Sunday, June 1, 2008

Changing the World, One Multinational at a Time

Just back from an amazing trip to the US where I met some extraordinary thinkers and doers making a difference in the field of climate change and religion. Over the next few weeks, I'll be unpacking some of the experiences and insights that I brought home with me, as well as inviting some of the people I met there to guest blog on Climate of Change.

In San Francisco, I attended a staff meeting at Saatchi S (sustainable), the green arm of the world's largest marketing and advertising company. Their clients include Walmart and GE. Saatchi's is a business, not a religious movement. But what I saw there is incredibly relevant to understanding what religions can do about climate change.

Saatchi S is run by Adam Werbach, environmentalist enfant terrible (he was President of the Sierra Club at 23) now turned corporate businessman. A few years ago he founded Act Now, an environmental consultancy, which was bought by Saatchi's in January for an eye-popping amount of money. The company still occupies offices on the same dilapidated street in San Francisco's Mission District, distinguished from the neighbours only by the gleaming green, blue and brown recycling bins standing outside the entrance.

Inside, there are a lot of bright, creative and idealistic young things, most of whom wear cheerful lapel buttons, bearing catchy messages like "I've met my personal health sustainability goals." The clients are big on lapel buttons, the woman who designs them explained proudly. It gives the staff a sense of achievement about the changes they've managed to make.

The Personal Sustainability Plan (PSP), which the buttons celebrate, is a cornerstone of the Saatchi S philosophy. Every staff member of every client company they work with has a PSP. That commits the employee to taking small but definite steps towards making his or her own life more environmentally sustainable, whether by giving up smoking, carpooling, buying a hybrid, whatever is practical for that person. In the case of Walmart that means over 1 million people.

Employees are encouraged to make changes that reflect values they really care about. That way they are more likely to stick. This is based on another important insight of Saatchi S: everyone cares in a deep inner place about their natural environment. The challenge is to find that place in each person.

The biggest obstacle is "to detach sustainability from politics," as Jamie, one of the trainers, put it to me. "Environmentalism is pegged as a pinko liberal, East Coast cause. We'll go into a company in Tennessee, and ask, "come on, hands up who expected us to come here in tie-dye T-shirts, eating organic Trail Mix." All the hands go up. Then you'll ask the same redneck guys what they like to do in their spare time. They'll often say "hunting, shooting and fishing," or some combination of that list. And from there it's a no-brainer to show that they really do care about the natural world, and are dependent on it for the things they love doing the most."

The task is to have people articulate deeply held values that may have become occluded by politics, ideology or sheer habit, and to get them to commit to actions that will strengthen the place of those values in their lives.

Adam Werbach is a secular Jew. "Most of this I got from my grandparents," Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, he explains. “For them, being a mensch was the most important thing there is. If you believed in something you lived it - simple as that." I don’t want to put Jewish sources into Adam Werbach’s mouth, but the parallels that occurred to me were endless: the importance of action as an expression of your spiritual values (“do little and say much” – pirke avot), the power of deeds to effect changes in consciousness, (we will do and (then) we will understand, as the Jewish people said when they accepted Torah.)

Saatchi S’s work with Walmart has been criticized by some environmentalists as, at worst, selling your soul to the devil and, at best, rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. The argument goes, “who cares if Walmart’s cashiers carpool to work when the company’s brutally low cost, high environmental impact supply chains cause such huge damage?”

From a religious perspective these criticisms miss the point. Real change happens one person at a time. Top-down policy shifts can be reversed as fast as the winds of business fashion. Walmart and other mega-companies will go green when sustainability is part of its consciousness from top to bottom.

As Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the mussar movement famously said. “At first I thought I could change the world. Then I tried to change my community. Then I attempted to change my family. Finally I realized that it would be an achievement to change myself.

But in changing himself he changed the lives of hundreds of thousands who followed him.

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