Time to reflect: 5 lessons from 2020 for sustainability

With the year coming to a close, it’s a great time to pause for reflection. In looking back, we can learn from our successes and mistakes, gain new perspective, and see where we need to go next. Reflection cultivates self-awareness, efficacy, innovation and resilience. And it sets us up to make meaningful progress on our goals in the year ahead.

According to writer and management philosopher Margaret Wheatley, “Without reflection, we go blindly on our way.”

While many of us are eager to wipe 2020 from memory, the events of this past year have, effectively, changed it all. The last 12 months have provided evidence of an undeniable truth: we are inextricably linked to nature and the climate and environmental crisis unfolding rapidly before us is a danger to humanity.

2020 provided a wakeup call to what’s in store if the most decisive decade in human history is dominated by complacency rather than urgent and coordinated action. It also served as a dress rehearsal for future disruption. Well, the reviews are in and our performance needs some polishing if we plan to keep global temperature rise to 1.5˚C, operate within the limits of nature and shape a thriving future for people and planet.

So what can businesses take away from this year to help us effectively address the climate and nature crisis and forge a better way forward? Let’s dive in.

2020 Sustainability Time-to-reflect---5-lessons-from-2020-for-sustainability

We are inextricably linked to nature and the climate and environmental crisis unfolding rapidly before us is a danger to humanity.

1+ Work faster, stay focused.

We are in the midst of a climate and environmental emergency and the window of opportunity to take decisive action is closing fast. The stakes are high, but the fear of not getting it right paired with the uncertainty of COVID-19 is stalling progress and causing many to lower the bar on sustainability. 

But when it comes to crisis management, speed trumps perfection. Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, underlined this lesson in a press conference back in March: “Be fast. Have no regrets. You must be the first mover… Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error. But the greatest error is not to move…if you need to be right before you move, you will never win.”

Perfect conditions very rarely arrive, so waiting for them to materialize before leaping into action is procrastination, pure and simple. What we experienced this year is just the first of many disruptions to come. Today it’s coronavirus, but it could be something else tomorrow. But climate change isn’t simply going to go away because our attention is turned elsewhere. The next few years are critical and there’s no time to waste. Businesses need to be bold and double down on climate action — now!

2+ Ignoring science is risky business.

Climate change first became news 30 years ago and scientists have been warning us about how it threatens our way of life — and what to do about it — ever since. Yet we’ve failed to heed these warnings. 2020, however, may have finally helped shake off the delusion that we can continue declining science’s call to action. 

New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo said as much earlier this year: “The coronavirus, like the accelerating climate-related disaster, shows what we face when we decide to blind ourselves to science.”

We know that we have to reduce CO2 emissions by half by 2030 and eliminate them almost entirely by 2050. To do that, business needs to follow the science. Science is the compass that will point us towards true sustainability, showing us the critical level of change necessary to align with planetary boundaries. What does this look like in real terms? Shifting the focus from quick fixes that have little impact on business sustainability to prioritizing deep reductions in CO2 emissions and thinking beyond carbon to biodiversity and natural climate solutions.

3+ Leadership is an action, not a position.

Leadership can make or break sustainable transformation. Strong leadership is needed to coordinate and drive efforts across an organization, ensuring things get done (and before it’s too late). Without it, progress isn’t possible.

Sustainability, much like COVID-19, is what management scholars call an ambiguous threat. The unique challenges posed by these types of threats often mean leaders end up ignoring or discounting risks and delaying action, then later finding themselves behind in managing the crisis at hand. 

Passing the sustainability leadership test and building resilience requires leaders to act urgently, communicate with transparency and recognize the inevitability of missteps and the need to constantly recalibrate. Most importantly, it will require leaders to keep their eyes on the end-game, continuing to push forward on climate priorities and ensuring sustainability doesn’t go out the window when faced with short-term disruptions.

4+ Collaboration is critical to move through disruption.

Solving global challenges hinges on global solutions and system-level change, which is only achievable through cooperation and collective action.

Just as pandemics have no regard for borders, shareholders or bottom lines, neither does climate change. Businesses must come together to streamline efforts and shape a collective response with the potential for large-scale impact. 

Working together has clear advantages: when we pool knowledge, resources and capabilities, we can create better, more effective solutions, faster and scale our impact. The Science-Based Targets initiative is a solid and well-established proof point. SPICE is another.

Lack of cooperation, on the other hand, weakens our efforts, as evidenced by the chaos that ensued in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, and makes a difficult situation worse.

5+ We CAN do this.

Change is never easy, but this year businesses demonstrated ingenuity and agility to make changes they previously thought impossible and in record time. In the rush to remain resilient, they generated a flurry of new possibilities and ideas. It’s an impressive feat and proof that sustainable transformation, too, is within our power

What’s more, we caught an inspiring glimpse of nature’s incredible resilience. When given the space to do so, it bounces back. In France’s Camargue region, their famous flamingo population grew tenfold!

Taken together — our capacity to change and the knowledge that nature will respond — these outcomes suggest that a thriving future for people and planet is well within our reach

But we need to keep the momentum going. 

We’re here to guide you every step of your journey toward true, absolute sustainable transformation.

Together we can go further, faster and make 2021 the pivotal year it needs to be for society and for our planet.

Talk to us to explore how you can #BuildForwardBetter.

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