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What Difference Does One Make?

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My family eats a mostly vegetarian diet. Some kids at school were making fun of my 9-year-old son, telling him how great meat tastes. Before diving into the challenge of dealing with childhood peers, I asked him if he knew why we’re vegetarian. When it was clear he didn’t (that’s on me), I started to tell him about the environmental impacts of meat as it’s currently produced, health benefits, and animal welfare.

Then he asked the big question: “But there’s only 4 of us, so what difference does it make if we’re vegetarian?” Before I get to my answer, let me say that I’ve faced similar questions many times, and at all scales:

  • 1 person: What difference does it make if I buy green cleaning products (or take the bus, get a hybrid car, put up solar, etc)? I’m just one person.
  • 1 company: Does it really matter if we ask our suppliers to eliminate a chemical or if we go to mostly renewable energy? We’re just one company.
  • 1 country: Why should the U.S. do something on carbon emissions? We’re only one country.

This last one is shockingly common and one of the big, crumbling myths on tackling climate change. Before leaving the presidential race, Senator Rubio said the U.S. shouldn’t reduce carbon emissions because China and India will still pollute. And, he added, "America is not a planet. It's a country."

Even without the dated views on what other countries are doing (China spends way more than we do on clean energy), we can dismiss the country-level question because it’s, well, ridiculous…especially for the U.S. When you use or produce 25 to 50% of anything – be it carbon emissions, food, weapons, or rubber duckies – what you do matters.

The company-level question is only marginally better. For small companies, it’s a concern. But I hear this question from people at mostly very large companies. And what they do in their own operations, or what they ask of suppliers, does in fact matter very much (and creates real value for the business anyway). But that said, it is true that, in order to tackle systemic problems, even the largest companies need to collaborate (sometimes radically and pre-competitively as I wrote about last week). Still, one large company can drive enormous change.

So the real challenge here is the question about individuals.

With more than 7 billion people on the planet, of course each choice we make – about what to do with our time, our money, our consumption, and our vote – doesn’t technically matter. It’s a drop in the ocean. But at the same time, of course each choice matters – it’s the only thing that does. (*Cue the the Margaret Mead or Dalai Lama quotes on changing the world).

Bottom line: If your choices don’t have an impact, do you? Why even get out of bed?

So I told my 9-year-old son that yes, we’re only 4 people making the best choices we can…but along with millions of our friends, our choices make a very real difference. My son said, “But we don’t have millions of friends.”

Yes, I told him, yes we do.


*Quotes on change:

Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Dalai Lama: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Bob Moawad: “You can't make footprints in the sands of time by sitting on your butt. And who wants to leave buttprints in the sands of time?”


This article was previously published on Andrew Winston's blog on March 30, 2016.


Andrew Winston is a globally recognized expert on how companies can navigate and profit from the world’s biggest environmental and social challenges. His first book, Green to Gold, sold over 100,000 copies in seven languages. Inc Magazine included Green to… [Read more about Andrew Winston]