Text by Jenni Puroila, PhD student at Misum, SSE.
Losing perspective is easy when we are too heavily invested in a certain way of looking at things. When we focus on a single perspective, we cannot see the forest for the trees.
The complexity and interconnectivity of corporate sustainability challenges require taking a broad perspective in order to tackle them. Listening to different stakeholder voices and moreover acknowledging the differences and conflicts in their points of view is crucial for companies to understand and manage their sustainability impacts. By ignoring these differences, the dominant perspectives can easily take over the discussions, and with a gentle push eventually create an illusion of consensus and harmony.
”The discussion of what matters in the corporate sustainability has drifted away from protecting nature and human rights to protecting the business from financial and reputation risks.”
By developing an ability to listen to different perspectives, we can learn from the forest and the trees – the masters of communication and collaboration. The innate wisdom of nature and its ecosystems have great potential to inspire new ways of thinking.
When I went to primary school my biology teacher taught us many interesting facts about the forests and the trees. The forests are the lungs of the planet, self-sustaining ecosystems that are rich in biodiversity and provide a home for the vast majority of the plants and animals living on land. The ability of trees and humans to interact in complete symbiosis is vital to the life on planet earth. Humans breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, while trees breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. She also taught us how trees in the forest compete with each other. The knowledge back then was based on the understanding that trees compete with each other for sunlight, water and nutrients meaning that only the strongest ones survive and grow to be big and powerful.
However, recent forest ecology research has revealed that we have had it all wrong; it is not about the battle of the strongest oppressing the weaker ones – it is all about a collaboration, sharing of resources and helping each other out.
The latest research of forests by ecologist Suzanne Simard has shown that instead of competition, trees collaborate. The trees communicate with each other through several ways such as sending electrical impulses which travel through the root system and fungi networks that serve as intermediates. There is a complex and dense underground network system which reaches throughout the whole forest. Every tree is important to the community and those individuals living in an isolation suffer from their lack of connection.
The similar paradigm shift that the scientific study of forests has witnessed is needed in the corporate sustainability thinking; a move from competition of different points of view towards acknowledgement of everything being interconnected. The discussion of what matters in the corporate sustainability has drifted away from protecting nature and human rights to protecting the business from financial and reputation risks. The argumentation for adopting sustainability management tools and reporting practices is often based on serving the business-case, the risk-management and the financial success of the company as a priority. While acknowledging the information needs of the most dominant stakeholder group: investors, who hold an unquestioned and more formally regulated position in this equation, we need to ensure that the other stakeholders are not silenced.
When a certain point of view is dominating the discussion, our attention is limited to consider the facts that are relevant to this point of view, forgetting other perspectives. When all the efforts and energy are directed to only one dominant business case’s point, the end result may not be desirable. The tree does not flourish without the forest.
”The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members”. Trees are able to collaborate, take care of the weak ones and communicate. Anyone walking in the forest can sense the centuries-old wisdom and magic surrounding it. Art, science and business innovations have always sought inspiration from nature. Nature can serve as an inspiration for creating solutions to protect the sustainability of the planet itself. When addressing sustainable development, we first need to prioritize the future of the planet and its ecosystems, us humans being a part of it. Only then can we see the interconnectivity in the surrounding world.
Jenni Puroila is a PhD Student at Misum. Her research focuses on the concept of materiality by exploring how it is understood and applied to define what matters the most for corporate sustainability. Follow Jennie Puroila on Twitter: @jennipuroila
Read more about how trees communicate:
- The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (2016) (Review in The Guardian here.)
- The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell (2017) (Review in The Atlantic here.)