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Force for Good Pioneers

by Luisa Bramao Ramos

As a Research Volunteer at Tomorrow’s Company, I’ve had the privilege of listening in on some of the most inspiring conversations  out there about THE FUTURE . I would like to share one of those conversations here. The Force for Good New Pioneers workshop, that took place last Thursday at InterfaceFLOR, brought together a fantastic group of Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) savants from some of the biggest name companies out there.  Tania Ellis talked about her new book ‘The New Pioneers: Sustainable Business Success and Through Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship’ (see here); Ramon Arratia (Sustainability Director EMEA at InterfaceFLOR) talked about Full Product Transparency - a huge step forward in Interface’s journey to zero impact - and creating a wide-reaching Force for Good learning community was also discussed.

During my University heyday I was known as somewhat of a compulsive blogger, but of course the focus then was the complex social meanderings of student life and London life, and perhaps there were a few reflections on the content of my English degree. It is particularly pleasing to me now to be writing about a topic close to my heart and close to my generation’s heart; that is, sustainability and the future of our world. This workshop proved to be a stimulating environment for all, where sharing learnings and co-creating the initial framework for a new ‘forceforgood pioneers’ forum left all with a lighter spirit.

We went in with the idea of proposing an idea; the response was so overwhelming and enthusiastic that by the time the workshop came to a close the idea had grown into a full-bodied action plan. The outcome couldn’t have been better and to me it felt like I was in the middle of something truly electric. Let’s share that electricity! As someone said, let’s make this the centre of the Universe on sustainability issues. Yes, let’s!

As Tony Manwaring (Chief Executive at Tomorrow’s Company) pointed out, we are now entering a new “long term wave of economic development” - which we call the Age of Sustainability -  where the financial drag previously experienced becomes the source of innovation. Talent is scarce and natural resources are abundant might have been a statement that held true in the past but now the situation has flipped. Tomorrow’s Company argues that talent abounds and this will allow for the required innovation to deal with the scarcity of resources that we face. This innovation is pushing us towards the Age of Sustainability and moving us away from a high waste society.

Following the Tomorrow’s Company Triple Context model (to read more about it please click here), long-term value creation is now dependent on aligning environmental, social and economic drivers in order to co-create sustainable value.  A company operating in only one area (such as the economic) will probably not be around for long. Businesses are a unique source of potential power to innovate, shape lives through new business models and to improve the world. This is a potential that they should harness to not only better the world but also boost their success.

Tania then reminded us that in the past, the path ahead for young people was neatly split into two: either make money or save the world. The business of business was business. However, the rules to stay in business are dramatically changing.

Observe the progress: in 2005, The Economist asked the question, should companies be involved in CSR?  In 2008, it published a special issue on CSR and how it is generating social and economic value. In 2009 the financial crisis exploded. CSR became the ultimate stress test for sustainable businesses. 1/3 of companies engaged in CSR activities did cut down on these activities because of the crisis, perhaps suggesting that it only holds during times of economic boom. However, those engaged with CSR were also those that performed much better than their peers in financial markets during the worst of the crisis.

It is clear, Tania argues, that addressing global imbalances now creates new business opportunities and gives companies a competitive advantage. Examples are abundant: Triodos Bank, Virgin, Unilever, HP, Interface, among many others, have significantly leveraged business success on sustainable practices.

Denmark, Tania’s home country, is highly focused on Corporate Social Innovation. It is common practice to place the seeking of a solution to a global imbalance is at the core of your business. For Denmark, this has also become a way for their companies to differentiate themselves in the global market. All the while, they do a lot of good and do very well. See: Companies are no longer questioning why they should work around these principles, she says, the question now is HOW. The pyramid has been flipped and seeking self-realisation has become more important than satisfying physical needs. A new generation of students is also driving the sustainability movement forward (for instance, note the “Sustainable Student” group at the Copenhagen Business School). The Internet has now produced key social media networks and platforms that have opened the field for new types of business models. Much like the development of CSR, the development of the internet has seen it dramatically move away from just a way to communicate and obtain information to becoming a place for dialogue and relationships. This dramatic shift in thinking has permeated business structures. According to a United Nations Global Compact study that interviewed 760 CEOs, pre-recession 40% of them thought CSR was important.  Then, sustainability was also not part of a traditional operating model. Whereas post-recession 80% of these 760 CEOs think CSR is very important and 9% think it is critical. Dr. Mark Wade (a Trustee of Tomorrow’s Company) pointed out that despite this progress profound change is still needed to attain sustainability. The ‘Vision 2050’ study, undertaken by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, produced a visual mural that lays out the pathway to be followed over the next 40 years to ensure society does become sustainable. It is clear that a lot yet needs to be done. Take a look at it here. However, there is no question that there has been a shift in the way businesses operate, and a transformation in what we consider to be most important. The manner in which business needs and people’s needs are bridged has changed, and during the past 50 years there has been an overall shift in values. It was suggested that perhaps something revolutionary is happening, manifested in the current thinking about leadership and about business. CSR is driven from within this. It is new values being put into practice. All the current crises, be they environmental, social or economic are inter-linked and there is an acute pressure and inner motivation to overcome these. It requires heart. Tania, aptly paraphrasing the Dalai Lama, said that if you can’t give from the heart, give anyway, and the heart element will eventually come. This is perhaps the driving sentiment required in our time, and this is perhaps how we have all become, or are striving to become, more spiritual. Professor David Wheeler (Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Plymouth Business School) posed the following question: yes, there has been progress and change, but in reality, what is actually different about today’s conversation as compared to conversations had by industrialists in the 1850s? How do we take this lovely discourse about Western companies doing mostly the right thing and project that in a more global sense, one that transcends the western view and the capitalist model? Indeed, how do we make sustainability real for Africa, Asia and the entire globe? Without an all-inclusive approach, sustainability will not amount to much. Ramon then spoke about Interface’s view that the future of sustainability is hinged on promoting a shift from corporate to products. People buy products, not companies, so measuring sustainability should begin and end by measuring a products impact. To read more about Interface’s Environmental Product Declarations and Full Product Transparency policy go here. The discussion that followed pointed out that even in the tobacco or weapons industries, CSR reporting has become more honest and the products themselves have become more sustainable. However, an inherent problem is that there is no simple way to measure the impact of any given product, be it a carpet tile or a stadium, nor is there a simple way, as Mark pointed out, of making these numbers meaningful in a way that has traction and that will drive change. It is not just labelling, it is when for instance the price of energy goes up because one product consumes more, that numbers on a label actually start to take on significance. David followed on by saying that for some people, good fair trade indicators about a product are much more important than its carbon impact. So, how do we weigh up and differentiate what is valuable? Audiences and stakeholders have to be understood. Interface’s example nevertheless encourages others to innovate, provides competition and creates relevant sustainability accountability. When you link EPD facts and figures to reporting they become truly important as they are a much better measure of impact. Perhaps in the future, when one can amass what a product’s environmental, social and economic impact is and communicate it in an effective and meaningful way - and this is done so across the entire gamut of products in the world -the planet will be truly sustainable. There was a very positive response to the idea of creating a forum and a learning community that will carry these discussions into the future. It will exist both virtually and physically in order to allow for intimate and expert discussions that can be followed and informed by a global audience. It will tap into the student population that is eager to learn from the experience of those who live the field, and in a way that is more interactive than your typical lecture/speech. It will provide guidance and support to all those engaged in this complex area and this meeting of minds will hopefully generate some co-creative value. These can take on numerous forms; be they reports, toolkits or webinars that can later be accessed on YouTube. Most importantly, it will be a living and breathing community providing a platform where one can both learn and teach. This is what we’re currently working on. Back to the springboard!

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