The other day, a friend of mine asked me about the Tällberg Forum. I told her how Bo Ekman, a former Volvo executive, had founded it 30 years ago and how it had grown to a fantastic conference on today’s sustainability challenges, bridging business, science, government and civil society. Her eyes grew skeptical: “But isn’t that greenwash?”, she asked.  

A black and white world

Her question summarized a disconnect I often feel when meeting ardent campaigners. The world is seen as black and white. In this world, big business is evil. They are the ones with the power and the money, and they will use it to influence any political decision in their favour. Nothing good can possibly come from business. The only ones that can save the day are civil society organizations and their campaigns, tirelessly fighting for the good in the world. They sometimes win a battle, but they are small, powerless and overworked. Attempts to bridge the divide and work with business instead of against them are discredited and met with derision. Ultimately, nothing changes.

This debate boiled up with a recent documentary about the WWF, aired in Germany. As the probably most proactive environmental NGO in terms of business cooperation, the WWF has initiated many multi-stakeholder roundtables and certification schemes. They also directly advise businesses and take funding from them. For many of my friends, the WWF has certainly gone a number of steps too far and ultimately sold out.

I’m not so sure. No doubt that mistakes have been made and that many of the business cooperations could have and should have gone further, but I think we’re better off with them than without them.

Change is messy

Think about it. In order to make space for 9 billion people to thrive on a healthy planet Earth, we can try to answer two questions:

  1. How does a world look like that “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”*?
  2. How can we move towards more sustainable economies, societies and lifestyles?

* Brundtland definition of sustainability, 1987

We can argue for decades about the details of the first question. Many options exist, some of which are mutually exclusive, many of which are mostly untested or have yet to achieve scale. Answering the question would require predictions about the future, an uncertain undertaking by definition. In short: While we can agree on certain direction, trying to find a 100% perfect solution will be a waste of time.

The second question, however, automatically leads us to action. It encourages us to analyze interdependencies, identify subproblems and move towards a solution, one step at a time. It also means that we need to step out of the ivory tower and try our ideas in the real world, with those that can implement and scale the change. That will include businesses that understand that “it’s impossible to be unsustainable forever” (see also this interview with Ed Gillespie). Some of the things we try will fail, and then we’ll pick up the pieces and try again.

I’m tired of the debate about right and wrong, black and white, greenwash or not.

Let’s get our hands dirty, dive into the grey zone and change things, shall we?

Grey zones
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