Incite has not been accused of blowing its own trumpet. At least, not yet and not overtly. But parampara (what is the sound of a trumpet??), our first sustainability practitioner retreat (27-29 October 2022) was a blast! Three days at secluded Mont Fleur, where mountain fynbos meets the Stellenbosch vineyards; twenty senior practitioners who are actively navigating the travails and heady attention of the explosion of interest in our field; going beyond technicalities into their deeper experiences of frustration, insight and resolve. It felt human and connected. We reconnected with old friends and made new ones. Judging by the feedback, it was what we all needed.
Sessions explored emerging trends within the broader sustainability field, within our organisations and for us as practitioners. The field is mainstreaming, professionalising, commoditising, politicising. It demands chunks of our time just to stay informed. It’s given rise to overnight ESG experts, in all shapes and sizes. Tracey Davies, known for her incisive candour as director of shareholder activist organisation, Just Share, quotes a common comeback from the companies she cajoles: “Just let me tell you two things Tracey: this stuff is complex and there are trade-offs.” Really?
Organisations are reframing their sense of what sustainability leads do. A new hotline has opened to the C-suite, often recently awakened to deafening noise. Stuck in the midst of escalating pressure, uncertainties and a paucity of decision-useful data (despite thousands of ESG ‘indicators’), some resort to simplistic pleas: “just give me one thing to focus on for E, S and G”. Others lean forward and ask the questions long awaited by us practitioner types. There are tough questions all round. “There’s more willingness to engage on climate change now,” says Tracey, “but corporate South Africa is still clueless – clueless – on inequality.” And if SA is clueless on this, there’s less hope for the rest of the world.
Practitioners are tired, yet far from ready to step aside. Jess Schulschenk, director of The Sustainability Institute, speaks about ‘strategic champions’ who go above and beyond, repurposing the dominant narratives that hold us back. She speaks of ‘sacred activism’ reflected in new methods. Things slow down for one of them: an intense systemic process. Delegates represent elements within an organisation, helping its incoming CEO to reflect more deeply on his passage. Immersive and profoundly trusting, they provide embodied feedback as small, safe-to-fail probes are dropped into what appears to be a tense standoff. At last, a simple shift allows us all to breathe again. Ahh, something new is revealed and the next small step is evident.
Jon Hanks reflects on Incite’s 20 years of using disclosure to engage listed corporates on systemic challenges. Peers smile knowingly: using disclosure as the entry point for something more is the reason most of us are still at it after all these years. There have been shifts, but in truth, we expected more. From South African businesses, from stakeholders, from ourselves. We explore complicity and the price we’ve been prepared to pay for access. Naïve or not, tomorrow we’ll have one more conversation with an executive, a board, a practitioner that lands with the gentle thud of consequence. Perhaps.
That evening, Jon Duncan, who trail-blazed Responsible Investment for OMIGSA, dials in from Geneva where he now works to chat about the global investor ESG landscape. Reflections are mulled over local wines: a shift in the global debate from shareholder primacy vs ‘shared value’ to a two-pronged discussion on short termism vs long termism and rate of growth vs quality of growth; youth as an impending force for change; things hotting up on biodiversity; and the mobilisation of global capital underway.
C words surface again and again. From complicity to complexity as an excuse for inaction. How do we separate out what can reasonably be standardised into ‘good practice’ from developments that require constant sense-making to find the insights we need? How do we approach innovation in complex systems? Using Incite’s Ideator, delegates explore scalable opportunities for profit-enabled impact. Ideator (CC BY-SA 2.0 ZA) is a learning tool that uses pattern recognition in an attempt to make business innovation more inclusive. Challenged to share the silliest ideas, we find ourselves entrained in our seriousness. Let’s go and eat. Mont Fleur food and hospitality is outstanding.
We end on a decidedly practical note. How to grow a new kind of practitioner network that supports us personally and organisationally, with a meta-view on our field. We want to engage in high-level debate today, deep wilderness immersion tomorrow, and silly banter over local vinos in-between. Could Incite use its brand, network and experience to support a distinct praxis – a merging of theory and practice – in support the shifts we seek? Taken aback and pleased by a strong vote of peer confidence, Jon and I agree to rethink Incite’s offerings accordingly. And to meet again next year for sure.
Inserts by Sonja Niederhumer of Graphic Harvest. Inciter-turned-graphic artist, Sonja quietly absorbs every word, sifts the gems and delivers an fabulous graphic reflection of the dialogue.