State of the World

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Who’s afraid of the big bad future?

Feel the pressure!

Population explosion, rapid urbanisation, ageing people, eco-migration, climate change…

Just some of the bogeymen most businesses are doing their best to ignore because the implications for stability are so scary. All those extra mouths to feed. All those extra middle-class incisors lusting after more red meat. All those lovely people to house in ever-tightening urban spaces.

And whoa! Here come the effects of climate change, bursting in to create mayhem of Biblical proportions – floods, droughts, locusts, pestilence, blah, blah, blah.

Time to release the pressure with our OpportunityValve. Megatrends bring mega-risks. The only way to mitigate them is to seek out and grab the many opportunities offered by change.

Read on for:

• Our view on the State of the World

• How to prosper by grasping the opportunities

• Building trust by sharing your stories.

Pressure from Climate Change

Until the U.S. presidential election, ratification of the Paris Agreement meant the intellectual argument about climate was won. Now it’s all change, but opportunities remain. Turn the OppValve, make money, save the world.

Before Donald Trump was elected President, it seemed the world was feasting on agreement to cut critical gases that contribute to climate change – carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

The Paris Agreement, struck at the end of 2015 in a city that was still reeling from mass shootings, marked a dramatic change in the world’s attitude towards climate change. China and the U.S. supported the deal and in less than a year it became international law.

Then Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, joined Paris to bring us hope. Governments meeting there in October 2016 agreed uncharacteristically quickly to ban HFCs. These refrigeration gases were designed to save the ozone layer by replacing CFCs but proved to be super-powerful greenhouse gases.

It remains to be seen how much and how quickly the Trump presidency will disrupt efforts to contain climate change, championed by other world powers, especially China.

The U.S. remains important but no longer the biggest on the block. By agreeing to international treaties, the rest of the world has turned the OppValve enough to release critical pressure. Now it’s up to business to find the opportunities to profit from the change and help governments keep the release valve open to protect our natural capital.

Opportunities abound, ranging from the obvious to the downright odd. Wind and solar are already winning, but what about others? Demand for electricity provides huge incentives and opportunities for nascent low-carbon generators, such as tide and wave, which have constantly failed to work at scale. Time for their big break?

Distributed electrical storage, using car batteries and clever grid software, will further boost the use of sun and wind because the cars will provide power to meet peak demand. This provides yet another incentive for electric vehicles which appear to be on course to dominate in a couple of decades.

Opportunity beckons for the oil majors who will be the biggest losers unless they recast themselves as power companies. BP and Total are good examples. In a fit of regression, BP pulled out of renewables and has not invested in the industry in five years. But it’s now looking to expand its wind portfolio and Total has bought a large battery maker as it embraces alternatives to fossil fuels.

But let’s not forget coal. If the U.S. rehabilitates this plentiful but dirty fuel, there will be huge opportunities for business to provide the technology to burn it as cleanly and efficiently as possible. No one wants a return to the lung-rasping smogs of the past. And maybe its return could kick start the stalled development of carbon capture technology.

Rapid technological developments provide further hope – from intelligent bots to the internet of things and software that can manage highly complex systems, such as distributed grid management. Science fiction is about to become a low-carbon reality.

What’s holding us back is our terror of change and the rabid defence of the status quo by vested interests. But even here there is hope. One of the most exciting opportunities for businesses lies in collaboration with organisations that can help them understand and profit from the megatrends. It’s not all about tech. Read on to find out how.

Megatrend Pressure: Population Growth, Urbanisation, Demographic Shifts, Increased Demand for Food

Businesses that are heavily dependent on natural resources – agriculture, fishing, forestry and water – are already feeling the pressure and climate change will only make things worse. But everyone needs natural capital, so every sector will be hurt – unless they find ways to open the OppValve.

We’ve been here before. Thomas Robert Malthus, the influential theologian and scholar, caused a sensation in the 18th century when he predicted that society would not reach its full potential if it had to feed the rapidly-growing population. Famine, he warned, would lead to pestilence and vice.

Sounds familiar? The spectre of nearly 10 billion people squeezing onto the planet by 2050 has raised the Malthus ghost and galvanised the doomsayers who say we will never be able to feed ourselves unless we all convert to veganism. They point to the demographic shifts that not only increase food demand but for all the wrong (high carbon) foods like meat and milk.

It’s true, the fast-expanding new middle classes have a particular taste for flesh, fish and frothy Frappuccino. And who can blame them? They’ve dragged themselves from poverty and have money for meatball suppers.

But it does cause a problem for ecosystems that can’t support the rocketing demand for high-carbon foodstuffs – unless production methods change. Herein lie two major opportunities. One is technical, the other social.

Growing meat, as they do already in the laboratory, is one way forward. It can boost production and end the suffering of millions of animals on factory farms who lead wretched lives and cause serious ecological problems for the local environment.

Of course non-animal meat will have to overcome an image problem and this is an opportunity for the marketing and communications sector. If drinking wheat grass juice can become fashionable, lab-meat burgers will be an easy sell for the Mad Men. Surely the professional persuaders who can get millions to follow the unremarkable Kim Kardashian can turn their black
arts to getting us all onto a low-meat diet?

But there is an even greater opportunity. And some are doing a lot better at grabbing it than others. This is all about collaboration between business and non-profits who have the knowledge and inclination to help us live within the planet’s means.

We’re not talking about PR opportunities or philanthropy. This is about serious work to dramatically improve the way we interact with the planet and society. It is about how we grow and make things, and how we treat the people who make it happen.

Big business has long wanted to be better integrated into society and this is its big opportunity: collaboration with so-called civil society. This is the future and it’s the way to release the pressure brought on by lack of public trust that limits business growth.

To fully grasp the collaborative opportunities, business must shrug off the old-school PR mindset that cloaks so many NGO partnerships. And NGOs must stop focusing only on the money they can wrangle from multinationals. Productive, mutual collaboration will lead to smarter working and release the pressure from megatrends, creating better, more profitable ways to do business.

Examples of really effective and mutually beneficial collaborations are rare. GSK’s work with Save the Children stands out, as does the nascent collaboration between chocolate makers and cocoa industry to improve the lot of smallholders and empower women.

Much of this work depends on effective communications up and down the supply chain. Telling your story well lubricates the process by building trust. Read on for storytelling traps and top tips.

How to keep the OppValve open: tell your story well and build trust

Let’s state the obvious. Trust is essential to make business work. A good reputation is essential to maintain trust with everyone you deal with, every day. That’s why companies need to explain their thinking and actions to a wide range of audiences: investors, customers, employees, local communities, policy makers, regulators and influencers.

How well a company responds to sustainability pressures can make or break its reputation. The issues are often emotional: caring (for the environment) and sharing (distribution of wealth, enhancing lifestyles, protecting human rights).

This is why corporate stories about sustainability are so important. Why they must be told, and told well.


What makes a good corporate sustainability story?

Our ability as humans to tell stories, create myths and describe values separates us from apes. Storytelling helps us communicate with large groups of people and turn ideas into reality. This applies equally to stories of capitalism, socialism, Christianity, Islam, or indeed, sustainable development.

Our reactions to a threatened environment and social injustices have coalesced into the narrative of sustainable development. But this story has struggled to find universal support because it threatens the status quo and demands change. That’s why so many
people think scientific warnings, such as climate change, are a hoax.

Unless we can all believe the story of sustainable development and why it is needed, threats such as climate change will overwhelm us. To succeed, the sustainability story must be told in a convincing way. But this is something business has failed to do with sufficient conviction and authenticity.

The story has to be real and gritty. And it must connect with audiences at an emotional level to inspire change.

Such authenticity is rare because business – driven by the dated desire to keep things relentlessly upbeat – falls into many storytelling traps along the way. Read on for our top tips on how to dodge the traps and stay true.


Authenticity trap one: green and pink washing

First there was whitewashing – slapping nice words over the blemishes and cracks to give the illusion of purity. It’s an age-old practice of the public relations industry who love to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

Then, when interest in the environment took off, PRs rushed to paint their clients green. After all, the public love a company that looks after the planet.

Take hotels, which leave little cards in the bathrooms promising to limit towel and sheet washing, claiming that the sole reason behind the limited-laundry policy is to save water and energy – and the environment. Who could disagree? But what else is the hotel doing to protect our precious ecosystems? Seldom is there any indication of broader environmental objectives, which make the laundry promise ring hollow. Especially when you realise the real reason is a cost saving to the hotel and not the planet.

More recently, greenwashing has been joined in the lexicon of caring deception by “pinkwashing” – the practice of companies using their support of breast cancer charities to massage their caring image and sell more product. This is especially prevalent in cause-related marketing and the misuse of the pink ribbon as a sales incentive.
Top Tips

  • Tell the truth, it’s easier to remember and refreshingly authentic
  • Treat your audience with respect
  • There are no easy fixes to sustainability – don’t pretend otherwise

Authenticity trap two: complexity vs triviality

Sustainability is complex but it doesn’t have to be. So much sustainability storytelling is either too technical or too trivial. It’s not easy to find the sweet spot in between, but it is vitally important to enhance understanding and connect with your audience.

Complexity comes mainly from environmental science, but also the business processes that are involved. Talk of CO2-equivalents, value chains and intergenerational equity can be confusing to even the most intelligent audiences if they are unfamiliar with the sustainability lexicon.

No matter what we produce at Context – white papers, reports, animations, infographics, websites – the editor’s question is always this: will this be understood in conversations at the school gate? If not, we look for ways to make it simpler without trivialising it.

Oversimplifying is hazardous. The temptation is to exclude awkward details that mess with the logic flow of the narrative. This often happens when devising animations and infographics. You see it, for example, in material recycling diagrams where the storyteller edits out, say, the special equipment needed to fully close the loop. Or forgets to mention that markets for the recycled materials don’t exist. We must admit the inconvenient truths.

Top Tips

  • Think visually – use pictures
  • Summarise and provide references for the viewer to dig deeper
  • Use everyday words

Authenticity trap three: balancing optimism and doom

Is the world coming to an end or are we at the beginning of a golden period of prosperity? It’s all doom if you read environmental commentators in the liberal press. But plug into the utopians on the right and the world looks much brighter, with no problems in sight other than the hoax of climate change.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. But corporate storytellers locked into outmoded PR myths find it hard to admit to anything but the sheer brilliance and future success of their enterprise. So much so that there have been attempts to banish sustainability in favour of something considered more upbeat and positive.

Some have actually tried to rebrand sustainability, using words such as prosperity or plenty in an attempt to get greater buy-in from sceptics. This desire for positive spin is understandable. But it ruins a good story. The most engaging stories are about overcoming adversity so it makes for a rather empty tale if you can’t admit to any problem or hurdle.

Authenticity demands honesty and everyone recognises the existence of problems – we experience them in our everyday lives, so why should corporations be different? How you overcome the problem is what’s interesting and therein lies your story.

Top Tips

  • Doomsayers will not succeed, but neither will unbridled optimists – find a happy compromise
  • Admit to problems. Overcoming adversity is at the core of all good stories
  • Remember your audience won’t be hoodwinked by excessive positive spin


Authenticity trap four: preaching

It’s that churning feeling you get when watching a holier-than-thou TED Talker telling us why we are bad people and how we can be better. The sensation is similar to that evoked by the Sunday school teacher explaining the concept of original sin. While preaching and finger-wagging is usually the preserve of the sanctimonious Greens (what, you don’t compost?), corporate storytellers often suffer from the same need to hold the high moral ground.

This usually occurs in stories about hazard, risk and safety, especially product safety. Dip into any description, infographic or video extolling the multi-faceted precautions taken to ensure worker and product safety. These are stories devoid of any hint of fallibility and are imbued with a haughty sense of self-righteous indignation that anyone – anyone – could possibly doubt the rigorous, failsafe corporate systems that mitigate any risk whatsoever.

Proof of fallibility is in the constant stream of product recalls and those who die in work accidents. Talk privately to risk managers and they will freely admit to the difficulties of managing personal and product risk. But don’t expect to find such honesty in the corporate narrative.

Preachiness also pops up in the softer side of business, where corporates help the so-called ‘under-served’ (poor people). It’s here that corporate storytellers over-rev wildly, losing any sense of proportion while extolling the virtues of their community activities on a largely bewildered neighbourhood invaded for a day by office workers on their (single day) of community volunteering.

Top Tips

  • Leave preaching to priests
  • Help your audience understand hazard and risk, and admit to its challenges
  • Truth enhances a story, don’t be afraid of it
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