“Minding the Sustainability Gap: From Unsustainable Core to Business-as-the-World-Needs” – An Interview with Alice Kalro

Alice Kalro is an emerging global thought leader in science-based corporate sustainability, providing practical guidance on science-aligned business transformations and urging corporations to take on a systems leadership role in order to help secure a just and liveable future for all. We caught up with her in the midst of her hectic schedule – with this interview.

Thomas Brostrom recently quit Shell. He was the head of renewable power. You talk about the “unsustainable core business” in your writings; can you explain the concept and why companies must strategically stop making degenerative products?

Our current economic system, the economic theory behind the system, and mainstream yet sociopathic interpretations of fiduciary duty – these are some man-made constructs through which we have normalised looking away from the impacts that our organisations have on the outer world, in the process of generating shareholder returns. We chose to wear blinkers. (I simplify here indeed, to make my answer digestible enough, because to talk about the root cause, we would have to go deeper, to the values, mindsets and worldview that underpin the economic theory and system, and so forth).

If we choose to take our blinkers off, we quickly discover that global GDP growth and the business models that our economic system incentivises are vitally dependent on being subsidised by one or both of the following:

  • One, unaccounted-for destruction of our common natural capital (leading to so-called ecological overshoot, transgression of 6 of 9 planetary boundaries into the danger zone, and destabilisation of Earth systems). Some may prefer to instead say our shared home, Mother Nature, Gaia, the living world we are interconnected and kin with, and so on. 
  • Two, socially accepted destitution of the majority of the Global South, and some population segments in the Global North – that is active pre-emption of their ability to meet their basic needs and deprivation of dignity.

Without such subsidisation, happening on an enormous scale, a significant proportion of industries forming the global economy in fact cannot generate profits. The system value they create is negative, or, in the words of Harvard professor Rebecca Henderson, they are “actively destroying value”. In the words of human rights expert Brian Iselin we run “exploitation models”, not business models.

If we accept a doughnut-based definition of real-world sustainability as our foundation – that is a state of meeting our needs within planetary boundaries and above social foundations – then it should be fairly obvious that a business that cannot turn in profits without relying on causing ecological overshoot and social undershoot is unsustainable, in the sense that it is not compatible with real-world sustainability outcomes, it is in fact eroding them. But it is also unsustainable in the sense untenable, unviable in the long-term, lacking potential for future business continuity

To summarize – If your business model is incapable of creating adequate financial (shareholder) value without being subsidised by (a) destruction of environmental capital that others (possibly removed from you in time or space) depend on for their needs and/or (b) systematic impoverishment of workers (mostly in your value chain, and predominantly in the Global South), then you are running a so-called *unsustainable core business*.

Boom! Our readers should read about it here. Why should companies stop monetising degenerative offerings (products and services)? 

Business leaders must realise that given the outer context – the unfolding destabilisation of Earth systems and foreseeable shrinking of their carrying capacities, as well as the current peaking of conditions that allowed us to build the global economy to its current scale and image – that in this context the existing economic and financial systems will inevitably collapse and will eventually be replaced by more sane alternatives. In this approaching new environment and reality, business models that rely on subsidisation through destruction and destitution will in all probability be outlawed. Alternatively, we may have no rule of law and no stable markets in which to operate. Therefore, is it of utmost imperative, from both ethical and business perspectives, to immediately stop adding to the problem, begin healing and undoing the harm, and to begin bringing about a new system in order to avoid chaos, disorder and uncontrolled decline as much as we can. That is what future shareholder value vitally depends on. That is (y)our fiduciary duty, really.

As Jason Hickel points out (and I paraphrase), ecological overshoot and social undershoot are not unintended side-effects of our economic activity, they are design features of the capitalist system. They are what makes the current economic system and its business models seemingly viable.

What capabilities and skill sets must sustainability consultancies develop or acquire now?

Well, to answer your question, sustainability consultancies must themselves rethink what they are in the business of. And mature from monetising compliance and perceptions management (which are inconsequential for attaining real world sustainability outcomes – a liveable future and a just present – and are in fact counter-productive), towards monetising a global regeneration and systems change. I write about this in Part 1 of mythe article sSeries on the Future of Corporate Sustainability Consulting, as well as in a March 2023 article “Planetary Ikigai”. That is, the primary value proposition of sustainability consultancies should be guiding businesses to radically transform towards sustainability and future-readiness, and to co-orchestrate a radical, immediate systems change, without which organisations won’t stand a chance at business continuity.

On the level of capabilities and skill sets, we must realise that corporate sustainability can only contribute to real-world sustainability outcomes if it is allowed, empowered and designed to address the core business, not merely nudge and embellish it. In other words, it must be defining and correcting what we are in the business of, not just how we go about what we are in the business of. That is very far from the status quo. In this context, our current distinction between sustainability consulting and management/strategy consulting is outdated, artificial, and counterproductive. 

Sustainability-as-the-World-Needs (SWoN) is a good guiding guide for assessing skill gaps. It requires bridging 4 of them:

  • Alignment with science
  • Alignment with ethics
  • Viewing our predicament and responsibilities through a systems perspective, and
  • Strategic business acumen

Mainstream sustainability consultancies lag behind in all four, to varying degrees. 

You’ve done a beautiful thing by adapting the Ikigai model to the corporate world. Can you explain the addition you’ve made and how it applies to the Future of Work.

My adaption of the Venn Diagram of Purpose framework, developed by Andres Zuzunaga, (which has been widely yet inaccurately referred to and recognised as the Ikigai, including by myself), adds a “What causes harm” circle. Typically when people engage with the ikigai concept, they do so to define a desired end point for themselves. I thought for the corporate world it was critical to not only look at what is in the ikigai segment (being in the business of what the world needs, and doing Sustainability-as-the-World-Needs, aka SWoN). But to also look at what our starting point is – that in fact that most businesses and industries around the world are currently in the business of monetising what causes harm, or at best monetising non-essential value propositions (what the world does not need). Neither of the two cases have a place in a future economy that will have inevitably shrunk to within the carrying capacity of planetary boundaries, and which will likely be recalibrated to focus on meeting essential needs and delivering systems value through regenerative business models and supply chain arrangements.

How would corporations grasping the Planetary Ikigai apply to the future of work? It applies through sensitising business leaders – and those who can influence business leaders – that we are at a critical junction: we must now choose whether to transform into being in the business of what the world needs, or as I say “to upgrade to Business-as-the-World-Needs”, or let collapse loom untamed, fade into oblivion as a business, (and erase shareholder value in the process). 

Indeed, a Business-as-the-World-Needs would provide a radically different sense of purpose, professional environment and work-life balance to its employees and contributors. They would be working towards what the world needs, not in what they increasingly recognise as “bullshit jobs” (to borrow the expression from David Graeber). They would be invigorated by the inherent integrity and authenticity, instead of being mired in moral injury. They would be encouraged to work a degrowth-compatible 4-day work week or shorter, with greater focus on and room for nurturing well-being, citizen participation, community life, spiritual life and inner development, and so forth. They would also have access to the fruits of other businesses-as-the-world-needs and of systems change – their real needs would be catered to and artificial needs would not be stoked. 

In other words, upgrading to Business-as-the-World-Needs would make organisations into active players in changing everything about how many of us make our living. This is a complementary theory of change to ones that rely on policy change (by governments and through democratic processes that have been hijacked by corporations around the world).

The gap between aspirational sustainability and the reality at work breaks many hearts (and minds) of professionals who went to school to make a difference in the business world. Can you give us some advice for these broken hearts?

Sustainability-as-the-World-Needs (SWoN), is really my advice here. Few business leaders and organisations currently demand transformative offerings (whether on a personal level – their own worldview or inner transformation; or on an organisational level – radical business transformation). And co-orchestrating a systems change is not even on their radar as a necessity. It’s the result of a gap in awareness, in real understanding, in acceptance, and resolve to act, and in guidance on how to act. 

Specifically, translating real-world sustainability imperatives into business imperatives, possible roadmaps and available courses of action has been sorely lacking. We are stuck in either defining a business case for sustainability as an add-on to unsustainable core business (trying to make money out of being marginally less harmful), or saying there is no business case in sustainability in the sense of the costs outweighing the returns – which is untrue, if we look beyond a 5 year horizon and consider the business as a whole. We keep repeating the shared value concept, while it is conceptually inadequate. 

Understanding this points to an obvious opportunity to act – and heal. We can generate awareness and drive the corporate demand for transformation and co-orchestration of systems change – and in doing so create more meaningful, authentic sustainability jobs, both in-house and in consultancies. I would recommend broken-hearted, frustrated change agents upskill themselves in the 4 aspects of SWoN, depending on where they fall short, and learn to mobilise business leaders towards transformation and systems change. 

We do not need anyone’s permission to do so, and if you are a sustainability consultant, it is actually your implicit mandate to do so. Contributing to real transformation and systems change would enable aspiring change agents to actually (re)claim their agency and grow a deeper sense of integrity. 

And it would also test their courage. I always add an invitation, which is also a disclaimer: Match your level of courage to your level of privilege.

This is also the spirit of the nascent Consulting Activism movement, which is currently being formed from across dozens of industry professionals who have opted in.

What are you planning for the future – and how can we support your work? 

In general, I focus on ideating and bringing to life systemic interventions – initiatives and resources that can help co-orchestrate a systems change. And the arkH3 theory of change primarily focuses on converting corporations from a cause of systemic harm into a key player in driving a systems change – while also disrupting the mainstream corporate sustainability consulting arena.

The SWoN Foundational Training Series – aimed at equipping sustainability folks to mobilise first mover business leaders and organisations is one such intervention. Its Cohort 1 is slowly approaching its conclusion. We (arkH3 and And Now What, who have co-developed the Series in partnership) have learnt a lot from the feedback we’ve been receiving, and we will be making adaptations to the delivery model for Cohort 2, which will launch in January 2024. 

An analogical offering addressing business leaders directly is being conceptualised too. And there is room to do much more promoting and collaboration around arkH3 offerings intended to guide and hand-hold organisations in upgrading to Business-as-the-World-Need.

I have already mentioned the Consulting Activism movement – where there is a lot of work on putting a structure in place around which the movement, its theory of change, its workstreams and governance can emerge.

Further, I have previously publicly promised creating a (rank)list of consultancies that work in science-aligned ways, which could be used for screening by potential clients and employees. I have high hopes towards the ripple effects that the publishing of this list could have.

In fact, I have been receiving more invitations for collaboration than I can currently attend to. Which is very encouraging.

How could the readers support me and arkH3?

They could send more business our way, so we can scale arkH3, hire more help, enter more collaborations, launch more interventions. For example:

  • Refer corporate-sponsored attendees to future cohorts of the SWoN Foundational Training Series 
  • Refer organisations that might sponsor scholarships on the Series
  • Refer me for speaking engagements in corporations or at conferences
  • Invite arkH3 into organisations to explore what an upgrade to Business-as-the-World-Needs might look like

They could also help us connect with more Global Majority and Global South perspectives, prospective partners and collaborators.

They could send philanthropic funding our way – for either arkH3 or the Consulting Activism movement, if they know of sources that might want to accelerate interventions towards a systems change.

I don’t think I can ask for more than that, but am open to out-of-the-box suggestions!

Alice Kalro is an emerging global thought leader in science-based corporate sustainability, providing practical guidance on science-aligned business transformations and urging corporations to take on a systems leadership role in order to help secure a just and liveable future for all. She has been leading business transformation programs and developing stakeholder-centric business strategies since 2014. Between 2022 and 2023 she headed the Corporate Sustainability consulting and technology solutionsvertical at Goodera, serving both Fortune 500 and SME clients.

Alice has been a prominent Advocation Partner at r3.0, a global non-profit catalyzing a systems changetowards a regenerative and inclusive global economy. She has been working to trigger a reinvention of the sustainability consulting space towards science-aligned practices and systemic integrity, and is currently stepping up to form and lead a global movement of activist consultants.

Alice holds a masters degree in International Relations and several sustainability qualifications from Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford universities, as well as a GRI certification. In January 2023 was among the first global cohort to be trained in the UN SDPI standard (the world’s first-ever end-to-end context-based reporting instrument), and has participated in the recently launched (re)biz degrowth program for business leaders.

Alice has led teams and worked with clients across five continents, and lived in Europe, China, and is presently based out of Bangalore, India.

INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar