As the sustainability movement builds, we can’t assume all are bought into the need to act on the climate crisis. Dr Sally Uren O.B.E, Forum for the Future’s Chief Executive, reflects on the barriers and common excuses holding us back – and how to deal with them.

While I, along with millions of others, share the excitement around the Global Climate Strike and its potential to galvanize action at scale to deal with our climate emergency, one tension builds at the back of my mind: the real need to recognise that there remain some in key positions of power and influence – politicians, business leaders, investors and more – who are yet to acknowledge the urgent need for change, or be convinced of how to deliver it. 

This sobering fact presents huge barriers that can’t be ignored. The Strike will be a powerful and symbolic moment, but we can’t assume that this passion, appetite and commitment to act is prevalent worldwide, or in all the boardrooms of the very businesses we need to spearhead the wholesale systems change required.

At Forum, we believe we need to fundamentally reconfigure the systems on which we rely for our goods and services towards sustainable outcomes.

While we’re clear on the steps businesses can take towards developing a ‘Sustainability Plus’ strategy actually taking these steps will only be possible if you can tackle some of the many common barriers to systems change.  

So what are the barriers and what can be done?

Your Sustainability Plus strategy will need to be augmented by some smart moves. What can you expect and what can you do about it?

1. Short-termism

This isn’t a new barrier, but when it comes to designing for systems change for sustainability, it is very acute. Systems change doesn’t happen overnight, and can be a slow and uncertain process.

Smart move: use a model such as Three Horizons as a strategic framework. This helps decision-makers identify a suite of activities that respond to immediate business pressures (Horizon 1), understand how their operating context might change longer-term (Horizon 3), and critically, explore innovation pathways that bridge the short and long term (Horizon 2). 

2. Vested interests

Linked to short-termism, vested interests prevail when a strategy is asking individuals to give something up for something new and different.

Smart move: use the power of futures tools. Futures recognises that while it is not wise or even possible to predict the future, we can shape it – and the best way to start is by imagining the future we want to see. Consider trends, scenarios and visions to help individuals locate themselves in a different, future context. Help them re-imagine their role, their business, as a way of them letting go of today. Doing so will enable you to challenge assumptions about the way the world works and to map out routes to a more sustainable future.

3. Resistance to ambiguity and uncertainty

Systems change can be unpredictable and is certainly not a linear process. Answering precise questions about timings, investment decisions and key stakeholders to engage can be difficult.

Smart move: as above, use futures tools and techniques to open people’s minds to the fact that there are multiple, unique futures open to us, and that there is huge uncertainty about how some of our most pressing trends will play out. Immersion in possible different scenarios for the future will help people to understand the different trajectories our future might take and in doing so, allows us to understand how we can influence levers for change. For example, our work on <2°C Futures with the Aditya Birla Group identified four scenarios outlining what the business operating context could look like in 2040, and so help businesses with strategy development, innovation and investment decisions.

It also helps us understand that the future is something we can – and should - influence.  This might be uncertain, but we have some control.

Beyond this, there’s a need to create the enabling conditions for any internal change programme to embed. Consider:

  • Getting CEO support and endorsement (this is still, really, really needed)
  • Linking your sustainability strategy to your core strategy (a business struggles to deliver one strategy, let alone two)
  • Harnessing the standard levers of internal management processes, such as linking sustainability outcomes to performance metrics and incentives to deliver.

4. Mindset shift

Finally, there is one barrier that sits above all others: an unwillingness to accept that sustainability, never mind systems change for sustainability, is a strategic priority.

This brings us back to the Global Climate Strike and its potential to shift mindsets from ambivalence and complete disinterest in the climate and biodiversity emergencies to a newfound focus. What we need to create is a willingness and commitment to engage in becoming part of the solution.

So beyond the Strike, how else can we shift mindsets?

Step 1: bust the usual excuses 

Specifically tackle the usual excuses that I’ve heard from key decision makers when trying to engage them on sustainability, and particularly climate change. These include:

  • ‘A low, or no, carbon future threatens our business model’. Quite possibly. But surely better to work out what your business model looks like in a low carbon future now, and realise a competitive edge, than play a game of catch up, where there are bound to be plenty of losers
  • ‘Our investors aren’t interested’. We have already seen 990 institutions with $7.2 trillion under management declare some form of fossil fuel divestment. It’s only a matter of time before investors take the same divestment approach to other sectors with less obvious, but equally significant, carbon liabilities. The carbon emissions from agricultural production, for example, are not insignificant
  • ‘Our customers aren’t interested’. A survey in March 2019 showed that 53% of US consumers are passionate about the environment. When turning to younger profiles such as Gen Z, this figure jumps to 60%. And then there’s the current wave of youth activism sweeping the world. These are future consumers and future employees.   They really aren’t buying current excuses for inaction
  • ‘But consumers won’t pay more’. They don’t need to. Low carbon goods and services don’t need to cost more; with the obvious benefits of cutting carbon in production, they should actually cost less.

That’s four excuses dealt with. The reality is that there really are no excuses for business in action, or for anything short of transformational change.

Step 2: make an emotional case

I think the hard, inconvenient truth, might be that there is an excuse which hovers above the ones already listed: ‘I just don’t care enough to act’.

So how then, can we press the care button? There’s an undeniable moral imperative to take action. Again, use futures to help demonstrate this. We need to appeal to the heart as much as the head; the emotional as well as the rational. And there’s the old mantra: seeing is believing. How can we literally show people that change is possible, what it could look like, and what the benefits could be?

A few years back, Forum took a group of senior decision-makers from civil society, business and government to Germany to see community energy at scale. This was enough to convince the then lead of the UK’s National Trust to understand how the organisation might use its land as a home for various forms of renewable energy. It was the start of the community energy revolution in the UK.

To close, if you know someone who doesn’t quite care enough to embrace an urgent and decisive response to climate change, perhaps ask them to put themselves in the future. Did they mean to be complicit in stealing the future of the next generation? We are all in a position of influence in different parts of the economic and social systems that surround us. And, unlike the people you might need to convince, we do care enough to act, and to act now.