In Sweden, a 16-year-old butterfly flapped its wings. Like a modern day Rosa Parks, Greta Thunberg picked a simple, harmless act of defiance. She stopped going to school. Instead, she spent her days picketing the Swedish Parliament for better environmental laws. She called for other students to do the same.
Near my home, in Brussels, two young women copied the silent protest. They hoped that a few dozen of their friends would join. On the first day 3,500 showed up. In the weeks that followed, their two-woman civic disobedience grew to a weekly protest. For now, it peaked at 65,000 youngsters walking the streets of Brussels, and every major Belgian city.
The government scrambled to keep up. Unable to cope with Gen Z’s innovative ways of protesting, a climate minister was forced to resign.
As the news cycle continues, the movement goes global. School walkouts have sprung up in Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands. Global leaders have been shamed in Davos. EU president Juncker criticised for being out of touch with reality. And on March 15, 2019, the students are committing to go on strike in over 50 countries. If past protests are an indicator, hundreds of thousands could take to the streets.
This is bigger than kids skipping school. A movement cannot grow this fast, this big, unless its cause resonates on a broader scale. All of these youngsters have parents and teachers. They could easily have blocked the protest from the start. But they didn’t. In fact, they tacitly and explicitly encouraged it as a proxy form of protest.
Sure, it’s great to see that 'youth still cares'. It’s fun to chuckle at the rich and powerful being called 'immature' by children. But something else is going on. Consumer mindsets are shifting. And they’re shifting fast.
Where consumer mindsets go, actions will follow. Not straight away. We need to be honest. We are too fond of our cars, our weekend getaways and the smell of bacon in the morning. And the United Nations diet of no meat / no cars / no holidays / no sex (well, 'kids') is a hard sell on the best of days. Especially if you look at continents where these modern comforts are finally getting within reach.
But the innovation cycles have taught us that market tension brings forth disruptors. New players who will find innovative solutions to sustainability problems in places where no incumbent looks for them.
And these game-changers will find customers. Early adopters who will go hydrogen or solar for their car. Switch to synthetic milk and cow-free burgers. And like with other 'crazy ideas' like Uber or Netflix, their numbers will eventually grow. Until an inflection point is reached where animal-meat or budget flights are as frowned up on as 'real fur' coats today.
Then, the pressure points will shift. Today, fossil fuels rightfully take most of the criticism when it comes to CO2 emissions. But it only takes a Google search to realise that meat and dairy companies aren't too far behind. Or that electric cars may save on CO2, but that their batteries rip open the earth in South Congo. Force children into labour. And I haven’t even mentioned plastics.
So it's only a matter of time before public pressure will expand from politicians to brands. If only because some of these politicians won’t mind passing the buck. At best, this will lead to Twitter storms. At worst, consumer boycotts can declare anyone fair game.
There is still (some) time. All of this won’t happen overnight. When it does, it will only affect small segments. A few percent of consumers will start flying less because of Flygskam. Others will replace fast fashion with second hand, avoid companies that rely on single-use plastic or try out that new type of synthetic meat when it hits $2-5 price-points.
But 10 percent here and 5 percent there will add up. The shifting buying patters will need to come out of someone’s bottom line. Which will cause a ripple effect. Forced by consumers to become more sustainable, B2C players will lean on their supply chain. Driven by a sense of urgency, they won’t wait around for their existing partners to catch up. The ones who are most prepared will win. They who cannot transform themselves will be replaced by those that invested in sustainability before it became a matter of commercial survival. Trillions will start shifting and industry shakeouts will be inevitable.
So what can you do? For the average company sustainability is "important, but not yet urgent". Which means that you need to prepare by:
1. Accepting that transformation is inevitable
Every 12-step programme starts with the realisation that you are (part of) the problem. That 'you' need to change. Even if you are not really bothered by the possibility of global mass-extinction, your customers will be. The will come a time that they vote with their wallets. If you cannot deliver what they are looking for, they switch to the disruptors that will. This may feel unfair. But such is life. Get over it.
2. Educating yourself and your organisation
Sustainability will take effort. New processes. New KPI's. New ways of working. Even new business models. In fact,
the transformation into a sustainable business, will make digital transformation seem like a walk in the park.
If you’re like me, this means that you and your people will lack the language and skills to make the transition. Only very few of us ever went to 'green school'. So start reading up. Go to conferences. Talk too experts. Learn about LCA. Start thinking about what you could do.
3. Get started
But don’t go crafting inspirational mission statements or launching ‘grand’ initiatives. You won’t be able to turn around everything overnight anyway. Do make a 3-5 year plan to turn your company and supply chain from 'planet harming' to 'planet supporting'. The sooner you’ll start, the sooner you’ll be the one who’s disrupting rather than being the disrupted.
In Sweden, A 16 year old butterfly flapped her wings. It declared a 'fool’s war' on a world that creates fake riches by destroying them. Its fight will easily last a decade, probably more. Once they recover from their initial shock, it will be attacked by all the powers that be. With trillions at stake, it's bound to get dirty.
But even if politicians, lobbyist and corporate agendas manage to silence the current movement, its cause won’t disappear. In a decade, today’s teenagers will take their place in the market and the workforce. At that point, Greta Thunberg’s prediction in the European parliament will become true. The road may be long, but she and her fellow protesters will win. If only, because they’ll outlive us all.
Even if you do not care about the planet, sustainability is the only business development path with long-term viability. So the question isn't whether you should put it higher on your agenda. The question is when you'll get serious about transformation.
The first rule of movement building is that 'if you see someone doing something worthwhile, you join them'. So, in support of Youth for Climate I've decided to also start 'skipping school' a few hours every week.
Not to protest in the streets. It's not my style. But to use what little influence I have to encourage environmental change in meetings, and through the occasional initiative. I realise that my individual contribution will be small and may start making some of you feel uncomfortable. But I believe that if we all take a few uncoordinated and even uncomfortable steps, a number of us will eventually get it right. And that's all that matters ;-)
Note: opinions are my own.
(c) Alain Thys, all rights reserved.
About this blog
Whenever inspiration strikes, I use this space to share my thoughts on customer experience management, storytelling or what ever else crosses my mind.