Reflecting on stories highlighting the change being made in the world.
Hero vs. collective
As 2013 drew to a close, I pulled out my laptop on the long flight back home from the last work trip of the year in Asia. I reflected on two contrasting stories of the week: the life of Nelson Mandela, the great man who taught the world forgiveness and equality; and that of Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil company signing a landmark policy committing to eliminate deforestation and exploitation.
It occurred to me these two stories highlight an important change in the way that change is being made in the world. Where Mandela possibly had more individual influence than anyone over the past 50 years, Wilmar’s commitment came about due to the efforts of many, with the potential to transform the palm oil industry. Time will tell the significance of Wilmar’s commitment, although we can say it should be viewed as one of the most important sustainability announcements in recent times.
While I make no attempt to compare the importance of these two stories, they do provide a great example of the increasing trend away from a reliance on leaders and heroes such as Mandela, towards more collective approaches involving many individuals and groups. We all like heroes and there will always be an important role for them, yet if we look closely at key issues around the world and especially if we read beyond the common media headline stories (which typically prefer hero stories), we can see that more and more positive change stories are resulting from no clear individuals.
In the end it was the business leaders of Wilmar who ultimately decided to commit, but why did they decide? Was it the facilitators in the boardroom who explained the feasibility of a bold new commitment? Was it the campaigning NGOs with their millions of supporters who provided critical pressure by raising the issue to everyone’s attention? What about the local people in Indonesia who provide information to national and international organisations about the real situation on the ground? Or the local people and media in Singapore (where Wilmar’s headquarters are based) who were engulfed with smoke haze from burning forests and peat in Sumatra?
Let’s not forget the scientific researchers who first identified and explained the scale of issues in the palm oil industry, such as the link to deforestation, habitat destruction, orangutan and tiger deaths, climate change and social issues with local people and workers.
The list of contributors goes on and 2013 saw many more examples of collective multi-stakeholder approaches than ever before. Major Law changes towards gay rights in the U.S., U.K., and France, support for the Greenpeace Arctic 30 and the continuation of the Arab Spring are just a few examples where multiple groups and countless individuals played a crucial role over the past year.
So why is this change occurring and what is its potential? If we consider the common thread in all examples, we find the use of the internet and associated technology plays a key role, providing the ability to access and share information, as well as organise movements. This leads to much greater rates of new ideas, innovation, and importantly, a shift in power.
We promote leaders to take responsibility for the rest of us. We elect politicians to rule. Businesses and business leaders of course have always been governed by the simple economic rule of what all of us demand, they supply.
Real power is with all of us, the problem is how to utilise that power given that most of our social structures are hierarchical, such as in politics and business.
Mandela recognised people power, he understood the historical and political context of South Africa, the role of community around him and around the world. In his interviews he humbly said that he ‘met many people along the way equally and sometimes even more capable’ than him. My favourite Mandela quote “… love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite”. He was the voice people wanted to hear.
So as people are basically loving and good overall, it makes sense that what we need are easier and more rewarding ways for us more common folk to engage in issues and have our voices heard. Luckily this is becoming more possible with this new technology.
The internet and associated technology exponentially catalyses some of the major human strengths – the sharing of information and ideas. This has been the foundation of our two major revolutions to date: the Agriculture Revolution about 10,000 years ago where we began settled agriculture, living in communities we traded goods and shared ideas allowing further advancement; and the Industrial Revolution allowing for bigger communities and even more trade and sharing of ideas globally.
In just the last 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, the world’s population has grown from 1 to 7 billion, global life expectancy from 40 to over 70, all in the blink of an eye. With all of these people, trade and transport, the rate of new ideas and innovation are at higher levels today than ever before. And now with the ultra connected web of the internet, will we see another major revolution? Connecting to the issues
While people have more power and there are higher levels of innovation than ever before, it’s important we steer this momentum in the right direction by connecting people to the issues that matter.
Two main connections are needed: to politics and to business.
Around the world social media is allowing people to engage with politics in new and exciting ways. People are better able to get involved with policy between and during elections. Typically, policy ideas or objections are voiced through public demonstrations and protests, which can be organised more efficiently and have wider reach with social media.
People’s voices will also be heard more and more online, for example through the signing of petitions, which has already been providing a very efficient and effective approach to change.
Even more significant than how people engage with policy is how they could engage with business. It is business that people interact with much more directly day-to-day as most of us work for a business or at least interact with one daily such as when we buy or use goods and services. This connection is often much more personal and easy to influence than policy, yet is grossly under utilised as a mechanism for change.
When people are more connected to have their voices heard and interact with business the response is usually quick, often much quicker than with politics and national policies.
Trade and development, wealth and health, all major advancements were made possible through the use of money, through people competing and trading with other people through business. The system is very powerful and dynamic, operating globally in an ever more intricate web. Every day most of us will buy or use multiple products that were either made or have ingredients/materials from various parts of the world.
Solutions to overcome issues must work within the global economic system and herein lies a major opportunity, as this system works because we are all connected to it, just as we are now all connected to the internet. We must utilise this connection if we are to realise the potential of this new technology. We must ensure we pressure businesses to compete and innovate for environmental and social reasons, not just price and quality.
In this new approach where businesses become more responsible for environmental and social problems, one thing becomes critically important; transparency. The biggest criticism of private sector approaches to solving social and environmental issues is, who holds them accountable? If a commitment goes beyond laws and regulations, law enforcers will not regulate them. Third party independent product certification is one option, yet should be seen as only part of the solution as it is typically only relevant to some of an industry and can restrict business innovation. This is where the international and local stakeholders – now more empowered than ever before – play a crucial role.
Fortunately the increasing ability to access and share information shows there are fewer and fewer closed doors. Whereas in the past it was very easy for a company to not know and not ask about where the products it buys and sell come from, the researchers and campaigners – both local and international – as well as the local people who often have cameras and phones, are helping to highlight the real story behind the company.
We must fully utilise this increasing opportunity to make sure businesses know their true story, and contribute to telling a better story, a story of change. To make sure there are no more dark and scary closed doors. This in turns helps us tell our own personal stories about making a difference.
2014 and beyond
No one wants to be contributing to child labour, deaths in factories, or the loss of tigers and orangutans, yet the hard truth is we all do, such as through our daily purchasing decisions. As we are now able to learn more about our true impact on others, we also have greater potential to connect and engage with the issues, to influence real change.