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Why My OBE Shows That the Greatest Sustainability Challenges Lie Ahead, Not Behind Us

Sally Uren at the gates of Buckingham Palace on June 14, 2018. | Image credit: Forum for the Future

On Thursday, June 14th, I will be with my closest family at Buckingham Palace, proudly receiving my OBE. For those outside the UK, this may not mean much (unless you’ve been watching “The Crown”), but the award is a public recognition of doing something useful — in my case, for services to sustainability.

This is obviously a wonderful thing to happen, and as I tweeted when the New Years’ Honours List was published, it makes me feel proud and humble all at once. However, the reason I am most pleased is that the award is an important recognition of the wider sustainability movement.

Having worked for over 25 years to drive sustainable development with businesses, NGOs and governments, I’ve seen us accomplish a lot over the last two decades.

We’ve seen sustainability move from the periphery of business to the centre. It’s become incorporated into mainstream brands, and we’ve witnessed the successful emergence of brands with a purpose (for example, the continued success of Unilever’s sustainable living brands, growing 50 percent faster than the other brands in its portfolio). There are also the wonderful Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have caught the imagination of business, governments and civil society alike. Finally, we can see properly designed and properly financed multi-stakeholder collaborations such as Cotton 2040 and The Protein Challenge 2040, which bring together actors from the private, public and third sectors to solve complex sustainability challenges. And a circular economy is no longer an illustration on a PowerPoint slide; it’s beginning to happen.

This is all good stuff. But it isn’t enough. We are at a turning point right now when it comes to most of our pressing challenges. There is one future scenario where we are able to continue to scale a circular economy, adopt the principles of being Net Positive (restorative, systemic, material and transparent), innovate new business models, engage the energy and passion of all of us as individuals, and create a sustainable future.

Equally, there is a scenario where we continue to see the splintering of the global coherence so necessary for some of the most important policy interventions needed for a sustainable future; where we pursue growth at any cost, where we literally run out of stuff, and where we fail to listen to those wanting a different way of doing things and have lost trust in the institutions that were once expected to help create a safe and equitable world.

Never before has it been more critical to accelerate the pace of positive change. While the challenges that we face today in 2018 are more complicated than they were before, the approach we need hasn’t really changed. ‘Business as usual’ — for companies, for governments, for trusts and foundations, for civil society — just won’t deliver the SDGs. Nothing short of transformational change will do this.

This means taking a systems lens. We’ve already tackled a lot of the easy stuff. The next wave of sustainability is about driving systemic change — change that is long lasting and that allows the emergence of new patterns, new ways of doing things, new ways of operating that all underpin the emergence of sustainable systems to replace the broken ones we have today.

Sally Uren leading an Innovation Lab at SB'18 Vancouver. | Image credit: Debbie Kestin

Systems — be they organisations, societal structures, industrial sectors or natural ecosystems — are changing and shifting all the time. How might we harness this dynamism to direct it to deliver sustainable outcomes?

Firstly, we need to accept that the world is messy and complicated, and interconnected in often inconvenient ways. Individual organisations need to look way beyond the boundaries of their direct impacts and direct influence, and try and understand how they can shape the system around them to create positive change.

For a business, this means understanding the critical links between your core business and the world around you. For example, those in the agriculture and food systems need to build a sustainable food system, one that that will assure security of supply not just today, but tomorrow. For consumer goods businesses, how might you build the infrastructure that will allow your products to enter a closed-loop system? Continuing to take limited responsibility for what happens after the point of sale will get harder and harder as governments look to business to deliver economic growth without massive waste and pollution impacts.

For trusts and foundations, how might your risk-tolerant, patient capital help build the enabling societal and economic structures that can underpin the transition to a sustainable world? For governments, how might your policy instruments deliver catalytic change, as opposed to change of the short-term incremental type? For civil society, how might we use our voice, our purchasing power to reward the heroes striving for a sustainable future, as opposed to not really thinking about who has made our stuff?

As individuals, we need to have a clear vision of the change we are trying to create and a good understanding of how that change might happen. We need to be prepared to learn and flex our approach and understand how different approaches can be synergistic, not create friction and work against each other. We need passion — and to accept that no one has all the right answers — which in turns requires all of us to be just a little more humble.

Yes, I am proud to be receiving my OBE and I’ve now got quite a bit of experience, which helps me stop repeating the same mistakes again and again, but mistakes are still made. And that’s how we learn and become better change agents. But none of us working alone will get us to where we need to be. We need pioneers and leaders, organisations and individuals, from all sectors, from all geographies, from all ages to work together to create the future we want.


Sally is Chief Executive at Forum for the Future with overall responsibility for delivering Forum’s mission to accelerate a big shift towards a sustainable future by catalysing transformational change in global systems. This involves working with leading global organisations,… [Read more about Sally Uren]


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