Leading a career that puts sustainability first: six things to look for

How can you look past today’s skewed outlook on sustainability and build a career that really acknowledges our limited resources? David Ko and Richard Busellato, authors of The Unsustainable Truth, offer six things to look for when considering your path

There is a lot of misunderstanding about what sustainability is really about. However, the simple fact is that to recognise there is a sustainability problem, we must first accept that resources are limited.

A skewed outlook

Today, we have a skewed outlook on sustainability, convinced that it is about finding a way to continue to produce what we can without damaging the world and its people. This is a business perspective where the objective is to meet targets on financial returns. The approach aims to persuade people that sustainability can be achieved either by perpetually reusing what we already have, or that technology will help find new resources.

Today’s business owners, the driving force behind this pursuit, are pension and savings institutions who operate on behalf of ordinary people – the same ones who are calling for a sustainable world. The wish of business owners is to look after the prospects of our future. It is all done with good intentions, but the truth is, when too much money is involved, good intentions become harmful. That is why no matter what we do, as long as we rely on money from our investments to provide for our futures, we cannot be sustainable.

Here are some basic facts that will help explain. In 2020, the pensions and savings from ordinary people worldwide already totalled over $100 trillion USD, and required more than a 10% return on that figure. It is even higher today. The 10% number is what pensions need to achieve so its members can avoid living in poverty when they retire. In practice, this means returning over $11 trillion USD a year, more than the value of all economic activities of Germany, France, the UK, and Italy combined.

This money exists on top of what we already need each year to pay wages and taxes, to spend on business’s developments, and of course, to top up our pensions and savings.

Growing by 10% means doubling output every seven years. At this pace, we cannot recycle enough to support a circular economy. If a clothing company produces one million items today and aims to make two million items in seven years, there will not be enough recycled materials to make the extra one million items. New materials will be required. So, if we grow by more than about 1%, then our need for new materials will exceed our planet’s ability to provide.

What to look for from companies

1. Double-check a company’s growth targets

If you are a graduate looking to make a genuine step towards sustainability, look at the policies of the companies you are interested in and ask, ‘is it targeting annual growth of more than 1%’? Beyond that, you can be pretty sure its policies are free-riding off someone behaving badly.

2. Be wary of ‘recycled materials’

Take for example, a company we like, Patagonia. They have a very sensible policy to move to using only recycled materials. However, if it is only able to recycle the extra million items because another company has produced them from new materials first, then what have we actually achieved? Sustainability needs us to look at the whole planet, what everyone else is doing. It is easy for us to claim that what we do is good. But in a world with limited resources, we have to ask, are we simply becoming free-riders?

Worse still, one person’s recycling can become the justification for others to use up new resources. When we build our business based on not wasting other people’s wastes, we actually end up encouraging more waste to be produced.

3. Try to challenge traditional takes on productivity

In the late 1920s, Henry Ford improved production to the extent that, at his more advanced plants, a new Model-T car rolled off the assembly line once every 10 seconds. Today, we are producing three cars every second, 24 hours a day, every day, including holidays. We are also burning more than a thousand barrels of oil per second to facilitate all of this. All of this is promoted by an efficiency focused on how many units can be produced per unit of input, and a marketing philosophy of ‘build it and they will come’.

This constant cycle of production is fed by outdated ideas of productivity and efficiency. In a truly sustainable world, we need to rethink all these choices.

4. Understand that real sustainability work adapts to people, not vice versa

Sustainability is ultimately about protecting people’s dignity and purpose for living even when life is hard and difficult. So, how can we keep working in a purposeful and rewarding way into old age without relying on money from investments? To do this, people should not adapt to work, instead we need a diversity of work to fit our different abilities. It is about experimenting with rewilding our human economy just as we are learning to ‘re-wild’ our natural environments.

5. Be prepared to challenge norms

Graduates today that are seriously interested in sustainability will have to address some real challenges. How can businesses collaborate so that we can have a natural means of preventing too many activities from happening? How can we move from a responsibility of looking good, to one of accepting that it is hard for ourselves and others to do things. This is so alien to what our schools and education teach us, emphasising that we must treat resources as precious, not a means for greater output.

6. Look for a business’s purpose before profit

For a young person entering into a company and hoping to influence it for the better, the biggest challenge is to be practical. Sustainability is about the survival of a company. How can it thrive when there is no volume growth? This requires a focus on the company’s real work – what is its natural niche so that it can rein back the financial, operational and climate leverages, and the implicit reliance on others doing more? It is about thinking beyond the gimmicks of doing good to focus on what is necessary, so that in the face of rising costs and hardship, the business will still have a niche and something to make it stand out.

David Ko (left) and Richard Busellato are Co-Founders of Rethinking Choices and authors of The Unsustainable Truth (2021). They are experienced investment managers turned sustainability advocates, having left the finance industry in recognition of the damage that expecting constant returns on investment causes to people and the planet. 

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