The sustainable systems thinker: Interview with Sally Uren

Digital, Social, Disruptive: these are the mega-trends coming over the horizon that will challenge sustainability managers yet gift them with powerful new perspectives, Forum for the Future's new CEO Sally Uren tells Maxine Perella

The language of corporate social responsibility – CSR – is an ever changing narrative. Ten years ago, conversations around sustainability were pretty much confined to a tunnel built around brand reputation and compliance. Eco-efficiency savings and direct impacts were the themes that needed to be captured and measured. Those driving the sustainability agenda tended to be out of focus when it came to core business functionality.

Fast forward to today’s climate and it’s a very different story, according to Sally Uren, newly appointed CEO at Forum for the Future (FFTF), a not-for-profit green futures think tank. Since joining FFTF a decade ago, the past four years of which she has been acting as deputy CEO, Uren has seen CSR effectively morph into a broader sustainability spectrum and start to take flight, notably with greater board-level buy-in.

“Today there is a much greater understanding that businesses need to get to grips with these big environment, social and economic issues together as a way of creating value. These set of issues have moved from the periphery, from being poorly understood, to now driving the business model,” she observes.

Climate change and resource scarcity trends have been the obvious burning platform here – rising inputs costs are forcing companies to embrace de-materialisation and look beyond simple resource efficiency measures. But other mega-trends are starting to emerge and these are becoming increasingly influential – such as the rise of digital, social value, and disruptive innovation.

According to Uren, digital platforms are fast knitting social fabrics together, enabling groundswell opinion or movement to accelerate on particular issues.

“Consumers aren’t yet demanding demanding sustainability, but their awareness of these issues is much greater than it was five or ten years ago because we live in this connected world. I think there could be a way that digital platforms help shift societal norms … what these platforms enable you to do is to create tribes, peer-to-peer networking, to create movements where we can normalise this stuff,” she explains.

Digital is also great at helping to tell – and sell – that sustainability story. Take the horsemeat scandal for example, or the recent tragedy out in Bangladesh where the collapse of garment factory killed over 1,000 workers.

“[Digital] can be the super highway, connecting people to the source, for example showing them where their stuff comes from,” says Uren. “Until there’s that emotional connection, behaviour won’t change and we won’t get that societal shift that will enable sustainability to be mainstreamed.”

Social value is another mega-trend bursting through as organisations look to embed CSR into the heart of their operations. The vogue for strategies such as net positive, cradle-to-cradle and sharing economies offers real opportunities for business to demonstrate their sense of purpose beyond the bottom line. But trust issues around social messaging are not to be underestimated, Uren cautions.

“We are doing a lot of work in this area at the moment – we are asking businesses what is your purpose, what are you here for? If your purpose is clear, then communicating this becomes straightforward. Once you have this clarity, then you can look at optimising this value through your goods or services,” she explains.

Storytelling, she adds, will become a very powerful ingredient in the social value mix. “The mistake we have made with sustainability is that we haven’t broken it down into meaningful chunks for people, it’s still too complicated. Stories can break this down into meaningful messages around saving money, eating healthy food, supporting local farmers and communities, for example.”

Perhaps the one mega-trend keeping most sustainability managers awake at night is disruptive innovation. By its very nature, these disruptive forces come from outside of the business – usually from a company entering a new sector with little to lose and shaking it up with a breakthrough approach. Companies such as Amazon, Google and Apple are all good examples, forcing traditional players to re-think their entire business propositions.

By and large, Uren believes that big corporations don’t readily have the skill set to disrupt, but instead should examine how they can capitalise on opportunities when such disruption does happen. Here Forum for the Future is encouraging sustainability managers to understand the different time horizons at play – present, near term, and future – and how their company’s operating context looks, or might look, within those scenarios. They can then start to develop plans and policies to address each horizon.

‘What many successful businesses do, they are able to surf these three horizons concurrently,” says Uren. “This is a really important feature of the systems thinker, the ability to hold different time horizons in your mind. Systems thinkers are really good at looking long-term, but then bringing that back to the short-term. You need to know what is happening in the far future because that will underpin the long-term value creation of the business.”

Uren points to Levi’s as a case in point – the company saw a future threat around water scarcity and last year launched its waterless jeans range, by engineering a production technique that uses less water in the finishing process to help conserve it. Levi’s has already saved over 172 million litres of water as a result of this initiative.

These system thinking skills will be critical going forward, Uren predicts, especially as companies begin to understand the complexity of sustainability – its global, environmental and social interconnectivity – and how one wrong decision can have all sorts of unintended consequences.

“A solution that works for carbon might not work for water,” she points out. “Key is having a clear vision, which should be based on the materiality of your direct and indirect impacts – and a roadmap on how to get there.”

The roadmap itself may not be necessarily well signposted – but, argues Uren, that is a good thing: the most ambitious sustainability visionaries are often honest in their assessments that the true path to value creation remains unknown.

“There needs to be some part of your sustainability vision and strategy that makes you feel really uncomfortable,” she maintains. “A great strategy should contain elements that are not clear, underpinned by some vision that thinks in a resource-constrained world, in a hyper-connected world, then this will work. It might not work so well today, but it’s the pathway to tomorrow.”

Where all of this leaves the sustainability manager ten years from now is an interesting thought. As the functionality of sustainability changes, as it becomes more deeply embedded into business acumen, Uren sees those currently pushing on such agendas evolving into facilitators, linking departments together to ensure a consistent and co-ordinated approach is taken.

“I don’t think we’re at the stage yet where we can say that we no longer need a sustainability team. Organisations may be heading in that direction, but there isn’t any company out there operating within their environmental limits right now,” she observes.

Maxine Perella is waste editor at edie

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