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Why the biggest sustainability challenge is ‘unlearning’

23 Sep 2022

Experience tells us that sustainability is a practice, not a curriculum and requires a fundamental rethinking of the way we do business.

I am sure those who have worked with me in the past can undisputedly confirm I love learning. For me, learning is a practice more than a process, a bit like yoga – consistency over perfection. Having had the privilege to work with a variety of educators from thought-leading universities to inspiring academics and researchers, I became a passionate advocate for the role of formal education to professionalise sustainability. And while the groundwork is there, the degree and speed to which these issues are incorporated varies. We simply do not have the luxury (in social and environmental terms) to wait for the future generation to be trained and change the way we do business. Mobilising human capital to the sustainability transition is equally as important as mobilising other forms of capital, and organisations need sustainability skills today to further their actions. To put it simply, to build the future we want, increasing the capacity for people to act as change agents in their organisations is key.

The onus lies on the current workforce, those who have enjoyed long careers in their sectors, built the business giants we see today, and know the ins and outs well enough to accelerate the transformation from within. The Sustainability Solutions team at Capgemini Invent UK recently delivered a sustainability learning project for a British multinational consumer products manufacturer, and we learnt that, while not all employees will be sustainability experts, organisations need to equip teams with the right level of sustainability knowledge to navigate this landscape. The skills include a broad range of cognitive, technological, interpersonal, as well as intrapersonal competencies with topics like partnerships or change leadership being top of the list. At a practical level, to be accountable for a sustainable business KPI, teams need to go on the journey of building the foundation to make the right decisions, gain the courage to grab the opportunity of setting the course for this agenda and finally, take responsibility for their role in driving change.

Figure: Sustainability learning organisational pathway – Capgemini Invent, Sustainability Solutions

Experience tells us that sustainability is a practice, not a curriculum, and requires a fundamental rethinking of the way we do business, which places global systems pressures and the needs of the communities at the forefront of decision-making. As a result, what I learnt from the business leaders who I have worked with in the past, is that effective sustainability learning is focused on unlearning. In every aspect of business, we are operating with mental models that have grown obsolete, from strategy to marketing to organisation to leadership.

To embrace a new, net positive logic of value creation, we must unlearn the old one. In addition, a fundamental shift in the learner’s values, beliefs, and world views is required, making sustainability-focused learning a true mix of intellectual and personal growth. Participants need to not only receive access to the information and tools that allow them to approach a systems problem in multiple ways, but also be able to take a step back and find the appropriate business-driven solution. This requires a fundamental re-wiring of their personal views of the world and the role business plays in society.

Therefore, formats like cohort-based and peer-to-peer learning – where people from multiple backgrounds, roles and points in the value chain can meet – are important, as teams can discover and learn together. Other key ingredients are transformative experiences, that add ‘a heart, a soul, and a body’ to the traditional, cognitive process of learning and can provide the conditions for an emotional response. Tactics social learning, boot camps or immersive learning expeditions can help organisations move the process from ‘purely memorising’ to one-off experimenting, both in terms of individual progress and the environment in which the learning can be explored. Being part of the learning, and the experimentation and action that result from it, can have a deep impact on the learner’s own beliefs and psychological views.

To conclude, organisations of all sizes should prioritise sustainability upskilling as an essential building block to deliver their strategy. When acting on this, sustainability leaders, champions and intrapreneurs can start by asking:

  • What is the level of our ambition? For example, are we simply striving for compliance or are we fundamentally changing our business?
  • What sustainability issues are material to each part of our business?
  • What employee groups should be targeted?
  • What type of engagement is likely to be effective?
  • What soft skills do our teams need?

Capgemini Invent can support you in defining your roadmap, wherever you are on your sustainability journey.

We have already delivered numerous successful sustainability stories across industries. We support organisations across their net zero journey, from commitments to sustainable achievements, building assets to support our offering domains, such as:

  • Corporate climate strategy and transformation plans
  • Sustainable operations, supply chain and manufacturing strategies
  • New sustainable business models
  • New ways to engage with internal and external stakeholders
  • Data platforms for sustainability strategies
  • Sustainable IT strategies

Get in touch with a member of our Sustainability Solutions team here to start enhancing your path to sustainability and to achieve the future you want