Bob Gordon, Director, Zero Carbon Forum
Bob believes that without an effective theory of change you won’t achieve the big things you want to deliver as a sustainability leader.
Bob’s long career in sustainability includes ESG research, advisory roles in the retail industry and operational roles in hospitality.
In this post, I highlight one thread of my conversation with Bob. I encourage you to listen to the full interview, in the podcast episode above, to get much more from his experience.
Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- Why a theory of change?
- A theory of change for restaurants
- Build strong relationships
- Build emotional engagement & a robust business case
- The science is overwhelming clear
- We’re not seeing the transformation we need
- Applying an innovation diffusion lens
- Real leaders know they need to collaborate
- Zero Carbon Forum
- Something for you to think about…
- Links & resources
Why a theory of change?
Bob didn’t have a theory of change earlier in his career as a sustainability manager with Nando’s:
I remember meeting an internal consultant within Nando’s ecosystem when we were working on a different project together. He was an incredibly insightful, intelligent man.
He wanted to hear about what I was doing as part of the sustainability programme, and he said to me, “What’s your theory of change?”
I didn’t really have a theory of change at the time. I was really just trying to build my engagement and I was just throwing myself at any doors that looked like that they would open with a little bit of pressure.
Now Bob believes a theory of change is essential:
If you haven’t understood what the big thing is you’re trying to achieve, and you haven’t understood how you are going to achieve it, then you have no theory of change and you’re not going to achieve it.
A theory of change for restaurants
For a lot of restaurants, meat is the single biggest part of their footprint. If they are to achieve net zero, as many of them have set themselves targets to do, they all need to do one of at least two things.
Crudely, they either need to radically reduce the amount of meat that they sell, or they need to radically reduce the impact of producing that meat.
So their theory of change hangs really on one of those two sides or, or with both of them running at the same time.
If they’re not leaning into one of those two really hard questions of “how do we steer our consumers down a different route?”, or “how do we work with our suppliers to radically change the method of production?” then they’re pissing in the wind.
You need a strong theory of change:
- What is the outcome I want to achieve here?
- What is the thing I’m going to change in my role?
- How am I going to go about doing that?
Build strong relationships
Bob described his approach to building engagement and support for sustainability:
First, you need to build strong relationships with your colleagues and other stakeholders.
These relationships mean that when you go back to people with proposals for action, they’ll listen because they trust you.
Relationships is such a huge part of it. If your board doesn’t see value in what you do and don’t trust you to do a good job for them, you’ve got a problem.
Build emotional engagement & a robust business case
Second, building people’s emotional engagement with sustainability is important, but it’s not enough by itself.
You need the third aspect, which is building a really robust business case.
Be a good project manager. Get good foundational evidence. Don’t rely on the emotional argument. Take putting together your case very, very seriously.
It’s hard work, but when sustainability leaders take this approach, senior management respond and implement changes that deliver results for climate and for sustainability.
The science is overwhelming clear
But is this really enough?
The thing that’s really got me fired up at the moment is our cognitive dissonance. The reality of the science is overwhelmingly clear, our lived experience, these records being broken all of the time, particularly heat records.
And then the response: the press are not really leaning into it, our government are absolutely not leaning into it.
An hour with other sustainability directors and managers to explore the key issues and challenges that matter to you. To be notified of the next event…
We’re not seeing the transformation we need
Despite good intent among businesses we’re not seeing the radical transformation that’s needed in the way our economies are run.
And whilst corporations have good intent and there’s lots of good words coming out of them, we’ve really yet to see a radical transformation in the way that our economies are run.
And, and, and we know really that that’s what. We need. So, so we continue to undermine the foundations of our civilisation.
I think this is crux of the issue for many of us in the sustainability space – we do see elements of real progress, but at the same time we know that it’s not nearly enough given the scale of the problem.
Are you struggling to engage colleagues with sustainability? There is a way to turn your colleagues’ disinterest or grudging acceptance into active collaboration and support for your organisation’s sustainability initiative.
We’ve distilled 20+ years experience into five key steps in our Get Buy-In to Sustainability Quick Start Guide:
Osbert Lancaster, director, Realise Earth
Applying an innovation diffusion lens
And that can be really disheartening – to put it mildly. Applying an innovation diffusion lens to the situation can help.
This means recognising that different people and organisations are at different stages of their journey.
For many businesses, incorporating climate and other sustainability issues alongside other risks and business functions makes perfect sense. It’s what they have the capacity to deal with at the moment, especially when they face acute commercial pressures.
There’s people who haven’t done very much yet, and we [Zero Carbon Forum] can deliver them tremendous value: we can help them get on the road, we can do them a footprint, climate action plan and just get them started.
There’s a whole bunch of people in the middle who can still learn from the leaders and we deliver them tremendous value by connecting them.
Real leaders know they need to collaborate
But other people recognise that while this kind of change is important, it won’t deliver the transformational changes we need.
And then there’s another group. They’ve got as far as
- “I’m on top of it and I know I’m not good enough to solve on my own;
- “I know I need to work collaboratively;
- “I know I need systems change;
- “I know I need sector change;
- “I know I need to collaborate with my peers to change a narrative that enables me to make meaningful change.”
They recognise that this isn’t something they or their organisation can tackle alone.
These people, who Bob calls the real leaders, know that they need to work collaboratively with others in their sector to change the system to make meaningful change.
Zero Carbon Forum
Bob put this in the context of the Zero Carbon Forum which not only helps hospitality businesses get started with working on climate operationally and strategically, but also supports sustainability leaders work collaboratively to tackle systemic sustainability challenges in the sector. If you’re in the hospitality industry, you should definitely check out the Zero Carbon Forum!
Links & resources
For someone who’s not familiar with sustainability, he says Greta Thunberg’s The Climate Book “gives you a really good foundational overview of all the issues”.