The Leadership Challenge: Taking On Individuals

Image result for ocean plastic

After every talk or discussion on the global issues that face us, or online article on some of the world’s largest sustainability challenges, or after the nth facebook post of dying whales and their plastic bag-filled stomachs, I ask myself… who should take the lead to address these issues? Who is best placed to decisively and drastically change the world we live in? Is it governments, as they have a social-contract to represent the interests and the will of a people? Or, as time and time again they have been slow and ineffective at resolving sustainability challenges, it should be companies? Companies are those who have often created the problem: polluting, abusing of and exhausting raw materials or designing products in linear, buy-use-dispose way… but they could also be the quickest at fixing these problems at the source. Or is it individuals, consumers, who through their monetary vote, demand and influence companies to move towards sustainability?

As we all become more familiar with the complexity of the ‘wicked problem’ of sustainability and how systemic these issues are, it’s clear that all groups of actors need to do their part. Much is already happening within companies and government: sure, not transformative enough, perhaps not quickly enough, but laws are being put into place to discourage unsustainable consumption, to curb emissions, to reduce waste, and companies are taking the lead in developing sustainability strategies and building circular models for production. Individuals have a hugely significant part to play in this: but are us individuals doing our bit to create a more sustainable world? There is a strong desire to do so, but perhaps not enough of us are.

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As an individual, where do you start? At school, or in society and through common sense, you may know to switch off your lights, to reduce your energy use, to reduce your waste. Perhaps you are a diligent recycler. Perhaps you have even gone for a fuel-efficient car, or an electric car. Perhaps you have been alarmed at mass-produced livestock and have decided to go vegetarian, to reduce your emissions footprint and to reduce harm done to animals. But, in truth, most individuals do not know where to start when it comes to becoming more sustainable. Becoming a sustainable society will not only involve consuming less, whilst being in an economy that is geared towards spending for its own growth and survival. It will also involve significant behaviour change: do we need a car? Do you use plastic straws? Do you buy coffee in disposable cups every day? Do you consume beef every day?

I’ve taken on the challenge of identifying how individuals can contribute to making this world more sustainable, and to finding a way to digest the scientific and academic information, turning it into informative, entertaining and easily digestible recommendations for people to take on-board the challenge of changing their habits and becoming more sustainable. If all actors need to engage to help the world towards transitioning to a sustainable and green economy, then this is the project to understand what individuals can do about it, and how to engage those individuals to make it happen.

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Now, after a few coffees, many brainstorms on long commutes and some good discussions with my partner in crime in this venture, Adam Hopwood, we’ve come to a few starter points. This is the start of our brainstorming how to set up such an organisation and we’re open to contributions, critiques and recommendations.


A few starting points:

  • Setting up a social enterprise: No matter how this takes shape, we will have to set up an organisation of some sort, with all the key elements of a company: who are our audience and customers? Who are our supporters and investors? What is our value proposition? How do we plan on being financially sustainable? What is our competitive advantage over others?
  • How individuals can affect change: Individuals can contribute to many things, but primarily they can affect things through the impact on their own life (lifestyle and consumption of products and services), as well as the knock-on effect they have on others (advocacy, political participation, influencing others).
  • Key sustainability problematics: Given the above, we’ll have to scope out areas individuals can affect in sustainability. The SDG goal 12, sustainable production and consumption, is likely to be the main key focus area, looking at individual’s impact on: food, water, energy, packaging and materials. We need to explore how individuals affect these issues, for e.g. through categories of actions: purchasing, using, disposing and advocacy.
  • Behaviour Change: There is plenty of on-going discussion as to how to influence and change people’s behaviour. Changing our habits as well as our norms and worldviews is extremely challenging. We will have to address how to improve people’s knowledge and awareness, as well as how to translate this into more sustainable habits and behaviours, using the knowledge developed in the fields of marketing, psychology as well as campaigning and activism.
  • Our winning formula: Ultimately, just as Uber and Google started off with their winning algorithm, we need our own winning formula. This will be the best, most effective way at digesting and translating academic and scientific information on sustainability topics that will lead to more sustainable behaviours and habits.
  • Tools: What will we need to represent this? For first thoughts, a blog/website and an app seem like good starting points. Will it be gamified? Will it be run through challenges? Or monthly e-mails and communications? Or a self-standing app?

We look forward to kicking off this adventure. Keep posted to see what is to come.


2 thoughts on “The Leadership Challenge: Taking On Individuals

  1. An exciting challenge – yet I would say that! This is a really well articulated summary of the aspirations but also some of the challenges we may face on the way. There is a risk with a project like that that one can try to “boil the ocean”. By breaking it down into bitesize and achieveable chunks, it will allow us to test the approach and refine before expanding.

    Question for you: how will we measure success? Could it be number of people engaging? Or perhaps a step further and attempt to measure the impact upon the particular issue (ie coffee cups not used, water avoided, meat reduction). By understanding progress, not only does this help us to understand how to improve but also can work in “marketing” especially with gaining buy in from wider stakeholders.

    The other aspect I think is critical is the “gameification” you mention. Whether it’s through a form of competition, or even just “personal challenges”, my experience shows that this drives the most success sites/apps. It adds that level of “addictiveness” or “stickiness”, especially if you feel like you are learning something at the same time.

    I’m very excited to see where we can take this and what we can achieve!


  2. Hey Francesca, love your challenge – you’re right, most people simply don’t understand what they can be doing differently to improve the sustainability impact of their lives. I’m personally looking forward to seeing and sharing your thoughts. For now I would offer this advice – start by using your networks. I know with this blog you already are, but you will be amazed at what is already being done that you can build upon. One example I would recommend checking out is the social enterprise DoNation which I came across through a colleague who knows the founder Hermione. Do Nation run campaigns that educate and ask people in organisations to pledge to change certain behaviours and then tracks the impact of that change over time. It worked really well at my firm to help people to develop their understanding of sustainability and the impact of their everyday decisions. Also Do Nation was established as a B Corp and by joining you can become involved in a very supportive community of like-minded social enterprises and businesses who can help and support your new endeavours. Hope this is helpful and very good luck with your challenge!


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