Responsibility to be Responsible – where does it lie?

Sustainable policy and practice is a matter for government, companies and individuals. But what kind of responsibility rests at each level and how do these levels interrelate?

The question is important for the sustainability purpose as we know that whenever responsibility is a tad vague there’s the potential for each party to look the other way. We can’t do everything on our own and teams can be good, but they can also foster fudge and blame. So it is with the three parties who might be responsible for sustainability. I listen to people who tell me that sustainability is not a matter for the individual, it’s about state or government policy – these powerful bodies could change everything but they chose not to. Then the conversation goes onto blame companies on the grounds that government won’t change their spots unless the businesses that influence policy want to change as well. Of course it’s true that government policy to vigorously calibrate corporation tax with emissions, diversity and inclusivity would have a dramatic effect on all sustainability metrics. But it’s also true that individual action, if supported by enough individuals would have a similarly dramatic affect and if all companies adopted robust and effective sustainability strategies, then the individuals who work for them would need to support those strategies, at least in their working lives.

It’s about consistency and coherent policy and behaviour at all levels. It’s also about honesty – people, companies and governments have to be honest about how they balance sustainability goals with other objectives. At the individual level do you care most about your freedom to move, travel and make choices, or do you care more about your impact on the environment. As an individual do you do what you can to foster diversity and inclusiveness, or do you think that’s not your business? There is a happy congruence sometimes where the things you really want to do, are those which benefit emissions control for example, but sometimes there is stark conflict. When there is such conflict who wins? I see bulging recycling bins, refilled conscientiously each week. But with what? Packaging for unnecessary purchases, takeaway containers, cans and bottle, Amazon packaging etc. Recycling the waste from products you didn’t need is just personal green washing? But if you didn’t buy those things you didn’t need what then for the economy? They say, don’t they, “green or growth – you can’t have both. “ A mass move to only buying things you need and minimising travel to essential – this would send the economy back into recession and probably depression. Would we mind? I think that’s the choice for the individual, but the important thing is to acknowledge the choice rather than effectively making it by default. And this takes us on to broader policy on distribution of wealth and income. Because if we choose sustainability over economic prosperity then the deprivation felt by those lower down the wealth and income league may be unpalatable to all, lead to societal instability and further requirement for state support, funded from a lower national wealth. Yes the limiting case argument might go – but at least we wouldn’t be extinct? A nice segue to ER. I hear the claim – I support what they are trying to do, but not if it means I’m late into work. Well, to me that doesn’t make sense. If you believe that current behaviour will lead to extinction how you can give primacy to getting to work on time over the threat of extinction. If that threat is real then surely the end justifies the means?

Individual v Collective

Many individuals may feel that their own behaviours are unlikely to be that significant. What difference could a single crisp packet make? If I drive my car four miles in lockdown, go for a walk in the fields and then drive back what harm could that do? For this we need Kant’s universality principle “act such that the maxim of your will could become a universal law” If during strict lock down all car owners made such a trip then the consequences for emissions, for energy use, for breakdown related resource use and for level of interpersonal contact would all be significant. That everyone wouldn’t do it does not affect the principle.

So, if individuals chose (where they have a choice) to work for companies who have sound sustainability practices then other companies would tend to re-look at their own practices. If individuals bought products and services with good practices then again we could expect to see more change for the better.

The power of collective thinking and action

There’s an interesting trend in the world of investment and pensions. Individual investments are moving towards sustainable themes, but collective investments, pension schemes, for example, have moved in this direction much more quickly. Trustees of schemes are requiring the companies they invest in to demonstrate commitment and behaviour on sustainability – from environment to diversity to inclusivity. How should we interpret that in terms of our government, companies, individuals question. Pension scheme members are individuals so if their investment patterns as pension schemes members differs from their patterns as individual investments, we must look elsewhere for the cause of the different approach.

Individual v Government

The extent to which you buy into the idea that these can have divergent interests largely depends on your confidence in the democratic process. Not every voter is in the same place when it comes to sustainability – there can be gender, age and of course, attitude differences. The more radical your views, the more you can expect to expect a government to poorly reflect your views. But I wouldn’t suggest such divergence to lead to fatalism.

A government in perfect alignment with the sustainability mission would be a perfect limiting case, but in its absence, the question becomes one of direction of travel.

How do we conclude?

We say of course that responsibility to be responsible lies with all parties and that none should wait on the others to do the right thing. We need consistency of purpose at individual, company and government levels.

At Mindful Collective we’ve used IKIGAI – a valuable process to consider your personal purpose and applied the principle to a corporate or organisational context.

by Brendan Llewellyn ~ The Mindful Collective