Forum for the Future’s recently announced 2023-2025 strategy outlines our focus on enabling deep transformation in how we think about, produce, consume and value both food and energy, and the role of business in society and the economy.

Here, Forum’s Director - Americas, Sandra Seru, reflects on current progress in the U.S. and outlines five ways in which sustainability professionals can work towards deep transformation.

As sustainability professionals, one of our biggest challenges is holding the tension of multiple, often contradicting, truths. For example, renewable energy can both be our shining crown jewel, but without changes to current practices, it could also risk driving inequality and setting back the human rights agendas. Equally, while regenerative agriculture carries massive potential, many approaches focus single-mindedly on climate action, sometimes at the expense of farmer livelihoods, social inclusion and broader environmental outcomes.

Not addressing interconnected environmental and social challenges is one form of what Forum for the Future calls a ‘shallow transition’: well-meaning work, but work that falls short of what our planet and communities need to thrive. We all risk accidentally contributing to a shallow transition by not seeing, admitting to or addressing the conflicting truths in our lives. 

Given the urgency of our social and environmental challenges, it’s easy to understand how this happens. However, working in silos and not recognizing our broader impacts threatens the resilience of the very communities and ecosystems we seek to protect. We can’t afford such mistakes, but the good news is that we have the power to instead contribute to a deep and lasting transformation. 

In the U.S., a year of historic wins but more losses 

Shallow transitions can be hard to spot, but today, the opposing forces in the U.S. are clear. We saw a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ investment in climate action and public health primed to reduce domestic emissions by 40% by 2030. While it didn’t go far enough, it’s our best unified step forward yet. However, the historic reversal of Roe v. Wade stained our celebration. A monumental success of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is that it aims to center communities most at risk to the climate crisis. But doesn’t it fall short given that these same communities - mostly communities of color - will face devastating burdens on health, civil liberties, and broader social and economic systems not seen in decades following the rollback of reproductive rights?

There are many other positive signals of climate action - from the Security and Exchange Commission requiring ESG disclosures of all public companies, to California phasing out gas cars, and private ESG investment being at an all-time high. But there are many losses, beyond the devastation caused by droughts and extreme weather events - from reduced life expectancy and educational attainment, to economic inequality reaching a post-WWII high, and families going into debt to pay their grocery bills. Throughout, it’s Indigenous, Black, Latine and other traditionally marginalized communities who are experiencing the most severe impacts. 

No decarbonization without social justice 

The ever-increasing urgency of our challenges can feel daunting, depressing and perhaps even distracting. How can we radically decarbonize our economy if we are preoccupied by historic setbacks in health, education, and more? 

The new, inconvenient truth is, we have no choice. The root causes of our issues tie today’s environmental and social challenges together - from increasing polarization and misinformation, to economic models built to maximize profit at the expense of community and planetary resilience, to structural inequality. 

Take, for example, regenerative agriculture. It seems obvious, but if we want to sustain our agricultural system and evolve farming practices to be more ecologically and socially just, farm communities need to be thriving. Today, farm debt is at a record-breaking high, and younger generations are opting out of farming altogether. Agricultural land is diminishing fast, even faster for BIPOC farmers given structural racism in land subsidies and other relief. This loss is likely to be accelerated by new pressures on land from biofuels, as the transportation sector works to rapidly decarbonize. Meanwhile, polarization manifests itself locally in farming communities; some tell us they are reluctant to adopt regenerative agriculture fearing neighbors criticizing their ‘messy farms’ and ‘liberal’ views. Any training and new technology in support of regenerative agriculture must create conditions where farmers are empowered, center their experiences, work to drive equity and address other interconnected challenges.

A closer look: our individual contributions

The good news: U.S. companies, foundations and nonprofits have broadened their sustainability agendas significantly over the last 30 years to include both social and environmental challenges, with many of the 400 large companies making net positive or net zero commitments also prioritizing commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

However, many of these programs and solutions are still quite siloed. A company or foundation publicly committing to the climate and justice agendas might work on planting billions of trees but isn’t partnering with local communities to respect sovereign land rights or native ecosystems. Likewise, organizations procuring renewable energy might fail to look at their suppliers’ human rights record. One very common ‘shallow transition’ is linked to the wide-spread use of carbon offsets, which in some cases are linked to false decarbonization claims or human rights challenges. At best, this undermines our net positive and net zero goals, and at worst, it could result in net negative impacts on the planet and society. 

There are increasingly integrated and systemic approaches worth celebrating, such as Starbucks powering both its stores and wider communities with renewable energy and ClimateWorks launching a fund to integrate justice into its climate investments. Patagonia has many integrated approaches tackling economic and social barriers alongside environmental goals, but most recently displayed in a move to hand over financial ownership to an independent, environmental trust and NGO. These organizations recognize that our responses to the climate crisis need to drive multiple outcomes to avoid unintended consequences and even change the goals of the system.

Five ways we can all be part of this deep transformation

While there is no magic bullet, there are five ways changemakers in the U.S. might contribute to just and regenerative outcomes:

  • Dig deeper to identify root causes. Anxious for results at pace, we are prone to design a solution before fully understanding the problem. Root causes aren’t always visible at the outset, and we must understand interconnected, systemic barriers from multiple perspectives to design a solution that has lasting impact. The idea here is to go slow at the outset so that we can go faster and further. To learn more about systemic diagnosis, visit the School of System Change

  • Act in partnership. We only see a sliver of the systems we are a part of and collaboration is key to fully diagnosing the challenges we face. Trust is also a key barrier, and partnership in co-designing solutions can unlock acceleration. But collaborating well requires us to relinquish some of our power over decision making, let go of our ‘hero mentality’, and change the mindset that an individual organization must ‘win’ or be an ‘industry leader.’ In fact, leading is working in collaboration.  

  • Remember: justice is both an outcome and a process. Many well-meaning changemakers are prioritizing justice, but aren’t following a ‘just’ process in determining investments or designing solutions. What would it look like to meaningfully involve, or defer to, stakeholders in the decisions that impact them in ways that are inclusive and fair? Forum’s project, American Climate Futures, is looking to accelerate just solutions to the climate crisis in the U.S. and might provide inspiration.

  • Rethink our traditional sustainability tools. Many of our sustainability tools and processes, such as materiality assessments and sustainability reports, no longer feel fit-for-purpose. They tend to lean on experts rather than involve those on the front lines, and the reporting industry favors a company’s best side over honest appraisals of progress and lessons learned. While well-intended, these tools no longer meet our needs. It’s time to be courageous enough to innovate. Perhaps this means planning for our potential in a changing future, instead of our impacts in the present, or trading interview-based engagement with collective diagnosis, or considering new tools that support inclusive decision-making. 


Finally, I would be remiss to leave out a particularly material reality in our U.S. context. Our country is increasingly divided, and our communities and ecosystems are suffering from it. This division undermines almost every solution we are trying to mainstream. This, clearly, extends beyond our sphere of control - we must work with others to address the role of media and destructive algorithms in fueling polarized narratives, and support the many organizations working to bring Americans together as a United States.

But every one of us can play a role in bridging this destructive divide. Drawing inspiration from a recent study which showed that friendship across income lines is the biggest factor in addressing inequality, how can we support people to connect on a human level and build empathy? If we can build the trust needed to shift mindsets - the most powerful lever of systemic change - we can ultimately reinvent the way the world works.

Deep transformation is possible - a look at the food system

In terms of food transformation, Forum's vision is to create an agricultural system that’s capable of feeding more than nine billion people in healthy, affordable and sustainable ways. We’ve learned a lot about what it would take to get there through Growing our Future USA,a collaborative initiative to accelerate a deep transition to regenerative agriculture that centers social equity and environmental resilience. Co-created with representatives from over 135 diverse actors across the U.S. and made possible with funding from the Walmart Foundation, VF Foundation, David Rockefeller Fund and Nestle, it seeks to elevate the voices of BIPOC and other historically marginalized farm communities. 

Collaborative pilots are now underway, focused on finance mechanisms, agricultural policy, and pathways to market for regeneratively-produced products. These were all identified as systemic levers of change. The key learning so far is that this transition’s success will be determined by two core principles: that the transition will be deep, and so will involve all players in the system; and that it must be farmer-centered and address equity as well as environmental resilience.

Find out more about Forum’s 2023-2025 strategy, For a just and regenerative future. If you’re interested in working with Forum to think systemically, act faster and go further, email us at [email protected]. If you’re keen to immerse yourself in multiple systems change methods while learning with a network of practitioners, reach out to Forum’s sister organization, The School of System Change, at [email protected]