The sustainable development puzzle

August 04, 2008

The sustainable development puzzle

Thomas Lingard on the difficulties of managing interconnected social and environmental sustainability challenges.

I was passing the time waiting for my friend, with a recently acquired Rubik’s cube puzzle – an exact copy of one I’d had in the ‘80s, with its deceptively simple aim of aligning all the colours on each of the six sides of the cube. I was still nowhere near completing it when he showed up.
“I’ve had enough of the local community thing” he said, justifying his news. “I want to move on, to something, well, more meaningful.” After many years working with predominantly socially focussed charities and community groups, my friend was moving on to a global environmental organisation. This intriguing comment, to which I will return in a moment, struck me as one that reflected some of the changes taking place in the world of corporate citizenship over the last decade.

When I first moved into a UK community affairs role at Unilever, we focussed our community investment under four headings. Environment was one, alongside arts, education, and health. Ironically, the rise of the environmental agenda probably reduced the funding of community programmes under the environmental heading as the business worked out it was better to focus its finite energy and resources on addressing the environmental impact of its core business operations than sponsor token environmental initiatives and risk accusations of greenwash. The issue of materiality was understood; the responsibility of businesses first and foremost was to address those material impacts arising from what the business actually did on a day to day basis.
The critics had it that sponsoring this, that and the other on the periphery was just a public relations cover for what was an intrinsically socially irresponsible business. In a Daily Mail world of black and white, the perceived hypocrisy of a confectioner providing sports equipment to schools or a petrochemicals company with solar panels on the roof are easy and just targets for exposure.
But let’s return to this question of meaningfulness. I know many people in the community sector, whether working for charities or community affairs teams in business, that feel that the relative importance of their work is diminishing when faced with the new glamourous and sexy world of climate change. After all, why would you want to spend your time reading with school kids in East London when you could be saving the whole planet? I exaggerate for effect, but this is essentially the challenge facing every fundraiser representing social causes and the tough decision facing every community investment budget owner.

Luckily for the kids in East London and the thousands of other worthy social causes, that question is easily answered:
Human beings have a tendency to mistake the urgent for the important. There is general consensus that solving climate change is up there in the ‘Urgent & Important’ box. What is less well articulated is that the urgency of one thing does not diminish the importance of another. In fact, it can increase it. When we talk about ‘saving the planet’ we delude ourselves. The planet will be fine; planets like ours are by and large made of rock, molten lava and covered mostly in water. They’re resilient things with all kinds of feedback loops set up to stop idiots playing around with them too much. It is we that are in trouble. It’s precisely because “saving the planet” is shorthand for “ensuring that humans can continue to inhabit the earth” that we must continue to prioritise the important, but less urgent issues addressed through the work of non-environmental charities.
Surely the case for “saving the planet” is stronger if it’s a planet where the majority of its inhabitants feel they have a bright future, where efforts are taken to reduce inequality both here at home and overseas, where the world’s young people feel that they are in control of their own destinies and its elderly and disabled enjoy fulfilling lives with the care and support they need. Without this positive vision for the social life of our planet, assembling the necessary coalition to save it will be almost impossible.

So while our attention is grabbed by the pressing challenges of reducing carbon emissions, improving the efficiency of resource use and promoting sustainable consumption, we must simultaneously increase the attention we pay to these critically important social issues. For example, asking people to use public transport when they feel safer in their car, and know that it’s cheaper too, is just one example of why it is important to grasp the linkages between, for example, rising knife crime, income inequality and climate change. Similarly, trying to teach someone how to calculate their carbon footprint will be challenging if they lack basic numeracy skills.
Few doubt that the challenges of the future will be increasingly complex. I am convinced that only with a combined understanding of – and involvement in – social, environmental and economic challenges will we be able to solve them together.

The attraction of the now commonplace (and often misused) term ‘sustainable development’ is that it encourages us to consider the linkages between the social, environmental and economic issues and to recognise that in many cases they represent different aspects of the same underlying issue. As I think back to my Rubik’s cube, it’s clear that solving any one side in isolation is relatively straightforward, and is also pointless. The real satisfaction comes from solving all six sides simultaneously, an infinitely more challenging task and a neat analogy for our present situation.

Thomas Lingard has worked at Unilever for the last nine years in a variety of community investment, corporate responsibility and public affairs roles. He is Chair of the London Benchmarking Group and a trustee of Action Space, London’s leading arts organisation for people with learning disabilities. In September he takes up a new role as Deputy Director of Green Alliance.