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The Power Of Purpose: Abundance Is The New Sustainability

Abundance is the New Sustainability Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

For a while now, I’ve been struggling with the word ‘sustainability’. Don’t get me wrong: I think it is a worthy goal and it is encouraging to see how pretty much every major Fortune 500 company now has a sustainability strategy in place. But to me, sustainability as a goal seems like such a low bar to achieve: ‘the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.’ It seems especially unambitious given the scale of the urgent challenges we face as a planet: how we as humans have wiped out 60% of the animal populations since 1970 according to the recent sobering report by the WWF; about how we are rapidly approaching the ‘tipping point’ where climate change could spiral out of control, leaving us with a runaway vicious cycle of global devastation. (By the way, I think we should start referring to ‘climate change’ as the ‘climate apocalypse’ to give the issue its proper sense of crisis, but that’s a whole separate article).

One of the most foundational thinkers preaching a more optimistic worldview is Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize Foundation and Singularity University whose book ‘Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think’ (co-authored with Peter Koettler) should be required reading for every CEO and CMO. In it, he argues that the arrival of new ‘exponential’ technologies such as clean energy, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, synthetic biology, nanotechnology and others will lead to a flourishing in human society where we can approach a state of ‘abundance’: where we can provide nine billion people on this planet with the same standard of living that currently, those in the most privileged societies enjoy. As he puts it in the book, “Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet.”

I believe that ‘Abundance’ should be the new ‘Sustainability’: the collective goal that we set for ourselves as the ‘moonshot’ of our time. We have the tools and technologies to rebuild what we have broken: what is missing is our collective will to put aside the tribalism and partisan bickering that occupies our consciousness, and focus on the far bigger threat that is facing us : species-level extinction on an unimaginable scale (which by the way, this planet already has seen five of already). If a hostile alien force was to arrive tomorrow, humanity would band together in a hurry: the threat we are facing is far greater than anything Spielberg could envision on a cinema screen.

Here’s some good news. When it comes to energy, we have more than we could ever use: in 88 minutes, 470 exajoules of energy from the sun hits the Earth’s surface, as much energy as humanity consumes in a year.  The price of solar is now falling well below the prices of fossil fuels, and we are rapidly ramping up production of solar panels and batteries to the point where they can start to be widely adopted across the world, creating an energy abundance that can fuel many of the other technologies needed to win this battle (much like the exponential increase in computing power and reduction in price predicted in Moore’s Law lead to the proliferation of cheaper and more powerful devices that we now carry around in our pockets).

Aside from energy, the other uber-challenge facing humanity is water: only 1% of the planet’s water is drinkable, and with much of that becoming tainted with everything from nitrates to antibiotics, the issue has been how to find enough to sustain our ever-growing needs. Recently, Diamandis’s X-Prize Foundation (which issues crowd-sourced challenges around some of humanities biggest problems) awarded their Water Abundance X-Prize (powered by the Tata Group and Australian Aid) to the Skysource / Skywater Alliance, based in Venice Beach, California, which received a grand prize of $1.5M for developing an easily deployable high-volume water generator that can be used in any climate, meeting the competition parameters of extracting a minimum of 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using 100 percent renewable energy, at a cost of no more than two cents per liter. It turns out there is more water in our atmosphere than in all our rivers combined. I believe breakthroughs like this could in the long term lead to ‘water generators’ being as common-place as solar panels, leading to a decentralized ‘water internet’ that greatly reduces the dependence on increasingly polluted centralized water systems.

I believe corporations have an essential role to play in this journey—because corporations and government are two of the only things that work in trillions; at the scale and speed that these problems need to be addressed. After McDonald’s announced its decision to move to cage-free eggs (the company buys more than 2 billion a year), over 200 companies followed suit. Uber has announced plans to make its entire fleet of cars in London all-electric by 2025 to address the problem of city pollution. Adidas is set to make over a billion dollars this year by selling its Parley for the Ocean sneakers made out of waste ocean plastic. Silicon Valley entities like Chamath Palihapitiya’s Social Capital is ‘a partnership of philanthropists, technologists, and capitalists utilizing venture capital as a force to create value and change on a global scale’ that is doing fascinating work in tackling problems in unique ways. As Diamandis himself has said ‘the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities’. Companies are waking up to the massive business potential of tackling the world’s problems in ways that drive revenue. As Lesa Ukman, founder of Pro Social Valuation has said ‘We are moving past the era of corporate social responsibility to corporate social opportunity.’

I believe that corporations and government have to work in tandem: the government can raise the ‘floor’ (for instance, in the automobile sector via raising CAFE standards around fuel consumption) while corporations can raise the ‘ceiling’ (the success of Tesla has pushed every single major car manufacturer to accelerate the launch of their own electric cars). Whether it is at the federal, state or city level, government has a role to play in this movement – to regulate wisely, to provide a check and balance, but to also nurture and grow the private sector, by partnering with them in new and innovative ways. Unprecedented problems require unprecedented partnerships.

I also believe that the idea of ‘abundance’ should cover more than environmental issues – but also extend to the idea of people and social justice. Some of America’s biggest corporations including Apple, Pfizer, Microsoft, and Marriott are on the frontlines of the battle for LGBTQ issues. Starbucks announced that ‘every benefits-eligible U.S. partner working part- or full-time will receive 100% tuition coverage for a first-time bachelor’s degree through Arizona State University’s online program.’ Progressive companies like Greystone Bakery are proposing an idea that I think every single company in America should embrace: the idea of ‘Open Hiring’, which fills jobs without judging applicants or asking any questions, creating opportunities for those who have been kept out of the workforce (which includes women, men, people of color, people of all faiths and sexual orientations, immigrants and refugees, those living in poverty or who have spent time in prison, and anyone else who has faced barriers to employment.) 

I propose that Chief Sustainability Officers should rename themselves ‘Chief Abundance Officers’—and that they should radically re-frame their definition of ROI to not only include environmental but social impact as well. We need a more holistic view of measuring the ‘good’ that a company does – and the positive impact that it has on a multitude of different factors ranging from brand value and brand equity, to advocacy and loyalty, to employee engagement, and recruitment and retention. The data is now clear on how hitherto ‘soft’ measures like diversity and gender representation now contribute to financial performance. Companies with the most amount of female board directors outperform those with the least by 66% on a return on invested capital. Companies with above-average total diversity have both 19% points higher innovation revenues and 9% points higher EBIT margins. And companies which provide their employees with opportunities for volunteering and fundraising have 57% less turnover (the average cost of replacing an employee is 1.2 times their annual salary). 

 According to Gallup, a staggering 87% of employees worldwide are not engaged at work; while those companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share. How do we engage these 87% and unlock this huge pool of talent? Well, when asked about career goals at work, whether it was Millennials, Gen X or Baby Boomers, the answer was the same: the desire to ‘help solve social and/or environmental challenges’. Entrepreneur and activist Justin Dillon in his brilliant book ‘A Selfish Plan to Change The World’ sums it up beautifully: ‘Half the world has a poverty of means. The other half has a poverty of meaning.’ Corporations are one of the few things that can solve both: creating products and services that meet the needs of the ‘bottom billion’ of this planet which help raise them out of poverty and into a world of opportunity; while also giving those who already have means but are hungry for meaning and purpose in their life the chance to work on these problems in a way that will unleash their potential and make them proud of the legacy they leave behind.

What is awesome to behold is how quickly we as a species can take action: witness the speed with which the global attention to the problem of plastic – and the ensuing bans on plastic products – have taken hold. Regenerative agriculture has huge potential to not only reduce our dependence on chemically-driven industrial farming – but also pull carbon out of the air and into the soil. The Powerhouse movement out of Norway proposes we move beyond LEED certification into a world of buildings which are ‘net-positive’ – that give back more to their neighborhoods than they consume. The world’s collective decision to fix the hole in the ozone layer is paying off – albeit 30 years later. We are waking up to the potential of the blockchain and bitcoin to create a different technological and financial infrastructure on which to build new enterprises, in a way that democratizes opportunity for the many, not the few. 

The difference is us. It’s going to take a radical shift in our own consumption habits: it takes roughly 1 million pounds of materials annually to support one American’s lifestyle, and less than 1 percent of everything we produce is still in use after six months. It’s going to take us putting aside the labels that separate us – Democrat or Republican, Red State or Blue State – and seeing our common humanity. It’s going to take those of us working in the corporate sector ripping up the rulebook of ‘business as usual’ and finding new ways to innovate, new ways to be leaders. It’s going to mean letting our values drive our value; acting with a sense of moral responsibility, not just financial. As Starbuck’s CEO Howard Schultz put it recently, ‘Not every business decision is an economic one.’ As we say in our book ‘Good is the New Cool’, ‘If we don’t deal with income inequality, no one will be able to afford our products. If we don’t deal with climate change, there’s not going to be anyone left to buy them.’ We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not only repair our fraying planet and leave it in better shape than we found it but to lay the foundations for future generations to live in an era of peace and prosperity that has been impossible to contemplate until now.

 

I am the founder and chief purpose officer of Conspiracy of Love, a purpose-driven think tank and idea incubator that helps Fortune 500 companies like Adidas, Sonos, Bacardi, Mars and Coty use culture and technology as a force for good. I spent 20 years as a consumer markete…

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Afdhel Aziz is a writer, keynote speaker and founder of Conspiracy of Love, a purpose consultancy that helps Fortune 500 companies and startups use culture and technology as a force for good.

 

 

Afdhel Aziz Contributor

 

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I write about how purpose drives business and social impact.