This Monday, at the end of my Sustainable Business Models class, one of my students asked me if I think things will get worse. My immediate response was that while we see some progress, it seems to be too slow given that the challenges we face become more urgent, which means we may actually be moving backwards, not forward.
And then, on the way home I thought about Harvey Weinstein.
It was not Weinstein himself, but what happened since the New York Times’ Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published the story on October 5, chronicling decades of sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein. Ever since, every day brings with it more stories of sexual harassment allegations in business, politics and media. This moment that as Jessica Bennet wrote, is described using “disaster metaphors — tsunami, hurricane, avalanche, landslide,” gives me hope on our chances to create a more sustainable future.
In Bennet’s New York Times piece entitled “The ‘Click’ Moment: How the Weinstein Scandal Unleashed a Tsunami” she explains:
In the women’s movement of the 1970s we had this phrase ‘the click moment,’” Barbara Berg, a historian and the author of the 2009 book “Sexism in America: Alive, Well and Ruining Our Future,” said. “This is the click moment. It’s like, ‘Enough.’ And then there’s a snowball effect: Once you see women speaking truth to power and not being told, ‘This is just what you have to put up with,’ then it encourages other women to stand up.”
So, with that in mind, my question is: Can we have a click moment accompanied by a shift in the underlying assumptions when it comes to sustainability?
Until hurricane Harvey (Weinstein) started I would probably say No. Now, I would say it could be done. After all, the forces that were won over in the last couple of weeks are as strong as the forces we need to win over in the fight for a sustainable future, and the underlying assumptions that are changing these days around sexual harassment are as rooted in the culture as planned obsolescence, short-termism and shareholder primacy. So, why not?
Black Friday is a good day to consider this question. You may think that a day exemplifying excessive consumption is not exactly a reason for high hopes. Nonetheless, another way to look at it is that Black Friday sends us a very strong signal to reconsider how we can make change happen. In general we were very much focused so far on our roles as consumers and how hopefully we (or at least the millennials among us) can become more sustainable or responsible consumers. This idea can be described as follows:
However, we already know that it doesn’t work. As Mike Barry of Marks & Spencer pointed out in 2011 "consumers won't lead us to the promised land.” So who will? Barry thought back then that “the next five to 10 years will be about business aspiring, leading and changing slowly, but surely, giving people ways of participating." In general he was right, but while business is making some progress, it is still lagging behind. The answer will not be found with consumers or the companies themselves. Consumers don't seem capable of radical behavior change and companies have little reason to truly confront the status quo.
If we learn anything from hurricane Harvey it is that a shift can happen if the environment changes and new “patterns of acceptable behaviors” are applied across different contexts. We need heroes to drive this change. In our context it can be described as follows:
Two important points that should be emphasized are around the heroes and the journey. The heroes we need are not necessarily customers. They are stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, investors, community organizers, city officials, NGOs and others (customers as well!), who decide that enough is enough and are not afraid to stand up and demand accountability and change, specifically from CEOs and executives that continue to exercise business as usual. Making it personal may require more courage, but it seems to be the only way to achieve accountability and responsibility as we see these days. What we need eventually is a large number of heroes that will take a step and trigger a change in the underlying assumptions of our culture, which eventually will lead companies to reconsider the way they operate and adapt to new social rules that consider unsustainable practices as unacceptable, just like sexual harassment.
The journey to make change happen can be challenging – after all, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum and not in one day. Hurricane Harvey for example is built on decades of fights, efforts, initiatives and campaigns that tried to achieve what suddenly seems somehow achievable. It also reflects the idea of "gradually, then suddenly." This idea, Tim O’Reilly explains “describes the way that many seemingly chaotic processes progress, from collapsing sandpiles to forest fires to industry transformations.” We see a gradual change over time that eventually reaches a tipping point and then everything changes very fast. This is true not just with regards to decades of fights against sexual harassment, but also with regards to decades of fighting to create a more sustainable future. Whatever will happen eventually is very much due to this gradual effort and we shouldn’t forget it, even when we get to the ‘click moment’, when everything will happen very fast.
I’m not sure when the click moment will happen for the sustainability movement, but the last couple of weeks provided me with more confidence in our ability to make it happen. Next class, when I’ll meet my student who asked me if things will get worse, I’ll tell her that I still think they will, but hurricane Harvey shows it can get better. It will not happen on its own - we need many heroes that will help rewrite the underlying assumptions of our culture. In the words of David Bowie: “We can be heroes, forever and ever. What'd you say?”
Image credit: schizoform
Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.