Being part of something bigger

Welcome back to the third part of my four-part conversation with Maritha Erasmus, CEO of Managing Transformation Solutions (Pty) Ltd, who are based in South Africa. MTS specialise in guiding business leaders through critical sustainability decisions, and we’ve already talked about the importance of, and challenges faced by, education and leadership respectively.

Now, Maritha and I are turning our attention to the critical subject of Legacy.

Alexander Pond: Earlier in our conversation, we talked about the frustrations inherent in feedback loops. One of my pet hates is when I see a company invest in a reforestation project in somewhere like South America or Chile that hires people, pays them poorly, produces monocrops that absorb the essential nutrients from the ground, and creates so many problems that the people who are working to grow the crops are not able to create the social development necessary to let their country develop. For me, as someone looking in from the outside who would quite happily like to tick the box that says, ‘I’ll gladly give an extra portion of payment so that this company can do their reforestry program’, I can’t bring myself to tick the box because I know that, if I do, I’m solving one problem and creating another. That is the total reverse of what I want to achieve with sustainable development.

But, unfortunately, I find that the idea of giving with one hand and taking with the other is prevalent throughout a lot of sustainable development. Over the past year, we’ve seen so many companies get caught out for doing that and, as encouraging as it is that they’ve been caught, it’s also discouraging to know that there are still companies out there who think it’s right to underpay coffee growers in South America and subject them to poor working conditions yet have George Clooney as their ambassador. Even though there have been huge paradigm shifts in the last few years that have uncovered these issues, the issues are sadly still out there, and they shouldn’t be. It’s 2021 now, these things are not hard to resolve.

Still, I am encouraged by the fact that there’s a growing swell of people like us who are committed to finding ways to make positive sustainable change within the parameters of the commercial environments we have to function with.

Maritha Erasmus: I agree. Just before 2020 started, I joked that it would be the year of perfect vision and how true that turned out to be! During 2020, a magnifying glass was placed on ‘white-washing’ and ‘green-washing’ and all those other phrases people use when they’re pretending to be responsible and sustainable while actually attempting to justify what are close to human rights abuses within their supply chain. It’s fascinating, really fascinating.

Alex: I’m uncovering that issue with supply chains too and finding it more disturbing the more I learn. The COVID Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF) study we’ve just been doing has 84 companies on it who have accessed funding from the Bank of England to the tune of around £15.8bn. These are companies and brands that are based all around the world, not just operating exclusively in the UK.

To me, this is an incredible indicator of just how widespread these issues are. Because even though we’re looking at 84 companies ‘on paper’, I know we’re probably looking at thousands and thousands of companies that are interconnected on every aspect of ESG, not just the financial aspects and governance, which is what the CCFF study necessarily focuses on.

It’s about leadership wanting to leave legacies and think more broadly about the future.

About eighteen months ago, there was a statistic that large corporates used to develop and build generational wealth over ten, fifteen, twenty years or longer, but now that’s all changed. Now, the shareholding and ownership of a large corporate can completely switch over four month and six month cycles, so it’s all become about how much profit you can generate with very little understanding of legacy, long-term sustainability, or the impact of how you’re generating that profit is having.

Also, we shouldn’t confuse development, legacy or being creative with the idea of being a ‘forward entrepreneurial’. In the U.K., we consider entrepreneurialism to be all those things. We see entrepreneurialism as creating a vision, seeing out your vision, creating a legacy, seeing out your legacy, and we also see entrepreneurialism as something original and creative. But that’s just a confusion of what entrepreneurialism actually is.

Entrepreneurialism is a function of one of the things we can do by being creative and creating enterprise, but enterprise isn’t necessarily the only way to build, and it isn’t the only way for an idea to be proliferated. You can lead a legacy inside a business, lead a legacy inside a community, or lead a legacy through your own actions as an influencer. You don’t necessarily need to back that up with being a corporation.

One of the other things we do here in the U.K. is promote entrepreneurialism to such an extent that a lot of young people think you have to be creative and start your own thing. The reality is, there are already some fantastic resources out there which are enabling those great ideas to live right now, today, so let’s get behind what’s currently available and give it a platform.

A lot of the education process, especially in terms of top-down leadership, should involve promoting that kind of original thought and creative Imagineering so that it can take place across the board. We shouldn’t just expect the influential change to come from a select few entrepreneurs who have the time, money, and luxury to come up with their own ideas. I’m in a very privileged position because I don’t have to wait for it to rain to eat, but I recognise that’s not a luxury everybody can afford or has the privilege of being born into.

Maritha: From a very personal perspective, it’s definitely about leaving a personal legacy or something societally valuable behind. But it also speaks into the stakeholder economy. If you think about how the economy and values have moved over the years, the conversation today is around the future of the stakeholder economy and how your customers are going to decide who they spend their money with.

If you look at how Airbnb and Uber and all those tech companies which basically use personalised entrepreneurship earn money, I think they’re closely linked to ideas around the circular economy. That is what is going to drive companies of the future because, if you don’t start thinking like that, you’re going to be Kodak, you won’t be here in ten years’ time. And it’s more than simply adopting the stakeholder economy, you’ve got to really buy into the idea of stakeholders having opportunities and consumers becoming more sensitive around what they consume and who they buy their consumables from. I live in a little farming community where there are local smallholdings close to the city. We don’t buy from big shops. We support the little farmers around us because we understand that buying our produce from them circulates cash around our community and that’s infinitely more sustainable than buying from Shoprite or Pick& Pay.

I think that’s going to happen more and more and as people lose their jobs and find other ways of earning income through servicing their neighbourhoods. It’s what regeneration is all about. Whether it’s childcare, or food, or education, it doesn’t really matter. I really think the stakeholder economy and community-based income opportunities are going to become more obvious, and large companies or large holdings might find themselves empty.

Alex: One of the things I’ve noticed take a lot more prevalence during the COVID lockdown is the concept of the 20-minute neighbourhood; the idea that everything you need in work or in life is within twenty minutes’ walk of where you live. I realise that’s not going to be possible in a lot of countries or locations that cover a bigger area, but certainly in developed cities and larger areas where most of the pollution is generated and a lot of the problems are caused environmentally or by social issues created in the cities themselves, a lot of that could be somewhat resolved by the idea of a twenty-minute neighbourhood and more localised thought. COVID has made it much less appealing for the majority of people to want to go to places like out-of-town shopping centres and big supermarkets. Instead, they’re seeking out more niche, local solutions.

My hope is that this idea of the 20-minute neighbourhood will continue to grow and create lots more creative thought around “what does my community need, what does my neighbourhood need, and is there something that is a necessity here”, rather than thinking about the idea of a big franchise or proliferating globally. It will be about identifying what is required in your neighbourhood that you can create a sustainable income and living from, and it will prompt us to ask ourselves questions like, “do we produce products in neighbourhoods now, do we make things locally, do we look at things on a local scale rather than a global scale and use local materials because those have now become more practical and affordable?”

Maritha: And, if you take that twenty-minute idea of yours one step further, think about how much you’ll protect the environment when people are no longer moving about. A lot of the gases will be eliminated, and if it’s a twenty-minute community neighbourhood you won’t need packaging. I’ve got glass bottles that I take to the dairy and we fill them up, I haven’t had plastic in the house for a long time. It changes the way you operate and work, how you buy products and how people produce them, and you won’t need huge pieces of land because you’re only looking after a smaller number of people.

For example, you won’t need two thousand children in a school if you can have a far more community-based environment for a child to learn in.

Even if the education is online it could be five children or ten children learning together, which completely changes the landscape as it brings people closer and into a more intimate scenario. Not too long ago it was all about smartphones and Facebook and people didn’t connect anymore, so I think this could help us connect again.

It does raise another issue though, and it brings in the developing world again. The majority of people in the developing world don’t have access to technology or data, and can’t afford the cost of data, so while my team at MTS are busy rolling out online research projects even as we speak, we also have to duplicate everything on paper for people who don’t have the technology or bandwidth to access online resources. Once again, it’s the divide between people with access to opportunities and people who don’t have access to opportunities. How do you make things available to everybody? What’s the responsibility of corporates and governments to make these resources more affordable, so that technology is not the next driver for inequality?

Alex: I think trying to create scale on that particular idea is exactly the issue we’re going to face. Scale is necessary to make the impacts we want to see, and if ideas can’t scale then we’re not going to see a wider impact even if we see it in local areas. In a way, I think it’s encouraging that COVID has taught us some of the things we’d lost and we’re now rediscovering, and the idea that we’re returning to a more value-based local understanding is actually quite heart-warming. When you’re doing this work on a daily basis you do come across things that upset you so to have something like that in your mind does help keep you driving forwards and thinking positively about what we can actually achieve.

Maritha: And imagine taking what you just said about a value base and heightening it again to a corporate level or a global corporate level; consider how global corporate companies, if they are truly buying into the value-based idea of localisation, could turn around the economies of the countries where they operate or the supply chains they use. The world will stabilise, and the environment will be protected, because we’re not going to have to fly or drive or transport stuff over vast volumes of kilometres or assemble a car between twenty different countries. Think how producing it or manufacturing it locally so that it’s in the value-based legacy-driven local economy will stimulate that economy and create job opportunities for the people within it.

Alex: Crucially, that doesn’t need to be removed from the shareholder’s entirely, you can still have big companies and big brands that produce products for a local market on a local level. It just means they’ll operate in a slightly different way which, in fact, promotes some really good things.

I find that, today, people want to buy local. They want to buy things that they can trace back and understand the roots of and, more importantly than ever, they want those items to come with a story of how they came to be. In turn, those stories are helping to transform those products into more than just consumables to be used and thrown away; now they’ve become artefacts that describe who we are and why we made those buying choices. It doesn’t matter if it’s the car I drive or a book on my desk, all of these things have a story and a reason that I came to own them.

It’s this influence, this legacy, the words we use to explain the choices and behaviours that make us want to buy that product over this product, or the brand in that country over the brand in this country. It’s the emotion we feel in purchasing the product and taking ownership of it and becoming part of what the product stands for. It’s not facts and figures. And I think that’s essentially what the 20-minute neighbourhood is all about; I buy my things from this guy because I believe in the values of what they’re trying to do, I believe in the vision they have, and I want to support their vision and be a part of it with my purchase. Not just because I want to buy that bottle or that piece of plastic for this one purpose. I hope we’ve moved beyond an economy which is built on that kind of throwaway mentality, and now we can build more on those ideas of real products with a real story and real reasons for being.

Maritha: I agree with you about the story and the reason for being, but it’s also about products that are multi-functional, the whole idea of upcycling or using products for different things, which is exactly like the biomimicry we find in nature. Nature doesn’t just design for one function, it’s always multifunctional, it’s always able to be used over and over and over again so it adds value in different facets and phases of life. I think this moves us closer to that idea as well.

It’s about mindfulness, being aware of why you’re doing something, why you’ve bought something, why you need something, why you produce something, what else you can do with it… all of those aspects that, on a very micro-level, start with the individual and then gradually expand out. But it’s also about coming from the top-down where you’re educating people and giving them the ability to make their own choices and create legacy by becoming sustainable.

Alex: Which brings us full circle to the very start of our conversation, and ensuring legacy is something that communicates well with everyone within an organisation;

this idea of being part of something bigger than yourself and leaving something behind that is a testament to your time on the planet.

Maritha: I couldn’t agree with you more.

Alex:So now let’s talk about Kruger!

Maritha tells us about her life-changing experience at the Kruger National Park in the next article. We’ll see you there!

Key Takeaways

  • Think 1-2 not just 1-1 when designing a new system, consider the interconnected relationships and wider impacts, be honest about limitations and ambitions to close the gap.
  • Legacy doesn't have to be an entrepreneurial endeavour, there are many roots that form great oak trees.
  • Reconcile with your local community to understand where your thoughts, ideas and dreams spawn from.
  • Good ideas scale when people feel valued, exercise empathy and work with those who believe in your vision to further the cause.
  • Legacy isn't a sprint, a marathon or even an ultramarathon - it's a life long cause that you would follow regardless of financial value.

What does the future look like?

  • People are finding the courage to test, at times to breaking point traditional systems and ideologies. Out of the rubble will come entirely new systems predicated on new values and beliefs.
  • Companies with paper-thin missions designed for the purpose of advertising won't work, customers will look past that and demand that a company's legacy is backed up with relentless focus, drive and impact.
  • Social pressure and increasingly interconnected lifestyles will continue to highlight individual accountability, making it impossible not to walk the talk.
  • A new generation of investors and shareholders derive greater satisfaction from influencing seismic shifts over quarterly profits.

Latest Updates

  1. Part 4. The importance of stepping back and changing perspective
    By AG

    Underlining how crucial it is to take a step back and open our eyes to the natural world around us, so that we can find more organic, effective and sustainable ways to solve the problems.

  2. Part 1. Education
    By AG

    How can we address in equality? To empower people to take responsibility, embrace education, and grow themselves.

  3. Part 2. Leadership
    By AG

    Successful leadership drives transformational change that effects impactful social sustainability and ensures that the strategies and initiative used are relevant, implementable and sustainable without compromising the bottom line.