Stop Bashing Sustainability Fails, Encourage Them!
We must encourage every step, big or small.
I’m not sure whether I should really compensate for my flights. I mean, can you be sure the money is really going to the right cause? How much money is going in private pockets rather than in compensation projects?
A few nights back, a discussion about sustainability and Fridays for Future: This statement of a friend has a valid argument, granted, but hidden underneath, it actually creates an enormous problem. To be more precise, an enormous psychological problem.
The problem is the resulting action of that argument. The action is: doing nothing! He is still not compensating for his flights. Although he knows, it’s a good thing, the doubt is holding him back, paralyzing him. Or, provocatively, the doubt is just a good excuse for doing nothing.
Because compensating is uncomfortable. Its taking money out of your pocket, its taking time out of your precious life. For what? You gain nothing other than a contribution receipt and a good night’s sleep for being a good Samaritan today.
I observe this psychological effect not only with individuals but with companies as well: Easyjet recently pledged to compensate for carbon emissions of all their flights. The public response to that was bashing and criticizing that step, because they don’t compensate for all of the negative effects of flying, just focusing on the CO2. Again, I think, the argument is valid and true, but the psychological effect is the same: I doubt, any other airline will match that move when they will expect that negative bashing that Easyjet experienced. They will do nothing. They will remain defensive rather than bold in the discussion about sustainability.
And I would totally understand that. As a manager, I wouldn’t go down that road either because it feels too risky: For every small thing you try to improve, there are five other things you still don’t do right. Bashing the one small thing because of the neglected other five cannot be our way forward to answer Climate Crisis. But praising the one thing and ignoring the other five is neither the right approach. So how do we get out of the dilemma?
A call for iterative thinking for sustainability
That dilemma isn’t necessarily new. Coming from a business and design background, we love to call these dilemmas “wicked problems”:
A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that can not be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem. Wikipedia
The good news here is: there are methods out there, that successfully solve those complex, wicked problems. Most likely, you stumbled upon these already when you are familiar with terms like Design Thinking, Agile, etc. What they have in common to solve these problems is to stop being perfectionistic but iterate your way forward to a solution.
With sustainability, there is no perfect solution. So stop bashing the imperfect because it’s not perfect yet.
Why exactly is there no perfect solution you may ask? Here are a few reasons:
- We don’t know what sustainability actually is! Sounds bizarre, right? Let me take you on a quick detour: sustainability basically means that we don’t use more resources (do harm) than the earth can cope with (regeneration rate). The mathematical equation would be: resource consumption < regeneration rate. Agreed so far? Ok, here is the scientific problem: We don’t know for sure the exact regeneration rate. Because we don’t understand the underlying ecological systems and interactions well enough. The only thing we can do is estimate: 2 degrees of global warming for instance. That is a scientific estimate for “the earth cannot regenerate above such a level”. It’s the best estimate we have, but it’s still an estimate
- Rebound effects: A second problem is an effect called rebound effect and basically describes that new solutions lead to new user behavior that you could not foresee and may have negative ramification that you did not anticipate. Quick example: car sharing is a new solution aiming to reduce car purchases and hence saving resources. Car sharing could, however, convince people to leave their bikes behind (e.g. when it’s rainy) and use the car-sharing service instead. So that user switches from a climate-friendly solution (bike) to a carbon-negative solution (car). Such rebound effects can set off positive intention and make it even worse. But the problem is: you usually don’t know about rebound effect until they are already happening out there.
- Sustainability is super complex: A while back I really applied myself to the topic of sustainability innovations and their potential sustainability effects. My conclusion: as an innovator you could/should/must consider 27 areas in which your innovation might have positive or negative impacts (a model called Sustainability Innovation Cube; see picture below). And in theory, you must outweigh each one of them to assess whether you actually have a positive sustainability balance of your intended solutions. That is super complex. And the risk of bashing because of a negative effect in one of those areas is enormous.
The solution? Not bashing but encouraging iterations!
With these challenges in mind, the chances of getting it right the first time are basically zero (my estimate). No chance, you will create sustainability innovations with your first shot. You are bound to fail. Instead, you shouldn’t aim for the perfect sustainability innovation altogether but go for sustainability-oriented innovations.
Accept the fact, that sustainability solutions will never be perfect, but still try to be better than the status quo anyway.
So how do we react to such sustainability failures?
The psychological effect of bashing failures
Stay with me for a little bit longer to understand the problem in failure bashing by sharing this psychological study of how feedback affects results: more than 30 years ago, Stanford professor Carol Dweck studied the attitude of students towards failure and how the feedback of their teachers affected their performance in solving pre-defined problems. This study laid the foundation of what we know call “growth mindset”.
The study divided students into two groups that got different feedback from their teachers about their initial performance in a test. After a first test, students received another test in which they intentionally had to fail. The subsequent feedback of the teachers was different: One teacher praised the intelligence of the students, the other teacher praised the effort of the students. After that, they did another test. And the results were astonishing:
The group that receives praise for their efforts increased their performance, while the performance of the other group dropped significantly. So the way the teachers dealt with failure had a significant impact on the performance of their students. The underlying psychological effect here is, that students in the “effort praise” group believed they can improve their performance if they put more effort into it and were encouraged. The other group believed that intelligence is pre-defined and cannot be changed. Hence, when they failed they assumed it’s related to their intelligence which they cannot change so they stopped putting more effort into the tests (these are my simplified words of the result of that study).
So why is this interesting for sustainability? Well, I do believe that our reaction to individual or business failure, when it comes to sustainability improvements, will eventually encourage or discourage those who put in some effort to improve. Bashing will leave companies and individuals frustrated and they will stop doing any more steps. Encouraging the effort and supporting additional steps will increase their motivation.
Let’s encourage sustainability fails and iterative action
We should all encourage that iterative thinking to stop doing nothing and iterating our way forward. We can only solve our climate crisis step by step. We must encourage every step, if small or big, and at the same time remind ourselves that we are not there yet, that we cannot stop walking just because we did the first step ( just like Easyjet).
That balance of public encouragement and challenging at the same time, that fragile, concerted balance is pushing us forward. Not bashing!