Good Cause Trouble

Keynote at Syinconnect, October 16th, Singapore…

I’m pleased to be here as I’m in Singapore because the world is changing fast. You are the fasting growing economy in the world and have the 4th highest GDP per capita. The people who have traditionally taken a role in global affairs and addressed social and environmental problems around the world, whether rightly or wrongly, are mostly Europeans and North Americans. That’s going to change. And that can be a good thing, but only if we see more globally responsible leaders coming from places like Singapore. We need to see more compassion and action on the state of the whole world, from newly emerged powers. So I think inititives like Syinc are so important, as they are helping you, future leaders, to explore ways of contributing to your community, and then hopefully beyond.

We’re here at the weekend. Its a saturday morning and none of you have to be at work, and your lecturers dont have to be. The 2 day weekend is a great idea, a good social innovation. Any idea where it came from? I think it important to reflect on how change happened if we are to get insights into how to make it happen. So I looked into the history of the 2 day weekend. In the early 1800s in the UK, where Im from, the was a mostly a one day weekend…Sunday, the sabbath, and it was meant to be spent observing religious ideas. But there was a problem for the religious leaders, and also the growing breed of industrialists. As it was the only day off, a lot of Brits were doing what they like to do – getting drunk. So this made them bad church goers, and also meant they often skipped Mondays because they were hungover. So the church and industrialists got together and decided to give people a half day off on saturday, so they could get drunk then, and snooze their way through church on sunday, and be ready for work on Monday. So the half day Saturdays that I hear you had as you weekend here in Singapore until about a decade ago, you can thank the drunkard Brits for.

So where did the 2 days come from? There was one Cotton mill around 1900, where half the staff were christian, so took sunday off, and half were jewish, so took saturday off. The christians got upset with other people working on sunday, so the owners said sod it, we will close both saturday and sunday. Then, in 1926 the great car maker Henry Ford decided to give his workers 2 days weekends. He realised he needed to not only pay his workers enough for them to afford the cars they made, but also that they needed reason to buy a car. If they were only ever going to work on the bus, and then to church on a sunday, why would they need a car? However, if they had a whole day free to be able to go to the beach, or countryside, or visit relatives and so, then of course theyd want a car, not just a faster horse! So there was some enlightened self interest there. But many other industrialists werent happy with Ford. And so it took a the radical Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America to start a campaign for it in 1929. The history of trade unions is such that this campaogn meant people would have been harrassed, fired, beaten up, and certainly frowned upon by some. There was a struggle for weekends to become normal. But then the depression hit and so industrialists gave in, because there wasnt the cash flow to warrant full production. The innovation in 2 day weekends then spread around the world due to international business, trade unions and the International Labour Organisation, which had been established in 1919. Thats why it was the international firms in Singapore were the ones who in past decades gave staff 2 day weekends not the 1 and a half that local firms gave until recently. So, the history of the weekend, a major social innovation, which enables you to be here right now, shows that social innovations are often messy. They come about because of fudges between institutional interests, some enlightened self interest of elites, often a lot of struggle and strife, and then champions and advocates – all types of action were involved in getting the 2 day weekend to become normal. In that process some people will have been praised, but its important to see how many people will have had to suffer in that process, at the very least, losing their job or losing approval of their parents or peers for being activists. Its a theme Ill return to.

I’ve been asked to say a few words on why get active on social issues. So why get active? Well, first up, because there’s issues. Second, because they arent being addressed in ways that will sort them out, mostly because they are being caused by the normal way we do things, think of things. Third, because u can achieve things if u choose to. Fourth, because when trying u will sometimes hurt and fail, and thats important in life. Fifth, because to be active on matters of the world is a normal way to be, its about being conscious, alive, connected and not boring. I act not to save the world, but to make my species seem worth saving and my life worth living.

So what are the problems out there? Im writing a new book and decided to shrink some issues down into one day, so produced some statistics. They’re a bit depressing. In the last 24 hours, 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest have been lost. In a day, over a million tonnes of toxic waste have been released into our environment. In just the last 24 hours, 98,000 people on our planet died of starvation, tens of thousands of them children. In one day, 137 species have been driven into extinction. These problems, these people, are calling out for our action.

The second reason to get active is because these problems are not being addressed in ways that will sort them out, mostly because they are being caused by the normal way we do things, think of things. Traditional ways of organising to address problems have been undermined by globalisation. Governments now focus on being competitive in international markets, and so look at that beyond other issues – social and environmental issues can only be afforded within that framework. This means leadership is often lacking. Our money systems mean that more cash gushes up to elites than trickles down to the many. We have market fundamentalism where everything is about making money. We have hyper modernism where anything new and techie is great, so we dont easily stop and question whats the purpose of our rushing around. We have a mass media thats jingoistic and superficial about its news, and is celebrity obsessed, so kids now want to be famous when they grow up – for whatever reason doesnt matter, they just want fame.

Then forms of action that have a strong tradition in many parts of the world – protest – dont seem to work anymore. A million people marched in London against the war in Iraq before it started and when Blair was still saying all we needed to do was put pressure on Saddam so war was not inevitable. People didnt believe it.. a million people.. we had not seen that before. But it achieved nothing. Its unclear whether online activism is much of a substitute. Its easy to say you like or dont like something, through a tweet or status update or clicking like, but its much harder to actually do something about it. So in that context we need to be much more imaginative and creative about how we act on social issues. Its not a lost cause because we are an ingeneous species, and can come up with new ways of acting.

Which is the third reason for getting active on social issues – because we can have an impact. And that is why Ive been asked here, having taken unusual paths to prompt some largescale changes. I left Uni and went to work for WWF UK immediately when I was 23, just slighly older than most of you. I joined the Forest Unit and worked with a group of companies that had committed to sourcing all their wood and wood products from sustainable forests. The group was key to developing market demand for a certification system for sustainable forests, which is called Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC. WWF had been pressuring governments to agree to do something about tropical deforestation for years, and hadnt got anywhere, so along with other NGOs they had turned their attention towards companies that were buying the products. Some NGOs attacked the companies, and WWF positioned itself as a partner to help the companies ensure their wood was from good sources. It was an open plan office, and a chap from the WWF International endangered seas campaign was there and was overhearing the work I was doing. We had a few lunches and decided to see if the same idea of certification could be applied to fisheries, and so I helped develop the concept for the Marine Stewardship Council or MSC. Today forests certified under the FSC framework are 134,595,610 hectares. 4,000 seafood products are now available with the MSC ecolabel, sold in over 60 countries around the world. I decided this was all rather important work, and so cowrote a book about it when I was 24 yrs old. That book got in the hands of the head of Kofi Annan’s office at the UN, and they decided to do the same thing at the UN, and created something called the UN Global Compact, which is the largest corporate responsibility initiative in the world now, with about 10000 members. I didnt play a useful role in these developments because im well connected, I wasnt, and didnt achieve things because im super organised, rather, other than luck, which is always important, I think its because im a bit odd – Im rather fanatical about what I do. Although I was fairly shy back then, when it came to my views on what was wrong and how we need to act, I was very bold. But that is a double edged sword.

I got sacked from WWF. I ruffled feathers and didnt play the long game. I was always thinking about how could our impact be maximised. And always wondering about whether the NGO was being compromised. I wasnt in there to get on, it didnt occur to me. I saw that the size of the group of companies that were working to buy wood from sustainable sources was limited by the resources of wwf, which were basically me and an older consultant, who had a background in Shell. It had been an interesting career change for him. He was working 3 days a week from home and managed the membership of 40 something companies. I didnt think it would be right for the companies to pay fees to WWF to cover the costs of membership, as this would compromise the independence of WWF. But I didnt think the group should not grow. I thought we should go to a thousand companies, why not? So, I suggested to my colleagues we accredit an independent consultancy to run the group, and deal with the companies, and that WWF would inspect the operations of that consultancy to ensure the standards were being upheld. The consultancy could charge a fee per member company. This was one in a number of ideas that I was putting forward, way beyond my station as a lowly newby doing data support and analysis. As Id been doing the WWF International work on the MSC I was probably a little cocky about my ideas. Because I didnt have a personal agenda I was confident in my views being good for the organisation. Well, the older consultant didnt like this from me, I was becoming a worry for him. He liked his part time job with a small group of companies. So maybe thats why he exploded one day over something very minor, and then said to our boss he couldnt work with me anymore. The boss, an ambitious guy, always travelling, much younger than the consultant, had bigger things to focus on, didnt get involved to sort it out, so fixed the problem by letting me go. Maybe that was the best decision for him and the project given other priorities. At the time it energised me even further, and I set up a consultancy and wrote the book and various articles that then helped the wider movement of corporate responsibility.

Change isnt always easy or funky. Even creatives say that. Francis Ford Copolla, the famous movie director, says the best work you do will get you attacked the most, and probably fired. The same things that made me succeed also made me fail. But thats the fourth reason to get involved in social change – to push things as far as you can until you fail. Because you need to fail in other peoples eyes sometimes to be part of a movement of people creating something new. You have to be able to take risks, not do this for your own advancement but for a bigger cause. And set backs teach you and energise you. But I do wonder whether that set back may have energised me TOO much, and made me even more fanatical about creating change, putting the other aspects of my life, and other people, to the background. Thats something you have to watch for as you get passionate about a cause.

The fifth reason to be active on matters of the world is that is a normal way to be, its about being conscious, alive, connected and not boring. I act not to save the world, but to make my species seem worth saving and my life worth living. I say that because we dont know if its too late with cliamte change. Its most likely too late for us to avoid major suffering. Unfortunately because pride and profit have shaped our response we have launched an approach to climate policy which is fundamentally flawed, called carbon markets, and will take another 5 to 10 years to be more widely accepted for the nonsense that it is. So Im not in this field with a goal attachment – save X species, stop climate change, and then go on holiday. Its about being fully engaged in life, and learning along the way. Ive had to face up to how things I considered successes might even be failures. For example, despite those grand stats I mentioned, less than 12% of global forestry is part of any certification scheme, and it has been a massive distraction for forest campaigners from other activities to try and prevent deforestation. Were we misguided? What could have been achieved if we had put all that time an effort into another approach? We dont know, but we have to keep asking the questions, and unless we do that courageously, rather than in a way that seeks to justify our selves, our choices, our nice lifestyles, then we are not really engaged in social change, we are just profiting from others concerns for that.

Change requires trouble makers. The world isnt so sorted, people havent got all the answers. So its ok to cause a little trouble sometimes. After all, that’s probably what got you your weekend, so we can be here now, working out how to push things forward some more, meeting social needs in innovative ways.