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Our sustainability advisor Siân Sutherland shares her key learnings from the World Economic Forum in Davos

After two years of pandemic related delays, the World Economic Forum returned to Davos last week and our sustainability advisor Siân Sutherland was among attendees. With a focus on climate, conflict and food supply, the conference drew leaders from the worlds of business, politics and nonprofits to discuss and debate how to make change.

In her role as co-founder of A Plastic Planet, Siân was invited both to speak at the opening dinner at Goals House, which champions the Sustainable Development Goals, and to host a breakfast where she was able to educate on the realities of humanity’s addiction to plastic and to offer up solutions. It was also the moment to introduce a key partner for A Plastic Planet and the PlasticFree movement, Natural Fiber Welding, who are leading the way in radically regenerative material innovations.

Here are her key takeaways from the conference:

1. Look beyond the big guys, change is happening around the edges.

“You have all the people you would expect at Davos, all the big corporations, a lot of American banks, but then there are also all of these outlier groups which for me is where the magic is happening. This is where the real provocative conversations take place with people who are fully challenging the status quo.

One standout session was at the Arctic Basecamp. It was filled with a very different gang, young representatives of most continents. A 22 year old from Ukraine had us all in tears about the devastating war in his country. Another scientist spoke about food security and the weaponisation of food systems, something that we can already witness and that will increase. There is immense power if you hold the keys to the world’s larder. We were all made acutely conscious that conflict, climate and food security are inextricably linked and will be the big issues of our near future.

Of course there is posturing at Davos. With a fair amount of hot air from the big corporations and the banks but it’s these outliers, the groups around the edges who are really pushing a progressive agenda forward.”

2. Fundamentally, it is called the World Economic Forum. However, it has never been clearer that we need to redefine that word ‘economic’.

“There is no problem with people making money. A business without money is not sustainable in any way. It’s when making money is the main goal, that’s where things go wrong. And of course that is when people and our planet suffer in this constant drive for traditional bottom line profit; the never-ending quest for growth that makes no sense in a world with finite resources that are not properly valued within our business models.

I was at an extraordinary summit at the end of last year called the Sigma Squared Summit which is the convening of all these young entrepreneurs. You have to be under 25 and a CEO/Founder to attend. The room was filled with all of these extraordinary, inventive minds and everyone spoke passionately about the purpose of their businesses. For every one of them, the primary goal was to do something that was helpful, that was better for the planet and the people that live here. Money was nothing more than fuel to get them there. It gave me so much optimism.

The difference between those two groups of people–the young entrepreneurs thinking in such a different way and the old guard of Davos–struck me hard and I just thought, can we not channel the money to the young? They know what to do. They’re not talking about purpose and ESG and metrics using numbers to deflect the lack of real change that is happening. They’re just getting on with the job.”

3. There are two groups that we need to step up fast and it may be beyond them - the banks and the fossil fuel industry.

“On my final night I was lucky enough to be invited to join the Al Gore dinner. He stood up with his cowboy boots on and he started in this quiet, gentle, midwest drawl laying out fact after fact after fact about temperatures, about the people that are on the move already and about the extraordinary level of migration that is going to happen, over a billion people having to leave their land as it will become uninhabitable.

He referred to the HSBC executive who recently (basically) said ‘who cares if Miami is six feet under water because we will have cashed out by then’. The power of his words when he was talking about this attitude of ‘who cares’ and what we have done to the planet and how we are going to fix it was immense. He was like a preacher, everyone in the room was frozen, jaws dropped. It was like an epi-pen to my heart. He was very clear, there are two groups of people that need to change, the banks and the fossil fuel industry. And they are the ones we should point the finger at right now, demanding more.

After that, I left on a massive high thinking can we please just clone Al Gore?”

4. We don’t need everyone, we just need 25% to make a change.

“When I got back from Davos, Ben Parker (Made Thought co-founder) and I both attended the author George Monbiot talk. Amongst many highly controversial but very well researched topics, he spoke about complex systems and challenged the current belief that all these systems we’ve designed are so complex that it’s impossible to change them. But his proof-point was that you don’t need everyone to get on board with driving new systems. History has taught us you need 25%. If we can get 25% of society to think differently, to want differently, you can topple a complex system and then change will happen extremely fast. I’m going to really take heart from that, we don’t need everybody. We just need enough. And there are already plenty of people that want to live in a different way, in total harmony with Nature, that want our systems to be different. We’ve probably already hit that 25% number. They need empowering, enrolling, engaging. They need to be heard. And that's my call to action here. Get involved because each of us has way more power than we could ever think.”

We work with Siân on projects big and small to make sure sustainability is woven into the core of our recommendations. Read more about our approach here.