The Big Pivot to Sustainability Requires a Change in Our Worldview

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The Big Pivot to Sustainability Requires a Change in Our Worldview

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Thursday, September 29, 2016 - 10:00am

CONTENT: Article

My life path has taken me to a personal pivot towards sustainability. Currently I work as a scientist for a company that applies green chemistry principles to transform renewable resources into high-performance biomaterials.

As a part time student of the Certificate in CSR/Sustainability at U of T, I recently wrote a book review for The Big Pivot by Andrew Winston. It left me with “an unmet hunger for more cases of corporate socially responsible behavior and allowed me to see more clearly how a better understanding of externalities can lead to a big corporate payoff.  

My hunger to be a greater positive force in the world is what led me back to school to build upon my PhD and Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry. Last year I joined the 2015/2016 Certificate in CSR/Sustainability at the University of St. Michael’s College at U of T with a desire to become a more conscious leader (in my life, at work and in my community) and to build an increased capacity to deliver positive change.

In the Certificate Program we are given the opportunity to reflect upon our values, role as changemakers and leadership skills in the context of today’s Sustainability challenges, and for me The Big Pivot played a significant role in that journey.

The Big Pivot by Andrew Winston

“I’ve aimed to provide a framework for thinking about the mega challenges we face and the strategies companies need to employ to manage and profit from these challenges. . . . My goal is to create a sense of urgency and provide a roadmap along with some key examples.”   –Andrew Winston

The Big Pivot addresses a nonnegotiable major shift in business perspective, priorities and consciousness. The driving forces for this radical change are three “mega challenges”: a hotter planet due to climate change; scarcer resources due to relentless depletion and population growth; and a more transparent and open world due to interconnectedness.

Looking for a business case is ironic. No time can be wasted.

The evidence for climate change is insurmountable and painfully close to home (referring to the United States), such as the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. “There is nothing exclusively local,” writes Winston, in the inherently transparent connection between the death toll in a Bangladeshi textile factory and the big brands that feed their supply chain with the fruit of the unsafe labor of exploited children. “Nobody can deny resource constraints” brought about by our ecological footprint, exponential population increase and middle class emergence.  

“What is the business case for ending life on earth?” Winston asks rhetorically. Looking for a business case is ironic. No time can be wasted, he believes. The mega challenges are real and interconnected. I am in full agreement, Mr. Winston!

Using lenses of increasing magnifying power, Winston masterfully translates complex urgent needs into digestible actionable items: 

Big picture (macro view): Winston makes a clear reference to capitalism challenges: “We can’t prioritize short term profit maximization and an idealized version of markets over ensuring our prosperity and survival” and the need for a Big Pivot in the way we think about and use this macroeconomic system.

Business picture (micro view): “In the natural world, nothing goes to waste,” Winston states. Three nature-inspired principles guide Big Pivot business thinking: decoupling growth from material use; regeneration by restoring resources; and circularity by closing loops and zeroing inputs and waste.

Individual picture (nano view): “We evolved to recognize threats that are visible, credible, short-term and right in front of our face,” and we are able to handle a “finite pool of worry.” The Big Pivot is about an intentional and well-informed change in our collective worldview: a change of heart. 

The Big Pivot is about a global change in our collective worldview

The author’s thesis resonates with my values. Winston’s concise writing style reflects the urgency of the actions needed. Although the book relies mostly on examples of large, American, B2C public companies; it is a good contribution to the sustainability practice of any company. 

I would recommend the book to others in the CSR field. However, I would also recommend exercising cautious skepticism. My caveat when I read books written by consultants is: To what extent does the book support the consultant’s business? A critical reader might experience an aftertaste from some of the examples that support Big Pivot strategies. It would have been refreshing to find examples of SMEs addressing the mega-challenges.

I felt like the book missed the opportunity to further explore the societal aspects of CSR

One of the book’s weaknesses is its lack of depth when addressing the societal leg of CSR. I felt like the book stopped short when it came time to deliver on more stories of corporate socially responsible behavior, i.e., activities intrinsically motivated but contrary to shareholder interests.  With a few exceptions, the examples cited do not go beyond illustrating self-interested business survival and profitability-seeking activities.

Despite my reservations, one important contribution made by this book to my own CSR practice is Chapter 9, redefinition of ROI and the “unvalued” in corporate finance. Winston explains, “In business there are many contributors to value that we fail to put a number on.” Externalities such as ecosystem services and internal intangibles such as talent attraction and business resilience are examples. One close to home: Stakeholders with a broader definition of value have made the strategic choice of investing in EcoSynthetix since 2011.

I would recommend the book to others in the CSR field.

Pivoting is not just a practical strategy of risk avoidance for business survival. It is also about thriving by embracing new and enormous opportunities for business profitability. More important, pivoting is about sustainability leadership.

I am thankful to the CSR Certificate Program and EcoSynthetix Corporation for allowing me to share these thoughts.

The Graduate Certificate in CSR/Sustainability is currently accepting applications for the 2016/2017 program.  The first session starts in October, 2016.  Only 25 spaces are available. You can find more information on the program here.
About Sabina Di Risio:

Sabina works at the Center of Innovation of EcoSynthetix Corporation located in Burlington, ON, Canada since 2012. EcoSynthetix applies Green Chemistry to transform renewable resources into high-performance biomaterials. Between 2009 and 2012 she worked for Mascoma Canada (formerly SunOpta BioProcess Inc.) in projects related to the conversion of lignocellulose to renewable fuels and chemicals. 

Sabina holds Ph.D. (2009) and M.A.Sc. (2005) degrees from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry at the University of Toronto. She is part of the 2015/2016 Graduating Class of the Certificate in Corporate Social Responsibility at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. To connect with Sabina please visit her LinkedIn page or email her directly. 

Keywords: Education | Andrew Winston | Book Review | Business & Trade | Certificate in CSR/Sustainability | The Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series | big pivot | car | sustainability

CONTENT: Article