Photo Credit: Unilever
I’m adding a new book to our reading list. Honestly, it should have been there all along, because it’s one of the most influential books I’ve ever read. Better late than never, right? So here you go – for all you sustainability-minded folks out there, I urge you to read Thinking in Systems: A Primer by the late Donella Meadows.
I actually wrote about this book six years ago (it was my third blog post ever!), but it’s worth a revisit, especially in light of a recent corporate pledge I read about. We will get to that corporate pledge in a moment, but first let me tell you about the book.
Thinking in Systems introduces its readers to...you guessed it…systems thinking. It teaches you the structural components of any system, how to conceptualize a system, and how to understand the interconnectedness of systems, whether we are talking about the solar system, an ecosystem, or the system of how you run your household. While the connections to sustainability are clear, the book isn’t actually an environmental book. It’s more universal than that.
The heart of the book is the sixth chapter, all about the places to intervene in a system. Meadows identified twelve different leverage points that, when successfully utilized, can cause systems to adapt. She presented them in ranked order, with number twelve being the easiest to implement but the least impactful, and number one being the hardest to implement but the most impactful. Seriously, you should read the whole book, but here’s the Wikipedia page for the twelve leverage points if you’re itching to know them right now.
Of all the leverage points, I’m most drawn to the sixth. Called “Structure of Information Flow,” it’s all about who does and does not have access to information. When you change that factor, systems evolve. I think one of the most important levers for the environmental movement, and for climate action in particular, is to increase the access to and quality of information about the issues we work on.
Which brings me to that corporate pledge I teased, one that involves a perfect example of pulling Meadows’s sixth lever. A couple of weeks ago, Unilever issued this press release about its latest climate efforts. There’s lots of good stuff in there, including commitments to net zero emissions for all products by 2039 and a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023. But I was most intrigued by one sentence in the middle – “We believe that transparency about carbon footprint will be an accelerator in the global race to zero emissions, and it is our ambition to communicate the carbon footprint of every product we sell.”
That would be a significant change in the structure of information flow. Imagine if every customer could quickly and easily see the carbon footprint of what they were buying. I bet a lot of people would choose the lower carbon option! With this commitment, I hope that Unilever will begin a trend of companies voluntarily disclosing the carbon footprint of everything they sell and making that information clearly available for customers at the point of sale.
Bravo to Unilever, a true leader in climate-positive systems change!