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ESG lessons from a Blue Zone

Personal observations while on vacation in Sardinia

Cape of San Giovanni, southern Sardinia (personal photograph)

I write this as I chomp down on pieces of a cool, ripe, sweet white melon from Sardinia, picked from a farm just a couple of days ago.

My family and I had a chance to visit friends in Cabras, on the south-western side of the island of Sardinia, Italy. We spent a week in a sun-filled bliss of transparent blue seas, rocky beaches, gentle sea breezes, laughs around the family table, sumptuous meals, and immersed ourselves in an unexpected learning experience along the way.

What is a Blue Zone?

Some three decades ago, scientists observed that a disproportionate number of people in 5 specific regions around the globe (Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, California) lived to the age of more than 100 years. In 1995, a set of scientists from National Geographic set out to find the reasons for this phenomenon, and published their findings. The following factors stood out:

  1. Engagement in family life
  2. Engagement with community
  3. Engagement in some type of spiritual belief system
  4. Moderate, regular physical activity
  5. Moderate caloric intake
  6. Moderate alcohol intake
  7. Bias of a plant-based diet
  8. Life purpose

What is ESG?

ESG is an acronym for Environment, Social, and Governance, and is very much in the parlance of corporate and financial discussions today. Although ESG is currently (and mostly) applied to the business world in terms of corporate social responsibility (CSR), corporate governance, and environmental sustainability, in Blue Zones, these principles are applied on a personal level.

A first-hand view of life in a Blue Zone

During our vacation, I had a chance to observe each of these principles in-situ, and on a personal basis, and made the connection between these two seemingly disparate notions.

1. Multi-generational living fosters an active family life

Paola (44 years old), our host and friend, invited us to stay with her two daughters (10 and 8 years old) and her parents (in their upper 60s), all of whom live under the same roof, in an average sized house in Cabras, a small town of about 9,000 people. This type of living accommodation allowed the children to interact actively with the grandparents (‘nonna’ and ‘nonno’), and eliminated the need for additional cost and construction of living accommodation, and constituted a fun-filled and active family life and learning experiences for the daughters. Further, it built stronger bonds between all members of the family.

2. Engagement with community

Don Octavio and his wife (Paola’s parents) are engaged in running their own architectural firm, and specialize in designing churches and public spaces, enabling them to actively engage with the community on many matters. Apart from their professional endeavors, they also own a shared farm of 29 olive trees which furnishes the consumption needs of their entire extended family, and also exchange their olive oil for fruits and vegetables from their friends’ farms (from where I got my melon that I’m eating right now!). They build their networks through farming, exchanging goods, and fostering knowledge about farming and agriculture, which seems to be rooted in the DNA of everyone around them. They rarely venture to the supermarket for their produce. While we were there, a family friend, Fortunato (a goat and sheep farmer from a nearby village) stopped by to give the family some cured salami from his livestock and barbecued some of his fresh lamb chops.

3. Engagement in some form of spirituality

Needless to say, Sardinia is quite staunchly Catholic, and so going to church is just a natural extension of their lives, and enables them to further their reach into the community on this basis. The spirituality bonded the family at a different level, and created the strong set of family values which they live by.

4. Moderate, regular physical activity

The family is active in their garden, which is common across the island, where everyone has their plot of land to lounge around in as well as reap its benefits in terms of fruit and vegetable produce. Don Octavio grows his own bananas, herbs, and a few other vegetables. Between tending to his little plot during breaks from his architectural work, and his olive farm, this provides him with regular physical activity done in moderation, and comes naturally to him.

5. Moderate caloric intake

While we stayed with them, our meals were fabulous (and not just because we were visiting — they ate like this every day!). Meals were more a time to exchange encounters and have discussions, and the family was mindful about what they ate and how much of it they ate. There was never food left on the plate, nor leftovers that lasted more than a day. The meals were balanced and tasty.

6. Moderate alcohol intake

Drinking a glass of local wine (the Vermentino and Cagnulari varietals) with dinner was not uncommon, and rarely did the adults drink more than one glass. The wines were mostly dry and paired brilliantly with the meals.

7. Bias of a plant-based diet

Most of our lunches and dinners comprised of antipasti such as local melons with local ham, fire-roasted eggplant and zucchini with a drizzle of local olive oil, salt and pepper, fresh tomatoes and arugula from their friend’s farm, with just some olive oil and a drizzle of a delicious balsamic vinegar. The ‘primi’ was typically a local pasta form called gnocchetti, topped simply with parsley (from their herb garden) and olive oil, with a grating of a pungent local favorite, bottarga (cured fish roe), and followed by a ‘secondi’ consisting of freshly caught local fish from the nearby sea, prepared simply with parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil. For dessert, we typically had locally picked fruit.

8. Life purpose

While Cabras is not a metropolis, everyone seems to have a purpose and are seen bustling through the streets on their missions. Don Octavio and his wife are actively running their firm, with Paola supervising some projects and working remotely on a volunteer project in Brazil. Life appears to be filled with purpose and higher objectives.

So how does ESG fit into this picture?

This Blue Zone lifestyle is not only compatible with but actually embodies the principles of ESG.

From an Environmental perspective, the notion of family engagement has acute implications on construction formats and reduction of material usage (especially concrete) since multi-generational living is part of the Blue Zone lifestyle. Engagement with community naturally extends into the shared-economy model of living. Having a predominantly plant-based diet ensures that land usage for agriculture is focused on non-destructive elements like cattle. Preference for local fish over meats combined with moderation of caloric intake also de-stresses the over-fishing situation and reduces waste.

From a Social perspective, the community-based living emphasizes development of family and neighborhood bonds and co-development of each others’ lifestyles and social bonds within the community. Further, the multi-generational living enhances education and skills development of the younger generation. Since people are looking out for each other, it reduces the stress on healthcare facilities and reduces costs for both the individuals as well as for the authorities. Engagement in a spiritual activity further enhances these bonds. The moderate and regular physical activity in natural ways enhances both the community aspect as well as serves as a social bond while relying less on machinery and more on manual labor.

From a Governance perspective, the community looks after its own, creating a natural balance and social pressure to conform to the island’s lifestyle and a conservative way of living without loss of quality of life (and in fact enhances it).

Paola (middle right) and her family with my family

My key takeaway from this Blue Zone vacation is that ESG is naturally a part of this lifestyle without any special effort to include it as part of the daily way of living. Blue Zones can provide us with valuable lessons on ESG and how to incorporate it into not only personal lives but enterprises in an organic and natural way, to better embed these principles and do good in the same stroke.

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The Supply Chain of a company is the primary driver of its Environmental, Societal, and Governance (ESG) impact. ESG8 provides quantitative and qualitative strategies to measure, manage, and monitor supply chain related ESG factors in an enterprise.

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Deep Parekh, PhD

Deep Parekh, PhD

I’m a Belgium-based serial entrepreneur working at the intersection of Business, Technology, Society, and Policy, with a PhD in Business Model Dynamics.

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