Finding a natural sense of urgency to act

In the Sonoran Desert, nature likes to take its time solving complex problems. Consider the saguaro — the most iconic of cacti in the world — which takes upwards of a typical human lifespan of 75 to 100 years to grow their signature prickly arms. There’s also the less famous desert ironwood tree, rugged and beautiful, that grows gradually to heights of 45 feet and can survive the desert heat for more than 1,000 years.

Imagine if we had 100 or 1,000 years to solve the climate crisis and other pressing environmental, social and governance (ESG) challenges? I chewed on this thought during a biomimicry hike with about two dozen other corporate sustainability professionals during GreenBiz 20 earlier this month. Our guides, Michelle Fehler, a biomimicry professional with Arizona State University, and Joe Zazzera, founding principal of Plant Solutions, led us through the winding desert trails outside Scottsdale, Arizona, educating us on how nature can inspire solutions for creating products, processes and policies that advance sustainable business.

Prior to the hike, each of us received a card with a biomimicry concept. Mine said: “As a leader, how can you influence the rate of adaptation to evolve towards success?” A fitting question for a sustainability communicator. But I knew that, unlike the saguaro or ironwood tree, we humans lack the luxury of time.

Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society over the next decade, states the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Meanwhile, the iconic Doomsday Clock, symbolizing the gravest perils facing humankind, is closer to midnight than at any point since its creation in 1947.

When the hike ended, I swapped my The North Face hiking shoes for my Allbirds and entered the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Resort ready for a few days of sustainability solutioning. Little did I know that the same question posed to me on my biomimicry card would reverberate throughout every keynote, workshop and casual conversation.

Building a tidal wave of change

Although a growing number of companies — spurred by consumer and investor interest — are making climate commitments, this won’t be enough to create change at the necessary scale and speed. Policy change is what’s needed. Yet even some of the most sustainable brands still shy away from advocacy. 

But if there’s no risk in staying politically silent on climate and other ESG issues, companies will default to this choice, said Bill Weihl, former director of sustainability at Facebook, during a breakout session on corporate activism.

In another session on climate policy, leaders from Environmental Defense Fund, World Resources Institute (WRI), Unilever and DuPont doubled down on the idea that, while voluntary corporate actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are critical, only public policy can deliver the pace and scale of reductions needed to bend the overall emissions curve downward — and help companies meet their climate targets.

Our common climate narrative has changed significantly over the past 15 years, said JP Leous, director of international corporate relations at WRI. Initially, climate change was seen as a distant threat companies and governments could deal with later. When an increasing number of climate-connected extreme weather events proved the climate crisis is already happening, the conversation shifted to a tension between economic growth and environmental well-being. Today, many agree that a healthy economy and environment are not mutually exclusive. 

Brand advocacy is where the next shift will happen, Leous said. In the next few years, if corporate government relations are not aligned with sustainability initiatives, they will be seen as two-faced.

This led to a lively discussion with many in the audience about how to best build this “tidal wave of change.” Should we start shaming companies that create bold sustainability commitments yet fail to back it up in the policy arena? Many agreed that we should. During the evening cocktail reception, I heard many sustainability practitioners quietly admit that they would love for their company to be shamed, as this could spur leadership to embrace advocacy. 

Companies must step up to fight for sensible climate policy in Washington, D.C., and beyond if we hope to create the necessary change within the limited time we have left.

Intergenerational cries for change

Perhaps the most inspiring moment at GreenBiz 20 came on the final day when Brian Mecinas, advocacy director at Arizona Youth Climate and a college freshman, reminded everyone in the room of our severe lack of time to act on the climate crisis. By the time many of today’s youth are old enough to be in traditional positions of authority in business and government, it will be too late to solve climate change.

That’s why youth leaders around the world are rising up to inspire, empower and mobilize a generational movement to demand action on the climate crisis and ensure environmental justice for all. Although Greta Thunberg is the most well-known, young people all across the world are calling for bold climate solutions and filing — and sometimes winning — lawsuits against state and federal governments.

Not everyone in the audience was happy to hear Mecinas’ impassioned words — one person sitting near me seemed to take offense by the accusations that adults aren’t doing anything to address the climate crisis. Granted, a lot of action is happening on many fronts, but it’s still not enough. We should always listen to the unbiased honesty of our youth, even when it stings.

Changing fast and strong

In nature, flora take two primary routes to survival, I learned during the GreenBiz 20 biomimicry hike. The first is to grow slowly, yet strong, like the ironwood tree. With a strong foundation, the tree becomes more resilient to threats. The second is to grow quickly, yet weak. By growing more quickly, the tree achieves maturity faster but typically has looser roots. 

In solving the climate crisis, we must find a way to survive by doing both — changing quickly while establishing firm roots for long-term survival. And in a lot less time than 1,000 years. Winning slowly is the same as losing quickly.