Sustainability in the New Populist Era

by Richard Johnson 3 February 2017

The iceberg rolls over

On Tuesday 31st January 2017 Volans hosted a salon with a group of London’s leading sustainability practitioners to discuss how we should respond to the changed – and changing – political landscape in Europe and the US. Is a more inclusive and sustainable globalisation possible? If so, how do we make it a reality in the face of the current political backlash?

Below is a summary of some of the more salient points from the evening:

Can’t see the trees for the woods?

Knowing your way around Bangladesh better than Scunthrope

  • It was suggested that corporate sustainability, especially at a communications level, has focused too much on global problems and not enough on local issues. So can businesses play a more positive role in the communities they physically exist within?
    • M&S Plan A suggested as good example of having both a global and local focus.
  • Similarly, the sustainability industry has focussed on big corporate governance wins over the last decade, but not on the wins – or lack thereof – for individuals.  
  • If we are to move towards more autonomous communities we will need radical new forms for organising. The good news is that many industries – like energy, for example – are moving towards decentralised systems, where resources will be owned by the individual and organised by the community. Is there a business opportunity to help empower communities to do this?

Moving fast and slow

Shock Doctrine Ju-Jitsu

  • The election of Trump, and to some extent Brexit, has created a [possibly deliberate] shock. This shock opens up the opportunity for controversial policies to be pushed through which enable exploitative capitalism. The shockwaves are legitimised by invoking ‘the people’.
  • Is this an opportunity to unite the people that these shockwaves will not benefit? Can we mobilise disparate groups to come together over issues that they are ‘for’ as opposed to issues they are ‘against’?
    • Peter Byck’s Carbon Nation is a nice example of this, focussing on how the more stable and plentiful yields of regenerative agriculture is benefitting Republican farmers in rural America.
  • Or, should we be wary of trying to oppose an enemy which doesn’t exist. Populism is based on the myth that a collective, disenfranchised group – “The People” –  have made their demands democratically and have a right to have them being met by their elected leaders. In reality the demands are just an articulation of discontent, which their leaders use to legitimise their own policy programmes.
    • A successful countermovement, therefore, must look to address the causes of that discontent, whilst at the same time offering a full-throated defence of pluralism.
  • As yet, it is unclear whether the Trump administration is incompetent or calculating.
  • Now might be a time for a little humility and patience. We cannot assume we have the answers to a shock we didn’t create. The important thing is that we accept the scale of the change that is necessary and earnestly strive to make it happen. This will inevitably include some failures, and involve forcing ourselves to work with unusual collaborators. It is more important that we aim for systemic change, and embrace some failures on the way, rather than just celebrating incremental, sticking-plaster solutions.

On Purpose

A means to what end?

  • Several participants say they were seeing sustainability budgets slashed as companies now focus on purpose.
  • Has purpose betrayed sustainability, or is it just a better way of achieving sustainable outcomes? On the one hand, purpose gets to the very core of a business; it’s why the business exists. However, every company has a purpose, it’s just that some are more commendable than others, e.g. Patagonia vs BetFair. High risk of dilution and mainstreaming.
  • New legal structures such as US Benefit Corporation status offer a useful way to distinguish whether a company sees profit as a means to a sustainable end, instead of sustainability as a means to a profitable end. Unclear whether direction of causality matters, but what is clear is that purpose will be used to justify unsustainable means to  profitable ends if we don’t get better at defining it.


@volansjohn:Maybe not something that mainstream financial markets would do, but could be the nucleus of a civil society campaig……
@volansjohn:Thanks for providing the headroom, Joel.…
@volansjohn:Simply that, a provocation!…


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