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Amy Brown headshot

System Change is Key to Driving Social Impact Work That Matters

By Amy Brown
Driving system change around the world

The level of system change required to tackle many of the world’s most pressing challenges can seem overwhelming. Sometimes, a simple and unlikely symbol changes our perspectives. For personal care company Kimberly-Clark, it was a photo of an abandoned toilet in the middle of a field. A donation to a rural community to drive sanitation, it had never been used because the physical, social and cultural infrastructure to support its role in better sanitation hadn’t been addressed.

Kimberly-Clark is no stranger to social impact work. The company has driven impact to improve sanitation and hygiene and empower women and girls through global initiatives that provide access to sanitation and menstrual hygiene education. But seeing the picture of that humble toilet prompted a much deeper conversation about the broader physical and social system challenges at play. 

Kimberly-Clark did not donate the abandoned toilet in question, but the photo resonated with leadership to make sure any investment would result in true system change and how it would be measured: When a company invests in toilets or plumbing systems, it doesn’t just improve health and hygiene — it can change an entire community, opening up new income and educational opportunities, reducing mortality from preventable diseases, and giving people dignity and peace of mind. But it has to take the local realities into account for any of that to happen.  

With a goal to impact 1 billion lives by 2030 in partnership with nonprofits and NGOs, the team at Kimberly-Clark realized they needed to overhaul the way the company measures impact in order to demonstrate value and hold themselves accountable. That meant taking a step back to understand why it was so important to adopt a system-change perspective in the first place, and why it was so challenging to measure results. 

System change: Getting to the root cause of the problem

For answers to those big questions, Kimberly-Clark turned to Dr. Sally Uren, a member of its Sustainability Advisory Board who is also CEO of Forum for the Future, an international sustainability nonprofit that specializes in addressing global challenges by catalyzing change in key systems — from food to apparel, energy to shipping. It runs a School of System Change to help people bring the practice into their work

Forum for the Future defines system change as “the emergence of a new pattern of organization or system structure. That pattern being the physical structure, the flows and relationships or the mindsets or paradigms of a system, it is also a pattern that results in the new goals of the system.”

In other words: System change is both an outcome and a process — and it’s key to driving the transformational change the world needs.

Uren cited two major reasons why it’s time for businesses to take account of system change: “The first reason is simply the scale and urgency of the challenges we face,” she told TriplePundit. “If we think about what needs to happen over the next few years, to secure a stable climate, to maintain biodiversity, the science is telling us that incremental change just won't be enough.”

“We have to think about wholesale, transformational change and about the systems we rely on and how they fundamentally operate. Because tweaking around the edge of those systems isn’t going to drive the radical change that will deliver on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals,” she added.

System change also illuminates the root cause of a problem. “When we think about structural inequalities or structural racism, we tend to latch onto the surface-level events. But a system approach really prompts you to think about the root causes,” Uren continued. “What is driving this inequality that we see in our system? What is driving the structural racism? And we start to then understand that the drivers are much more around personal values, mindsets and history. The whole history of colonialization is a really fundamental root cause of some of the racism that we see today, and this prompts us to really reflect on how the global economy is wired.”

In the case of Kimberly-Clark, period poverty is a broader systemic challenge that has a direct influence on its social impact work. Period poverty, or a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products, knowledge and basic sanitation that enable women to manage their periods with dignity, could be caused by many factors: There may be social or cultural issues contributing to the problem, or the products may not be affordable. 

Solutions therefore need to be seen through a systems lens, Uren explained. “A systems approach allows you to understand the broader issue that you need to address alongside a particular problem that you might be solving for.” 

Four ways systems begin to change

Uren went on to outline four ways in which systems begin to change. The first is new activity — new innovations, pioneering practices or new flows of information. The second signal that a system is changing is when businesses find new ways to deliver goods and services to market — the shift from a linear consumption model to a circular economy is a good example. These shifts, in turn, often lead to new financial or legislative incentives. The number of organizations adopting new ways of doing things, or the numbers of new business models or new financial incentives working in the economy, are all indicators of a system changing.

Third, the goals and desired outcomes of the system will begin to shift. “That’s where you need collaborations,” Uren added. “At Forum for the Future, we  create collaborations to really change the goals of a given system. One example is a project with the cotton industry to change the goals of the cotton system from a system designed to deliver conventional cotton to sustainable cotton – shifting the goals of the system in this way will drive mainstreaming measures to protect the environment and ways of dealing with deep-rooted inequalities. Another example is our collaboration, aimed at transforming the protein system to allow equitable access to sustainable protein for a growing population.” 

The final signal that a system is changing centers on mindset. “Deep, structural, systemic change comes from a shift in mindset, a shift in the stories we tell ourselves and a shift in the beliefs that we hold,” Uren explained. "This is where you see new narratives emerging, and it's happening right now in our pandemic landscape: A narrative is emerging that safe planetary health equals human health. That has always been true, but that narrative wasn't really well understood before COVID-19.”

Recognize when a system is unsustainable — and take action

If she were to succinctly capture her advice to leaders on how to tackle the challenge of measuring their impact on system change, Uren said it comes down to four success factors.

Take the time to understand the concept of system change. “It’s not an easy concept sometimes, and it's also laden with jargon and it's quite academic. But taking the time to understand what a systems approach might mean to your operations is really important,” Uren advised. “Essentially it's about understanding the connections between things and understanding root causes.”

Get comfortable about blending qualitative and quantitative metrics. “For companies, there's a real desire for quantitative metrics, but when it comes to understanding system change, that's actually quite hard to do,” Uren told us. “While key stakeholders, particularly investors are keen to see metrics having a blend of qualitative and quantitative metrics is really important.”

Accept a bit of ambiguity. “We don't live in a linear world, but we keep on trying to solve for our big challenges as if it was linear,” Uren observed. “As humans, we quite like certainty, but systems don’t work like that. The systems we rely on are dynamic and complex."

Ask yourself the tough questions. “The fourth success factor is probably the most important, which is to really encourage every individual to ask themselves, ‘Is what I am doing locking in an existing unsustainable system?  Am I unwittingly perpetuating the status quo? Or am I allowing the emergence of a new way of doing things?’” Uren concluded. 

Achieving effective and measurable system change requires companies to understand the broader issue that you need to address alongside a particular problem that you might be solving for. And as Uren reminds us, “We need to be really hard and honest with ourselves. If we are, we will see systemic change deliver meaningful positive social impact sooner rather than later.”

This article series is sponsored by Kimberly-Clark and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image credit: Bill Wegener/Unsplash

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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