One of my favorite quotes is from Ghandi: “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” It is so easy to blame others and think that we cannot make a difference. If we would give in to that thought, nothing would change. We probably would still be hunters and gatherers.

Changing our Mindset

In the highly interactive leadership workshops I provide for Japanese corporations, there is an exercise where I hold an object at shoulder height above the ground and let it drop to the floor. I then ask the participants, “What caused the object to drop?” The overwhelming response is “gravity” which of course is a potential answer. After some encouragement, someone will softly say “you,” which is the answer I am looking for. Gravity is a force we have to live with and cannot change. The real reason, however, the object drops is because I let it go. Only after I let go, can gravity do its work.

It is, however, a lot easier to think that something is out of our control since it means we do not have to take action or risk. It means we can keep sitting on the sidelines, and complain about everything that is wrong in the world, blaming “them:” politicians, capitalists, communists, you name it. If we take the viewpoint that we are in control, it suddenly implies that something is within our power to change. Instead of playing the victim-of-circumstances role, we are the ones that should take action to improve the situation.

It starts with changing our mindset from being a victim, to one where we are aware we have influence and even power. In most areas of my life, I live by the rule that I can make a difference. People have told me that when a new challenge shows up, my attitude is one of “yes, I can do that.” It is only afterwards, that I try to figure out how on earth I am going to do it!

My Awakening

About five years ago, I got introduced by my best friend, Kimberly Wiefling, who is the creative mind and driver behind the highly interactive leadership workshops I mentioned above, to ALC Education, which is the Japanese organization that sells and provides these workshops. This caused me to start to work more closely with Japanese corporations to assist their management in becoming global leaders so they can continue to thrive, and even lead, in the global market. Rooted in the Japanese culture, these corporations have long-term visions, long-term meaning going forward multiple generations. Because of their long-term view, they are not only very concerned with the sustainability of their organizations, but also with that of the societies in which they operate. You could say sustainability is part of their DNA. Working closely with these corporations, learning their histories, hearing their executives talk about sustainability and how it is part of their value system, opened my eyes. It made me realize that I was not taking any action in areas of great importance to me. Seeing their actions was a true awakening for me.

The areas I am talking about are social responsibility and sustainability, both individually and corporately. Growing up in one of the most densely populated Western country in Europe, the Netherlands, I was very aware of the limited availability of untouched nature. When I was in high school, I was a member of Greenpeace and dreamed of becoming an activist to protect our planet’s nature and wildlife from the exploitation of ruthless corporations. When I was in university, I wanted unlimited wealth so I could buy up large sections of the Amazon forest, the lungs of our planet, and put armed guards around those areas with the command to punish anybody who wanted to cut down a tree. Then working life began, and the day-to-day reality of paying bills pushed everything to the side. I still wanted unlimited wealth so I could hire an army of scientists and work crews to take care of the garbage patch out in the Pacific, but I felt overwhelmed by the scale of changes needed, for us (and the generations after us) to continue to enjoy the world with its natural wonders.

I have a healthy distrust of corporations’ intentions with regard to our planet’s nature and wildlife, simply by having seen a lot of this world and the damage done. Because of this, the recent increase of Corporate Social Responsibility programs within corporations sounded to me more like a marketing tool, rather than true actions to sustain our environment and societies. However, I was not taking action myself either. My “I’m in control” mentality had been muted by the feeling of being overwhelmed, combined with my daily workload. Only when I experienced the real passion some Japanese organizations have to improve the communities they touch for future generations, did it occur to me that I needed to do something. It reminded me of the quote I mentioned at the start of this article, and I realized that I was the one who needed to change, not “them.” So here I am writing articles, speaking, and even writing a book with a dear friend of mine, Greg Balestrero, (working title: “What Hope looks like: How Organizations Can Benefit from Solving the Problems of Global Sustainability”) in order to do my part in raising social responsibility and improving the sustainability of the planet.

Imminent Danger

According to UN projections, in 2050 there will be more than 9 billion people on this planet. The good news is that more people than ever in human history will be pulled out of poverty. The “Bottom of the Pyramid” (BOP), which is people who are living on less than $2.50 a day, is getting smaller. However, this new middle class is expecting the same living standard as the current middle class: cars, smart phones, flat screen TV’s, more clothes, larger food selections, and more. This will translate into a dramatic increase in consumption.The bad news is that if we do not dramatically change the way we create and provide products and services, our planet is not capable of providing the necessary resources to meet this increase in demand. Recent projections point to 2050 as the time when we will need 2.3 times more output of water, food, energy and raw materials than the planet is capable of providing! For most of us, this will occur within our lifetime.

Take Action

We all know that if we wait for governments to act or corporations to self-regulate, it will be too little, too late. Just think of the Kyoto Treaty, the international agreement between nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or the Rio Conventions, three conventions with sustainable development goals derived from the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit. It is up to all of us to act. As consumers, we can vote with our money and spend our hard earned dollars on products and services from companies that are good stewards of our environment. By good stewards, I mean companies that take responsibility for their full supply chain. For those of us who are employees, we can influence our organizations to be better stewards in selecting its vendors, suppliers, and in developing sustainable internal processes based on long-term sustainable strategies.

What can we as an individual do?

1. Change our mindset – Possibility Thinking

As human beings, we have a tendency to see constraints and believe that things are impossible. This creates our reality. If we think it is impossible, it most likely is. Our mind will stop looking for new opportunities. Think about what happens when we, for example, buy a new car, read a certain book, or plan a vacation to a new destination. Suddenly we see that same car everywhere, and run into people who have read the same book or have been to that same destination. It is not that these pieces of information were not there before, our mind simply ignored them.Studies show that optimism is a key strategy. If we think it is possible, we are half way there. Opportunity is not going to knock on our door. We will have to go out and find it. Yes, this is challenging, however, it is also exciting since it means we are the one directing our lives.

While writing this article I have become aware of a behavior where I can significantly improve my support for a more sustainable earth. Sometimes it is right in front of our face. For example, when not traveling for work, I make vegetable juice every morning. I re-use the plastic bag the vegetables come in to collect the pulp from the vegetables. That by itself is a good thing, however, to make sure I have enough bags, I take more than double the plastic bags from the grocery store than really necessary. I am using the plastic bag purely out of laziness since I do not want to clean the container every day. The issue is that I have to clean all the other elements of the juicer, so why I am adding to the plastic bag pollution which, amongst others, kills our marine life; an area very dear to my scuba diver heart? This is a very good question. When I get home after this business trip, it will be a simple step to make a difference!

As project managers, we should change our mindset by taking into account the resource usage and sources for our projects. In addition, during our stakeholder analysis we should investigate the impact of our project from a sustainability viewpoint on both the stakeholders within and outside the company, as well as on the planet.

2. Educate ourselves

We should consider buying from organizations that are good stewards of society, not just those that are excellent in advertising their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Choose organizations that think long-term and are taking action to change their business models and supply chains to be sustainable. There are different ways to find these organizations. For example, in the USA, you can find them through the new voluntary certification of B-corp, and in Europe, through the EU Ecolabel, which is a certification provided by the EU since 1992.

Some organizations from their inception, like Seventh Generation, have made it their mission to be sustainable for this generation and generations to come. Other organizations will need the incentive of consumers spending their money on sustainable products and services to finally change their ways. We are all consumers, and because of that, we can influence organizations we assume are too large to care.

Organizations typically change their ways when faced with concerned consumers. Twelve years ago, when I moved to the United States from Europe, I was shocked by how much food was processed in the United States. Simple products were loaded with chemicals. Now 12 years later, it is interesting to see how many corporations have responded to the rising consumer awareness of what we eat. A lot of products that used to contain hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup no longer do so because we as consumers no longer want to buy them. To re-use Neil Armstrong’s quote: it might feel like a small step to change our buying behavior, but it can be a giant leap for mankind in the long run.

We can make a difference not only as consumers but also as employees. If we educate ourselves on sustainable processes and suppliers, we are able to advise our employers on how to change. Knowing our company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies, we are able to help improve them, and educate our project teams or project sponsor about them. The same counts for any other organizations we interact with: our schools, churches, professional associations, or clubs involving our leisure time. Knowledge is power!

3. Educate others

First of all, we should educate our children. The upcoming shortage of planetary resources will be at its height in our children’s lifetime. They are the next generation of customers and employees. Making them aware of both their social responsibility and of sustainable ways of living, is crucial for our planet’s future. We are their parents, uncles, aunts, guardians, teachers and their inspiration. This means it is within our control to provide them with the necessary information to make conscious decisions.

Secondly, we should educate others. After we have educated ourselves, we should share this knowledge with those around us. This would include those we interact with at work (project team members, customers, vendors, managers, new recruits, etc.) and those we interact with in our personal life (family, sport clubs, local stores etc.)

It’s within our control

Remember, we must be the change we want to see in the world. I truly believe we can make a difference one person at a time. We cannot wait for “others” to change. Do not worry about knowing everything before you act – you will get caught in the trap of being paralyzed by choice and unable to act. Making a small difference every day is better than none at all, even if some of your first attempts are possibly incorrect, keep learning and correct them when you realize it.

Let’s set the example and make those small steps that will take us down a path where we will be able to live in harmony with this planet for centuries to come.

Originally published on allPM.com in Aug. 2012

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