reporting’ due to a ‘context-based materiality approach’. It is said this could make reporting clearer, simpler, reduces risk, allows a levelled qualified reporting serving management systems and strategies, and above all, are totally compatible to the legal requirements of the existing standards! Wouldn’t it be time to engage and canalize frustration and anger and looking more serious into what the UNSDPI have to offer? Have a look at r3.0’s training website and read the testimonials of earlier training participants. Is that convincing? Are you triggered to join? Feel welcome to do so (June 12/13 is the last training before the summer break, then restarting only in late October 2024).

Is there a bright future for the UNSDPI in combination with the legally requires information of the other standards? I think there is. The recent workshop UNRISD organized in Montreal seems to indicate that. Read Bill Baue’s uplifting post about the meeting and the planned developments!

Now, if you think any of this thinking needs deepening, I then recommend Jem Bendell’s book ‘Breaking Together – A Freedom-Loving Response to collapse’. Not only will he confirm lots of the generic positions I took in the Sunday Thoughts, but he also comes with further recommendations for a much deeper exploration, namely:

  • How to ‘Developing Critical Wisdom’: the elusive capability for understanding oneself in the world that combines insight from mindfulness, critical literacy, rationality, and intuition. A capability for mindfulness involves awareness of the motivations for our thought, including our mind states, emotional reactions and why we might want to “know” about phenomena. A capability for rationality involves awareness of logic, logical fallacies and forms of bias. A capability for critical literacy involves awareness of how the tools by which we think, including linguistically constructed concepts and stories, are derived from, and reproduce, culture, including relationships of power. A capability for intuition involves awareness of insights from non-conceptual experiences including epiphanies and insights from non-ordinary states of consciousness.’
  • How to develop a ‘Freedom from progress’: rediscover the immense wisdom of indigenous peoples.
  • How to develop a ‘Freedom from banking’: monetary power was not an accident, but organised by a complex of people, organisations, resources, norms and rules that served the monetarily wealthy.
  • How to develop a ‘Freedom in nature’: liberating ourselves into a free will to allow for ecolibertarianism to be birthed.
  • How to develop a ‘Freedom to collapse and grow the doomster way’:  explore the 15 characteristics of becoming a doomster.
  • How to develop a ‘Freedom from fake green globalists’: counter media manipulation and conspiracy porn, learn how to focus on the 5th ‘R’s (Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration, Reconciliation, Reclaiming), helping to resist authoritarianism, avoid distraction and dilution.

 

If that in first instance goes too far for you, you can also start by reading two of Jem’s articles, pieces of guidance for those of you that want more hands-on tips here and here, those can be seen as ‘interim’ for the time being, until you are interested in more of the above.

I also invite you to watch the r3.0 Online Dialog Session we did with Jem recently, find it here!

And as the summer break comes, read other good books. Here’s a collection that have been eye-openers for me, having spent years in the space that you may just start to discover:

If you return inspired from the summer break, a good start into the fall season could attending the r3.0 11th International Conference online. Amazing speakers, loads of inspiration, you’ll love it. Find all info at www.conference2024.r3-0.org.

Now, did this help? Or will you send me to the moon? Let me know, be honest, I can take flak. But just one remark to finish with: I’ve gone through this myself, only did I have two decades for that insight. So if this resonates a bit, it may help to reduce the time for you guys! Have a good summer, all! Now again, take a deep breath!

Sunday Thoughts since the last LK edition

Listing of all Sunday Thoughts that got published since the last Lighthouse Keeper:

A Sunday Thought (#95): ‚Collapse Reporting‘ – once called Sustainability Reporting, but failed! (May 26, 2024)

A Sunday Thought (#94): ‘Mission Impossible’ – corporations can’t be sustainable! What then? (May 19, 2024)

A Sunday Thought (#93): ‘Degrowth isn’t happening’ – what, really? (May 12, 2024)

A Sunday Thought (#92): ‚Solutions to avoid Collapse‘ – that’s why it’s failing! (May 5, 2024)

A Sunday Thought (#91): ‘Canaries in the goldmine‘ – but we turn around and ignore them! (April 28, 2024)

A Sunday Thought (#90): ‚We need you‘ – being honest about your struggles! (April 21, 2024)

A Sunday Thought (#89): ‚Career Risk‘ – the ultimate showstopper of transformation (April 14, 2024)