Anthesis CEO Stuart McLachlan shares his insights into what he coins the ‘post-liminal era’ following more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has primed our systems to regenerate, encouraging accelerated sustainable performance to help tackle the climate crisis.
I’m hearing a lot of surfing analogies at present – riding the crest of the wave, wipeout, ragdoll, getting barrelled…. perhaps these metaphors of hope and despair express the forceful and unpredictable age that we live in.
A year ago I wrote about this liminal age. A rare period in history when one era ends and another one starts. A time of extraordinary change when so many hunker down in pursuit of survival, but for those who want to design the next era, it is the ultimate opportunity to lift their heads up and take action.
So, where do I think we are today? For those of us who have been studying or actively engaged in the sustainability movement for over 30 years, the oceanic phrase that comes to mind is ‘pushing the wave’. We’ve been pushing the wave for a long time – through the denial phase, into the belief with no action phase, and now at long last that wave of reality and action has crashed over us. Would it have happened without COVID? I don’t know. Has COVID accelerated it? Probably. But what I see on a daily basis is that so many of those people in places of leadership who could have been described as ‘passive passengers’ a year ago have become ‘passionate participators’. Champions for setting targets. Targets they have little idea how to deliver, especially in relatively short time horizons, even within their predicted tenures of leadership.
“ Let’s just recognise the beautiful reality of where we are at – commercial performance, environmental and societal sustainability have become mutually reinforcing, and regenerating. This act of regeneration can lead to our goal of ‘sustainable performance’. “
What’s happening? Is it reading the scientific predictions, such as Nature Climate Change’s report stating that we have only a 5% chance of the world meeting the 2 degrees warming target by 2100; is it the shock of the systemic injustice that has been revealed across our communities and supply chains; is it the reality that crises can actually happen? We’ve heard these headlines for decades, so what switch has been flicked that has shone such an exposing light on our systemic frailty and has made those in power compelled to take action?
Back to leadership. Yes, it helps to have a climate focused leader in the White House, and the ambitious intent of political leaders committing to ‘build back green’. This political platform is critical for us to succeed during this decisive decade. But I want to call out our business leaders.
We have long referred to business as the only institution that is powerful and agile enough to effect change. Perhaps we should distil this further and recognise that brands are perhaps the most powerful agents of change. A year on, and we see brands in pursuit of saving the 1 million species in danger of extinction (see Estrella), we see business in pursuit of systems where ecosystems, economies and people can flourish (see Nespresso). We see businesses in pursuit of reversing harm and stepping into the service of life (see Microsoft).
These ambitions represent a rise in regeneration over sustainability. A recognition that a slow-down of the damage to a place where we have found a balance is not enough. We’ve gone too far. The harmful climate feedback loops and the level of greenhouse gas emissions already emitted will result in devastation, but in slow mo. We are moving into an era of repair, restore and recharge.
Here’s why I am optimistic 1 year on. When we have talked about these planetary needs before, our hope starts draining when we realise the misalignment with systemic realities. But without wanting to get overly philosophical about why, let’s just recognise the beautiful reality of where we are at – commercial performance, environmental and societal sustainability have become mutually reinforcing, and regenerating. This act of regeneration can lead to our goal of ‘sustainable performance’.
COVID-19 has not broken all our systems but it has shaken them loose sufficiently to reveal a way forward. It has given us the opportunity to put things back together differently, in a more ambitious, more effective way to tackle the climate crisis. To all those deploying capital, hiring talent, searching for brand relevance, seeking operational efficiency and resilient supply chains, finding that ultimate barrel surf (sustainable performance) will be dependent on activating these mutually reinforcing systems in this era of regeneration.