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If There Is a Will, There Is a Whale: Lessons About Sustainability

Sandy beach with grass

Emerge from the dunes and long grasses and your toes meet the squidgy wet sand of Noordhoek beach. The landscape depicts one you’d see in a rom-com movie like Nights in Rodanthe, with low lying shrubs, wispy grasses, and a quintessential pathway of raised wood slats. The wood is weathered from the salty air and masked with the sandy footprints of young children who ran towards the seaside as fast as their little legs could carry them.

Had you visited the beach that day, you might have watched as three young people sat in a row alongside the bum mark of a fourth person, who was mid-sprint in his jocks heading for the frothy waves of the icy Atlantic Sea. The three sitting on the beach are your typical young Capetonians. There is a free spirit wearing a floral print scrunchy and a six-month-strong baby bump; a blondie with beach curls wearing vintage Ray-Bans and neutral tones, and a man with a fresh cut wearing a six-pack and rolled up jeans. They’re talking about what conscious young people are concerned about these days: climate change.  

In May 2021, I completed the Sustainability Practitioner Programme run by The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. The programme was an intense deep dive into the grey cloud that is climate change.

We unpacked the theories behind sustainability integration and worked through frameworks for organisational change. We learnt about practical tools to help businesses integrate sustainability strategies into the complex world in which we live. There were many learnings – too many to touch on in one article – which will shape how DAPPER transforms over time and which I will touch on again in my series of sustainability articles.

For now, I thought I’d share just one learning which I feel is relevant to everyone, no matter the role you play in your company or how your home life is structured. The learning is this: climate change is everyone’s problem and there are infinite possibilities for change in our personal lives and at work.

As business leaders, we need to step up our game and take responsibility for what we take from the social and environmental resources on offer to us, and how we give back to those systems. We must aim to create and nurture holistic systems that are based on the limitations and boundaries of the natural world rather than on a desire to create beyond our means.

Systems thinking is the first theory we discussed in our course, and it is an important idea to keep in mind no matter where you stand. According to Megan Seibert, systems thinking is “concerned with expanding our awareness to see the relationships between parts and wholes rather than looking at just discrete, isolated parts.” Seibert explains that, by thinking in systems, we can begin to understand the machine that has governed our organisations and societies. We can then review each part of the system to create a more balanced and fair playing field.

There is a level of egocentrism our society needs to be willing to part with. In one of our discussions in our syndicate groups, we reflected on a few questions. I challenge you to think about how these relate to your life too:

  • Are we the people we have been waiting for?
  • To get there, what must I let go of?
  • How has everything I have thought or done prepared me for this moment?

Every move I have made has influenced the type of person I am today, and I’m almost certain the same is true for each of us. We may not always have a choice in what we are dealt with in life, but we always have a choice in how we respond. The facts are there in plain sight – we just have to open our eyes and engage.

Photo by Egor Vikhrev on Unsplash

Change can start with a simple policy change at work like removing plastic cutlery from the kitchen. It can be as complex as switching to a new business model where profit is based on shared value and social responsibility rather than the other way around.

In our personal lives, we have the choice to understand that climate change is our problem and when we come together as communities, friends, families and businesses, we can make a whale of a change.

I think back to that day at Noordhoek beach with my friends (yes, I was describing my day at Noordhoek earlier in this article). When we arrived, we noticed a metal structure of a whale at the entrance to the beach. The whale’s name is Kakapo and is a catchment for beach waste. Anyone who visits the beach is invited to take one of the reusable bags on offer and collect the waste they pass on the beach. When leaving, people can ‘feed’ the trash to Kakapo and leave the bag for the next beachgoer to use.

As we left, we popped a bag of beach waste into the whale and watched as a father explained to his young child what we were doing. The child ran up to the whale and reached for a collection bag, eager to play their part, one bag of collected beach trash at a time.

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