The problem with “we need a values shift for a sustainable future”

Yesterday I was the only member of a panel to disagree with delivering a sustainable future by shifting everyone’s values. Here’s why.

Yesterday I gave a talk on how sustainability is changing business practice at an education conference by the Institute of Financial Services. (I’ll put up the presentation soon.) One of my key points was that sustainability issues are now so material to long-term value creation that even executives who believe the business of business is business feel they need to act. I tried to add humour by saying that you don’t need to be a muesli-wearing, Guardian-reading, sandal-wearing hippie. A cheap poke.

In the Q&A someone had a poke back. She argued that, yes, it would be great to be able to only look at outcomes but that the values which motivate action are important too. We need, she said, a values shift to reach a sustainable future.

My co-panelists – from large retail banks, one known for its ethics, the other not so much – both agreed. The one known for its ethics uses values to differentiate, and to motivate its employees. The other is embedding new corporate values (revised post-financial crisis) to improve behaviour.

All of these are great reasons to pursue a shift in values. Motive is important so people keep trying even when the going is tough. Identity is important to give people a sense of belonging and purpose. Embedding values are useful to coordinate the actions of its many thousands of staff cheaply and effectively.

But requiring a large-scale, engineered values shift as a requirement for reaching a sustainable future is problematic, to say the least.

On a pragmatic side, we simply don’t have the time, and changing societal values deliberately is tough. Also, the sustainability movement doesn’t have the raw power; we need to reach people who don’t agree with our values.

More importantly there is the principle: if a sustainable society is one where everyone has pretty much the same values, is that a good thing?

If you believe in democracy, liberty or freedom are good things then you don’t want to deliver a sustainable society by requiring conformity and uniformity.

We need pluralism for pragmatic reasons too. In systems thinking there is the concept of ‘requisite variety‘, basically diversity means you can adapt more to external changes. Some studies of Ancient Greece claim Athens had more bouncebackability than Sparta because of its democratic processes.

We need lots of experiments to forge our path to a sustainable future. I spend most of my time working on new corporate strategies or business models or management practices. But there is a need for experimentation in values too.

Now, I think that it will be a lot easier to forge that path if there were more people who had a wide ‘circle of concern’ – concerned not just with their family, their immediate community but also people far away, people in the future and even the more-than-human world. If you like grand narratives then maybe our collective circle of concern has widened over time (think abolition of slavery, giving women the vote, civil rights, gay rights – and that in 1938 Chamberlain said Czechoslovakia was a far away country.)

A values shift would be helpful, and a drift maybe happening (maybe). But we can’t rely on such a shift. The sustainability movement needs to find a narrative that helps people with many different values to act, for their own reasons.

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