The first event I attended was the Stanford Center for Social Innovation’s Responsible Supply Chains conference, which was themed “Designing Supply Chains for Positive Impact.” Professionals working in various capacities on social progress, environmental sustainability, and ethical integrity issues in global supply chains came together to discuss experiences and ideas on how best to advance our collective effort.
The second event was a members’ retreat (I was a guest) for the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, a public policy research center devoted to the advanced study of politics, economics, and political economy — both domestic and foreign — as well as international affairs (otherwise known as a “conservative think tank” in some circles). Topics presented included, among others, California’s drought and market responses to climate change.
I thought the caliber of all presenters – and participants – was quite high at both events. I was also struck by the strength of their passion for doing what they believe is right to improve our societies and the world in which we live. Beyond that, there were few other similarities between the attendees. Attendees at the Responsible Supply Chain conference were mostly young professionals eager to create or continue to build a career that positively impacts our society. Those attending the Hoover Institution members’ retreat were largely affluent (semi) retirees who were finished or in the twilight years of their careers. Not surprisingly, the two groups appeared to have different perspectives.
Differing perspectives are healthy and helpful. The many successful partnerships existing between non-governmental organizations and global brands are testaments to the good that can come from difference. These two groups could benefit from “co-mingling” with one another. It was as though presenters at each event were “preaching to the choir,” when what we really need are more “conversions” of non-believers to a lifestyle with less detrimental impact. Before we are bold enough (or deserve the right) to attempt to convert others to our way of thinking, we need to understand where the others are coming from and communicate in terms they can understand and (hopefully) support. Let me explain, using climate change – a polarizing issue – as an example.
The participants in the Responsible Supply Chain conference took climate change as a fact. As a result, sustainability efforts were often discussed in the context of mitigating climate change. The climate change discussion at the Hoover Institution centered on adaptation – specifically, that economically, it makes sense to focus investments on adaptation. While I do not concur with this statement, the presentation was interesting and insightful. But what really struck me most were the comments from a passionate member of the audience who does not believe that humanity has an impact on climate change. While I must admit that I rarely find myself among people who don’t believe the science and evidence behind humanity’s contribution to climate change, I really got a sense of how passionate the disbelievers are about their position when I heard this person’s views on the matter. It was evident that there was no need for me to counter any of his statements or engage in any dialogue with him – he would certainly remain loyal to his convictions. I was not going to convince him that climate change is real and that we can actually do something about it.
I might be able, however, to convince him that protecting human health, using resources responsibly, and optimizing efficiencies makes sense and warrants action without ever mentioning climate change. I propose that we drop the topic of climate change in certain circles and focus on its less controversial root causes instead. For example, if we were to focus on the responsible use of resources and the protection of human health we could achieve the same goals without the controversy. Responsible use of resources would drive efficiencies in all aspects of product supply chains – from agricultural inputs and yields to energy efficiency in production and consumer use. Protection of human health would help address harmful emissions – and again drive efficiencies in energy production as well as in our use of polluting material. The potential impact of protecting human health may best be illustrated by China’s recent pledge to invest US$1.65 billion to reduce air pollution in its major cities, primarily by cutting fossil-fuel use and controlling consumption of carbon intensive coal, the country’s largest source of energy and a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.
I would love to see more of the general public accept the fact that climate change is indeed occurring and that humanity’s contribution to that change is significant, but this is not likely. It is time to take a different tack. Let’s see how far we can get those who are still in denial to actually mitigate climate change without them even knowing it.
The attendees of the Supply Chain conference and the members of the Hoover Institution – and other entities that have opposing positions on controversial matters – could learn a lot from each other if they could get beyond the issues that separate them. They each have valuable perspective and insight to share and could work towards a common goal if they center their dialogue and actions on common points of interest with less focus on their divergent beliefs.