How many complex global sustainability challenges can the world tackle?

This question was front of mind earlier this year as my daughter received her masters degree. For her thesis she analysed the international climate change process from Copenhagen to Paris. She wanted to understand what changed between these two meetings that allowed the global community to move from complete failure to modest success. Then she related those insights to the efforts to get an effective implementation of the global compact on forced migration and the rights of refugees.

It’s an interesting comparison. There are many similarities between these two topics in terms of the challenges of getting an international agreement and action to tackle them*. Both climate and migration/refugees impact large numbers of countries; those being harder hit are usually not countries where the international media are based; there are different opinions on the subject, often not informed by facts; and there is the concept of “responsibility sharing”. The community addressing forced migration and refugees is passionate, determined, and morally and ethically right. But it’s struggling to get governments to put in place an effective legally binding instrument.

* Just to be clear I understand that the issues are somewhat conflated: climate change can drive migration, but there are very many causes of migration.

On climate change, scientists, the media and civil society, (comprising indigenous peoples, communities, citizens, personalities and NGOs) all played their part in keeping the issue front and centre. And yet progress really took off once roles, responsibilities and contributions were included not just from governments but from businesses, regions and cities. And it was the combination of voluntary pledges and legally binding agreements made up the package of measures that constituted the Paris Accord.

It’s a blueprint that could equally be applied to solving the refugee and migrants challenge, a conclusion reached in my daughter’s thesis. A summary blog can be found here.

Extreme lengths

In discussing this with my daughter, one thing struck me – the effort needed to change the circumstances that allowed the world to get from Copenhagen to Paris, and to get the agreement in place. It wasn’t just the meetings, the reports, the science. It was the constant attention. Everything became framed in terms of climate change. This went to extreme lengths when scientists even started blaming Arctic Ground Squirrels for contributing to climate change

Far be it from me to blame the Arctic Ground Squirrels, but the article does illustrate how climate change was the lens through which everything was framed. It still is, often to the detriment of other subjects.

No more than two or three

It made me wonder. If this is what is needed to get a global agreement to tackle a global problem, then how many other complex global sustainability challenges can the world tackle? It’s hard to imagine governments and stakeholders building up the same momentum as was needed for climate change, to tackle more than two or three global challenges. 

“What about plastics?” I hear you say. It’s true that plastics became a global issue of public concern very very quickly. Like climate change it mobilised opinion across the world, not just in the west. And we are now seeing an impressive array of interventions from governments and companies across Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. Yet it hardly required much media or civil society pressure to get there.

I had some correspondence with Sam Vionnet recently about sustainability challenges. He remarked that only two things have ever changed our world – disasters (disruption) and social movements (linked to public opinion). I would add that both are needed together. Plastics fits this hypothesis well. The disaster of plastics is well illustrated by the multitude of photos and videos of plastics polluting the environment. And that’s before David Attenborough starts his voice over. We have yet to see a social movement, but public opinion is firmly against plastics. Aside from a few material scientists, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has a positive view of the stuff. OK, there was that cucumber 

So plastics had the perfect storm. Climate didn’t (pardon the pun). Neither does forced migration and refugees, how ever much outrage and injustice there may be on the issue.

We’d better choose wisely

Which highlights the phenomenon that was the climate change agreement. Clearly the constant wall-to-wall attention, and just the threat of disaster was enough to get the world to move. Climate change had not just a global reach with different cultures engaged in different types of activism but it focussed upon systems change. So far the responses to plastics are rather superficial (banning straws, plastic bags etc), but there are signs of more systemic responses. Whether these will go far enough in addressing the root cause of our linear society remains to be seen. This would require consumers to start making choices on a big scale – something that has not even happened with climate change.

So what chance is there of creating a similar unstoppable momentum to tackle some of the other complex challenges? And how much bandwidth does the public have? How many issues can rise up in the public consciousness to rival climate change and lead to global coordinated action? 

I suspect only one or two more. So we probably need to choose them carefully.

I’d cast a vote for food systems. However, having learned a little about the topic I’d also suggest migration/refugees. Forced migration is perceived as quite a eurocentric problem. It has yet to break out and be recognised for the global issue it is. And the outrage is not there yet. Those working on it would do well to connect it to other issues to spread the understanding. Ironically (given my daughter’s thesis), at some point climate change will connect these issues all too well.



ESG? No, its Time to Become Activist Investors

About 20% of all assets are now managed using some form of ESG principles. You wouldn’t know it though.

According to the Economist there were 70 activist campaigns in Europe last year. It feels like there will be more this year. The impact upon the progress of more sustainable business practices is notable.

ESG to the Rescue?

Meanwhile ESG is becoming more mainstream – McKinsey has published a blog claiming it the new normal. The Economist has also just pointed out that those with a millennial mindset are far more interested in ESG investing. There are however many shades of ESG.

At its simplest, a passive filter is applied which excludes a few sectors, whilst allowing investments in a range of companies and sectors that might surprise many. More active strategies introduce different levels of rigour. Then there are themed funds that focus upon specific sectors such as renewable energy. Finally impact investors concentrate on companies that explicitly deliver upon social outcomes as well as financial ones.

As a recent FT article points out though, there is not enough consensus on exactly what ESG is or how to measure it. It seems that all our efforts to fill out the questionnaires for DJSI, CDP and BBFAW et al are making little difference.

Activist Investors March On

Meanwhile, activist investors have cut through the fog with a very clear and simple narrative of margins and share prices. Lets face it, for those of us with pensions and savings, who would not want higher share prices and bigger pension pots.

Well actually not me if it is at the expense of the company and thus society itself. As I have argued before, activist investing is an extreme, that is “changing the circumstances”. The expectations on companies to make money for shareholders is drowning out the need to contribute to society. The important advances that have been made in recent years are under threat.

It seems to me though that the issue is not with activist investors, but the passive ones.

Asset Owners and Asset Managers

Passive funds are starting to have an important impact upon the market. Whilst their popularity is based (largely) on reducing the costs of asset management, they are weakening governance in companies. Index funds have no voice and do not talk to companies. This just amplifies the voice of the activist investors who do.

Asset managers of course do speak to the management of companies, but I wonder if they really speak on behalf of the asset owners. This is especially the case for pension funds.

Twelve years ago I set up my own self managed pension fund and transferred several of my company pension funds into it. I started to manage it and invest in companies that I wanted to invest in, according to my own beliefs. I became activist – putting my money where my mouth is.

Until recently however I was passive when it came to the pension fund managed by my employer. So I have decided to start asking a few questions and become more activist there too. Its worth doing, and sends an important signal.

We can all be Activists

There have been some concerns that ESG managed portfolios do less well than “traditional” assets. Yet there are plenty of studies that now show that assets managed with an ESG filter perform as well as or better.

Assets under management using ESG principles now total US$20-25Tn (trillion). Meanwhile activist hedge funds account for just US$150-200Bn. To give some perspective to this, the top four UK pension funds are valued at more than US$200Bn.

Its not too hard therefore, to see how relatively few pension fund members can easily make an impact, so we can all make a difference.

Its time to all become activist investors. We all need to ask our pension fund managers about their strategies regarding ESG. The more they hear interest, the more they will invest our money based upon these principles.

But we need to go even further. If we are to truly respond to the activist investor narrative, then we need to be activists for the other extreme of the investment spectrum – social businesses and impact investing. This will offer the alternative narrative to help change the circumstances again in the direction of creating shared value – for our pensions and for our society.

We need to ask our asset managers to increase their exposure to “impact investing”. My own self managed pension is seriously “overweight” (as they say) to deliver societal impact.

Glaciers: Going Going…


I went hiking this summer above Ferpècle in the Val d’Hérens to look at the Ferpècle and Mont Miné Glaciers. These are situated in grandiose scenery, with the mighty Dent Blanche towering above, yet are also quite easy to get to.

Mont Miné in the centre. The Mont Miné glacier is to the right, the Ferpècle glacier to the left. In 1960 they were joined together in the foreground

Continue reading “Glaciers: Going Going…”

The Context of Targets

Thank you one and all for the comments on “The Problem with Targets”. With comments across LinkedIn, Twitter and on this site, let me respond here and develop the arguments a bit further.

To recap, I believe that there are three problems with targets in the sustainability world. Firstly there are too many. Secondly, the attention is on the setting not the delivery, and finally we need to recognize the differences between complicated and complex problems.

Continue reading “The Context of Targets”

Sustainability’s Inequality Problem

Does sustainability have an inequality problem?

Last week I was on a mini expedition above Zermatt staying in a mountain hut. The conversation got around to the price of staying half way up a mountain. Was it expensive for the experience? Considering the outside toilet, one tap of running water for 30+ people, rather cramped sleeping conditions and CHF10 for a bottle of water, at first glance we thought so.

Then we considered the logistics of getting food and drink up to 2700m and providing a rather good three course meal for everyone. It led us to debate the true cost of providing food, drink and accommodation, whether it be in a hut with a view of the Matterhorn or down in the valley. At which point we became convinced that it wasn’t expensive. But we also concluded that charging a true price for stuff may mean that it is not accessible to everyone. And that was the insight.


Next week I am moderating a session at a conference where we will talk about organic agriculture and improving livelihoods of small holder farmers. The common link between these is externalities and how much we pay for the the food we consume. The short answer is that food is too cheap…for some. Keeping food cheap for consumers is entrenching poverty for farmers. Meanwhile those who can afford it can buy the higher cost food with the lower pesticide residues etc etc


In driving sustainability are we reinforcing inequality? Certainly inequality is a barrier to mainstreaming sustainability, but our discussion did not get as far as figuring out the cause-effect relationship. The altitude was getting to us by that stage.


The pharmaceuticals industry has a way to deal with accessibility, and therefore address inequality, through different pricing models and subsidies to reach those unable to pay the full price. Governments and foundations step in to pay for this and improve accessibility.


When it comes to sustainability maybe its time to recognise the limitations of the market and voluntary approaches. Perhaps it really is time for a change in the taxation system, to taxes resource use and negative externalities. If there was then a mechanism such as lower labour taxes, or transfer payments to the less well off this would in turn improve the accessibility of more sustainable products. your time has come (but I know you know that).


Until the discussion in the hut about sustainability and inequality, I’d never really thought through the connection between sustainability and inequality. But its obvious. If we want to be sustainable then we need to pay design more inclusive approaches that also deal with inequality.

Green is the Colour?

Sustainability needs a new colour.

Last week I went to the inaugural meeting of GreenBuzz Geneva, and it got me thinking. I met someone lecturing on migration and the various issues associated with it, someone working on improving livelihoods, and plenty of people finding their way balancing the multiplicity of issues from plastics usage and waste management to the role of women in sustainable development initiatives.

Five years ago an event like this would have featured climate change, water, possibly pollution, deforestation – all identifiably “green” (OK the water folks would have been advocating “blue” from their side of the room). Today it’s a bit different. Not only are there a multiplicity of issues that sustainability professionals need to be on top of, but as my speed dating discussions with fellow GreenBuzz first timers illustrated, social issues are in the ascendancy.

So isn’t it about time we came up with a new colour? “Green” doesn’t do our work justice, quite apart from being passé. To their credit the GreenBuzz Geneva organizers have clearly pitched their new group as being about bringing sustainability professionals together, but the use of “Green” implies environment. Luckily it did not put off those more orientated to the social aspects of sustainability.

Is this important?

I think so. Like “Eco”, “Green” gets overused and misused. The same day as the GreenBuzz Geneva event Apple announced that they have raised US$1Bn in a “Green Bond” issue. This was to fund “environmentally focused initiatives” – renewable energy sources, “greener materials to make products”, and conserving resources. Leaving aside what “greener materials” are let’s be clear, at best they are raising money to reduce costs – but that does not make such great headlines. It’s so much better to label this as a “green” initiative. Some would call this “green washing”.

Actually Apple don’t really need to raise money to save money – these kind of investments pay for themselves. The same newspaper article (in the FT) confirms as much – “For Apple, the green bond is the iPhone maker’s latest attempt to bolster its environmental credentials”.

It’s this kind of nonsense that has devalued “Green” and undermined the concept of sustainability. So should we start to call non-green bonds “Brown Bonds”?. Because that’s the implication. Green Bonds for when you want to look good, brown for business as usual. A truly sustainable company would not need to differentiate.

Then the suspicious thing. The FT article points out that Apple has “turned to the debt markets for about US$100bn in recent years to fund its US$300bn capital returns programme”. Meanwhile it has a US$257Bn cash pile, with 90% of this held offshore. It does not wish to repatriate this money, as it would have to pay taxes on it. So is the real reason that Apple is issuing a green bond  to pay shareholder dividends and avoid taxes? Ahem! A functioning society needs companies to pay taxes like everyone else. Suddenly those Green Bonds are tainted, setting back the overall sustainability agenda. Apple’s Green Bond looks surprisingly Brown.

So what colour should we use for sustainability? How about Magenta, signifying harmony and balance?