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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Value beyond measure - what really matters

Updated: Apr 23

Heaven knows we're all miserable now

One of the most joyous sights and sounds of a fabulous Glastonbury was Rick Astley and Blossoms giving a whole lot of love to some Smiths songs. Would have been fabulous to be there (we live so close it's almost a crime that we weren't there) but this year the BBC did an amazing job of covering the whole thing.

A bit of simple joy is what we all need nowadays, but heaven knows it is hard to find.

Burn Down the Disco.

Sustainability world is full of relentless misery. I've written before about how Brand world has comprehensively failed to get to grips with sustainability It's a real shame because when brand world does get to grips with something it can be a powerful force for good, fashioning galvanising narratives that stimulate big movements in how we all think and act.

There's another world which is - I think - disappearing down a needless pit of misery. It's what others and I tend to call Sustainability Inc.

If Brand World is Dopey then Sustainability Inc really is Grumpy. (Sidebar - Brand World is supposed to be all about long term strategy but suffers from attention deficit disorder on an industrial scale. Having failed to grapple with climate and biodiversity Brand World is right now in the throes of an wheel spinning obsession with AI. All noise no insight.)

For those unfamiliar with Sustainability Inc it is essentially the advisory arm of Sustainability World. There are commentators and advisors and convenors and platforms and (yet more pointless) frameworks galore. It is all very connected, the same people crop up persistently, and it is NOT HAPPY.

Take a peek at Sustainability Inc and you will come across a narrative that is obsessed with 'polycrises'. It does a good job in calling out greenwash and inadequate legislation, but with a few noble exceptions is way too deferential to corporate sustainability strategies (corporates providing most of the funding for Sustainability Inc hence shy to bite the hand that feeds etc). The result is pretty miserable and (this has got worse in recent times) unattractively finger wagging.

There's something very off about lots of (smart? privileged?) people telling other people what they should do. (This spills over into deep cultural schisms as well - google up decolonisation+sustainability for a glimpse of sustainability world's own "Hang the DJ" moment)

For most 'the music they constantly play says nothing to me about my life'. The whole thing makes Morrissey look like a bundle of laughs.

(Noble exception - Roger Atkins on EVs. His relentless optimism looks and feels very different from the rest of Sustainability Inc because it is).

There is a light that never goes out - true value

The big opportunity is for these two worlds, brand and sustainability, to get together and to start being properly useful by lighting the way to a bigger better understanding of the value of sustainability.

There's way too much shade and not nearly enough light. And the reason for that is that both worlds have forgotten what "value" really means. They default to the narrow and miserable version of value as defined by economists. And that has meant that sustainability is constantly pitched as a trade off between economics and environment. With several misguided assumptions being steadily baked in:

  • economies have to make sacrifices in order to do good things for the planet

  • companies have to do the same

  • and so do individuals

The narrative is all about what we have to lose.

But that's bullshit. Reconnect to value and we have much, much more to gain.

Stop me if you think you've heard this one before

Sustainability is the platform to reconnect to a much greater concept of value. Specifically - because I really care about it - restoration of nature and biodiversity can become the galvanising force for our times.

"The overriding purpose of our time is to work out how to reintegrate ourselves frictionlessly back into the miracle of nature" (Ben Goldsmith in God is an Octopus)

What does that mean? Rediscovering what really matters.

Value can't be measured. Real value.

The value of waking up with a purpose.

The value of feeling at one with the world.

The value of being part of something magical and wonderful.

The value of being close to and part of the natural world.

The intrinsic value of nature.

The value of landscape. The value of origin. The value of story. The value of community.

Our economic system has hollowed us all out. Made us into consumer and producer bots. Reduced the notion of "value" to a number. We've forgotten who we are.

We have a chance, right now, to revert to a much more enduring, much more fulfilling concept of value. Value that can't be taken away with an interest rate hike. Value that endures. What I call 'identity value' but others may have different names.

This is the stuff that glues organisations together (the magic that make people want to work together). This is the stuff that makes organisations endure. This is the stuff that makes us happy.

It's a much bigger, better, more resilient version of value. And it can't come too soon because the vessels of economic value are failing us. Whether it's reserve currency or stockmarkets or house prices or GDP or savings or bottom lines or tech valuations or any other kind of metric that is a proxy for "economy".

The industrial system we have all grown up in has hit its limits and gone way beyond what the planet can sustain - there's no way to extract more without wreaking real damage. So we have to forget about that narrow "give me more" version of value that industrial economics demanded and rediscover what really matters.

And that's where the worlds of brands and sustainability can usefully come together. In recognising and articulating the value of living sustainably, at one, with the planet. And then turning that value into a value system beyond economics, a value system that is a guiding light for not just their corporate clients but for us all.

For many of us the Smiths had become hard to listen to. We still loved the music but the misery and the baggage was all getting a bit too much. Rick rescued the music from the misery. I want brand and sustainability world to do the same for 'value'

Let's all be more Rick.


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