COP26 has been rightly dominating the headlines in recent weeks. As it draws to a depressing close, and as we sift through the variably opportunistic corporate and brand announcements that accompanied it, I’m struck by the fact that so many corporate sustainability initiatives are what Ben Thompson would call “strategy credits”.
Strategy credits are decisions that are easy for you in particular to make, but that make you look good relative to your competitors who are unable to make similar decisions. If you’re not in China but your competitors are, spend time talking about your commitment to democracy and human rights; if your business doesn’t need to collect personal data but your competitors’ do, spend time talking about your belief in privacy; if you run an electrified ecommerce business but your competitors need to maintain pesky physical stores, spend your time talking about your use of renewable energy.
As observers of businesses’ sustainability choices, we need to learn to separate genuinely remarkable initiatives from ones that are mere strategy credits. This week’s article is about just that.
This week’s article
Strategy credits are decisions that are easy for you to make, that make you look good, but that are hard for your competitors to match. You get all the good press without having to break a sweat. Sadly, lots of sustainability initiatives involve companies boasting about things that are fundamentally strategy credits: learning how to spot them, and withholding our most fervent praise from them, will become an increasingly valuable skill.
This week’s five interesting links
A great long read on Wang Huning, China’s éminence grise, the thinker behind much of “Xi Jinping thought”, and a political animal of unparalleled cunning who has managed to remain in a position of unrivalled influence for longer than anyone else in China.
Interestingly, Wang’s ideas were particularly shaped by a stint in the US:
“Also in 1988, Wang – having risen with unprecedented speed to become Fudan’s youngest full professor at age 30 – won a coveted scholarship (facilitated by the American Political Science Association) to spend six months in the United States as a visiting scholar. Profoundly curious about America, Wang took full advantage, wandering about the country like a sort of latter-day Chinese Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities.
“What he found deeply disturbed him, permanently shifting his view of the West and the consequences of its ideas.
“Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America. In it, he marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighbourhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, he concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.”
A neat and incredibly clear explanation of the idea of decentralising power, and the different forms that decentralised organisations and structures can take. #
Duncan Austin argues that voluntary, market-led attempts to fix climate change (such as corporate social responsibility initiatives, environmental social and governance-led investing, campaigns to change consumer behaviour, etc.) have failed.
His analysis is an interesting systems-thinking one. He argues that these attempts represent the “fix that fails” systems archetype, whereby initial attempts to fix a problem trigger delayed secondary effects that make the problem worse. Eventually, the “fail loop” overtakes the “fix loop”, and the system collapses.
It’s a dense post, but it has some great thinking in it. The idea of the “fix that fails”, the complementary “unmentionable foot” to the market’s “invisible hand”, and the notion of “externality-denying capitalism” are all useful additions to the collective language on sustainability. #
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sadly died last month. Among his many contributions to popular ideas around creativity (such as the idea of “flow”) is this excellent list of ten strangely paradoxical opposing traits that particularly creative individuals seem to possess:
- Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.
- Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.
- A third paradoxical trait refers to the related combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
- Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other.
- Creative people seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.
- Creative individuals are also remarkably humble and proud at the same time.
- Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping [of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’].
- Creative people are both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.
- Creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.
- The openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.
The world is full of strange borders (like Baarle-Hertog and Baarle Nassau), but the one between Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec is both simple and ludicrous:
“In the two-sided town of Derby Line/Stanstead there are two streets that cross the line without any checkpoints. Technically, any time anyone crosses the international line, they are subject to having to report, in person, to a port of entry inspection station for the country they are entering. This makes traffic on the streets that cross the line without a checkpoint, Maple Street/Rue Ball and Pelow Hill/Rue Lee, fairly light, as it is more convenient to cross at Main Street/Rue Dufferin, where checkpoints are often set up for ‘drive thru’ service.
“Pedestrians on the sidewalk are also technically required to report as soon as they cross the line. Visiting someone on the other side of the line, even if the building is next door, means walking around to the inspection station first, or risk being an outlaw. Playing catch on Maple Street/Rue Ball would be an international event, and would break no laws presumably, so long as each time the ball was caught, the recipient marched over to customs to declare the ball.”