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Step change, systems change

19 May, 2023

“The time for incrementality is long gone. The problems we are facing are far too big for an incremental approach”.  

This from Alain Jope, soon to step down as CEO of Unilever, speaking at a Forum for the Future event to mark the retirement of its influential director and sustainability guru Jonathan Porritt. Forum for the Future has long championed the need for systems change, and for businesses to work – in Jope’s words – “on the system, not within the system”, so it was a suitable setting to throw down this challenge to business leaders everywhere. And it raises an interesting question about where the focus of sustainability over the years ahead should be – change yourself, or change the system? The answer, as always, is not straightforward. 

At Good Business we talk about the need for transformational change. Most transformational change requires systems change, even though not all systems change is necessarily transformational. For that reason, systems thinking needs to become a part of the ongoing approach to sustainability. The changes we need to see – on climate, waste, water, inequality, diversity – all require businesses to change, and change at scale, but to do so in the full understanding of the ways in which all the different parts of the process interact with each other and cause change to happen. Some of these components are within the control of an individual business, others require collaboration and partnership with governments, civil society, suppliers, customers and – in some cases – competitors.  

For those businesses, like Unilever, that are on the front foot when it comes to sustainability, a focus on systems change is an obvious next step. When you’ve changed your own business significantly, it makes sense to look outside the organisation and call for sectoral level change. That in turn creates space in which you can change more as a business, because the external factors that were holding you back are no longer a barrier. Navigating that in a way that remains commercially viable and still recognises sustainability as a source of competitive advantage is essential – easier said than done no doubt, but a challenge that has to be taken on. 

By Claire Jost

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