Does a more sustainable future really begin with you?


Part of the problem with envisioning a sustainable future is that the future is so difficult to predict. As an individual it’s even more difficult to comprehend what role you can play in creating a more sustainable future and if your actions make an impact in the grand scheme of things. This is why so often people fall back on the safety net of believing that it is up to the big corporations, politicians and policy makers to lead the transition towards a sustainable and equitable economy. Here is my argument to stop underestimating the influence you have and start taking action.

When it comes to the environment, the state of the world is looking a little bleak. All signs are there that we will not keep global warming under the 1,5 degrees agreed in the Paris Accord, populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have decreased by two-thirds since 1970 and on average we consume 5 grams of microplastic every week. The transition towards an economy in which recourses are constantly reused, biodiversity decline is halted and wealth is distributed more equitably will require systemic changes and drastic overhauls to the current economic systems. Time and again it appears that governments, corporations and citizens toss the responsibility to the other, resulting in a wait-and-see modus in which too little is actually achieved.

Waiting for systemic change vs. changing behavior

On a personal level I believe that it is up to governments and policy makers to ensure that individuals and business make more sustainable choices. I mean, why should I change my behavior and stop eating meat while governments continue to subsidize the meat industry? This is in line with what I hear from a lot of business owners; what is their incentive to invest in the decarbonization of their company, while subsidies are still lacking and governments repeatedly choose to keep the coal-fired power plants running? This hypocrisy feels unfair and seems at odds with international goals for transitioning to a sustainable economy.

“It doesn't matter whether you are a business owner, healthcare worker or accountant, you always have the power to influence those around you. It’s up to you how you will wield this power.”

I am also of the strong belief that exemplary behavior from leaders (be it political, business or thought) must be present before people will really consider changing their behavior. On a personal note, I always reasoned that because I am not a leader (yet), my exemplary behavior wouldn’t matter much, because who am I in the bigger picture and what influence do my actions have on changing the system?! The same line of reasoning is used by a lot of business owners seeing their emissions are negligible compared to others, making their sustainable choices and their impact seem futile. Not an outlandish argument to make considering that a group of 100 big corporations have emitted 71% of all Green House Gases (GHG) globally since 1988.

A case of self-underestimation

These kinds of arguments make it tempting to exonerate oneself from taking action to make a change, because can your action really make a difference? Yet, this line of reasoning fails to consider the impact individual choices have on those around you. And this is where many people underestimate themselves and the difference they can make.

Psychologists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler1 explored the influence of social connections on behavior. It’s their view that humans aren’t mere individuals, but social beings that are part of different social, familial, and professional networks. They show that most attitudes, beliefs and habits such as happiness, obesity and willingness to vaccinate mainly spread from person to person in networks and influence people who you haven’t even met personally. They dubbed this the 'Three Degrees of Influence', which means that our behavior and choices not only influence those we are in direct contact with (first degree), but also the friends of our friends (the second degree) and in effect the friends of our friends their friends (the third degree).

Your choices are infectious

This effect is underscored by economists Brian Bollinger & Kenneth Gillingham2 that show that generating green electricity has a contagious effect, greater than with consuming alcohol. The bigger and more visible your installation, the more people imitate you. These imitators in turn are imitated by other imitators. This makes imitating your neighbors, colleagues, and friends a good thing. Who knew that the phrase ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ could have a positive meaning? If you then take the ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ into account that hypothesizes that all people in the world are six or fewer social connections away from each other, you are suddenly influencing the biggest climate deniers in politics and business with your individual sustainable choices.

Making small changes for the better

It is through the various degrees of influence and the contagiousness of sustainable behavior your seemingly impact-less choice to serve vegetarian options during lunch, choice to invest in electric fleet vehicles or choice to use sustainable materials in your products can have a wider impact on reducing GHG. But most of the time you are just not aware of it yourself. By talking about subjects that matter to you, you can change your organisation and influence other organisations to do the same. For example, my first position at RSM was not in sustainability. But by continually raising the subject internally and discussing the importance for our clients, I got the green light to start the Sustainability Consulting team a couple of years ago. Now, sustainability is one of the core pillars of our Business Consulting Services.

You have the power to influence those around you

To be clear, I am not arguing that the transition towards a sustainable economy can be achieved by individuals making sustainable decisions or that governments and big corporations don’t have a major role to play. I am merely advocating for the agency and responsibility that individuals have in shaping this sustainable future and how each person has more influence to make a change than they think.

So yes, my period of self-underestimation has come to an end. And unfortunately, this also means that a more sustainable future does start with myself and the company I work for. It doesn't matter whether you are a business owner, healthcare worker or accountant, you always have the power to influence those around you. It’s up to you how you will wield this power.

1. Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A., (2011): ‘The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives -- How Your Friends' Friends' Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do’
2. Bollinger, B., & Gillingham, K., (2012) Peer Effects in the Diffusion of Solar Photovoltaic Panels. Marketing Science 31(6): 900-912.