What can we learn from our sustainability failures?
Should We Talk About Failure?
This post originally appeared on BusinessGreenPlus.
Regular attendees on the green conference circuit would be forgiven for thinking that we have this whole sustainability thing under control. Presentations after presentation highlight innovative, ground-breaking initiatives achieving significant environmental benefits. Unfortunately this feeling of well-being is pierced by hard facts. 2012 will be a record high for global carbon emissions which are now 58% above 1990 levels – the baseline year for the Koyoto protocol.
Questions to ask
Something is amiss. Success stories are inspiring but could we learn more by also talking about failures? Are we in danger of surrounding ourselves in a haze of complacency when hard evidence suggests we might be winning the odd battle but the war is not going well?
I have been running Global Action Plan for 20 years (which may be too long but it works for Sir Alex Ferguson!) Being in one place for that period makes it hard to ignore bad decisions as they return to bite you. It is tempting when things don’t succeed to destroy all evidence that you ever tried. It is even more tempting not to talk about any of them externally. As a charity we are dependent upon organisations having sufficient confidence to pay for our expertise – going public on things that don’t go well would seem to be unwise – our equivalent of the Ratner moment.
Last week, in a moment of cathartic recklessness I gave a presentation at the University of Surrey which covered not just successes but also things that hadn’t gone well. This included launching the UK’s first sustainability magazine called Ergo which so baffled retailers that in one shop I found it perched amongst the porn section.
I discussed what happened when we created the world’s first online carbon calculator without knowing what on earth we were going to do with it once it went live. I also told delegates what happened when we unsuccessfully tried to significantly increase the impact of our Ecoteams programme by putting it on-line. The result of the presentation was enlightening with more questions, genuine debate and follow-up interest than is usually the case.
Inspired, I explored further and was delighted to find that one of the UK’s top girls’ schools is planning a failure week to teach pupils to embrace risk, build resilience and learn from their mistakes. The emphasis is to value having a go rather than playing it safe and perhaps achieving less. There will be workshops, assemblies and activities for students, parents and tutors joining in with tales of their own failures. They're also showing YouTube clips of famous and successful people who have failed along the way and moved on.
Should the sustainability movement take a lesson from the school? Maybe exploring failures would generate the sort of debate and game-changing ideas that we need to reverse the long-term environmental trends that we are currently facing. As Samuel Beckett said, we need to "fail better."