Judging the 2022 UNGC Awards brought out some mixed feelings. Here are some thoughts.
I was one of the judges for this year's UN Global Compact Network Malaysia & Brunei Sustainability Performance Awards. The experience brought a few things to the fore that I thought I'd try to share with folks working in sustainable development.
Themes/tags: cognitive dissonance, mental wellbeing, psychology, breadth of sustainability work, headspace, carrying oneself
It's a huge honour to be tasked with the assessment of the nominations of the top corporate players in Malaysia's sustainability scene. It was also great to meet my fellow judges:
Kausalya Gopal - SME Corp
Che Kodir Baharum - EPU, PM's Dept.
Prof Avvari Mohan - Monash University
Rizatuddin Ramli - United Nations
I represented the Malaysian CSO-SDG Alliance.
The ESG agenda is increasingly becoming mainstream thanks to the efforts of the good folks in UNGC MYB, BCSD, CGM, CAN and KLSCCCI. These have all been wonderful partners to work with.
The breadth of sustainable development work
Now, if this work is on one end of the spectrum, there is the other end, where business externalities hurt people and the planet. My work over there includes improving access to justice, and business & human rights.
Working across both ends as a sustainable development lawyer, it does take some effort to simultaneously ’hold’ these different perspectives.
Recognising the dissonance
I think this has to do with cognitive dissonance, as the exposure to the two opposite worlds can be quite fragmenting.
> “Don’t be so cynical.” When working with corporate sustainability practitioners, people would describe ESG award winners as "inspiring". But inspired isn't a feeling I generally experience when I go about assessing nominations for corporate sustainability performance, under the present paradigm. (I am not speaking only of these UNGC awards; and I should unpack this properly, separately). At any rate, I am fully aware that when I am at an awards ceremony, my role is to encourage and cheer corporate leaders and their facilitators/enablers forward.
> “Don’t be a corporate apologist.” When working with activists, it’s often not enough to nudge corporations to be more responsible moving forward. There is accountability for what they have actually done or contributed to, whether through the criminal justice system or civil litigation to uphold the rights that have been infringed; there is a need for heads to roll when people have proven to be bad stewards/decision-makers in business organisations whose impacts go far and wide.
The dissonance pulls at the seams when, at the voluntary end of the spectrum, we celebrate those who have taken the biggest/boldest steps towards embracing ESG, while being cognisant of, for instance, the frustratingly slow progress at COP27 or the dearth of imagination or ambition to reframe the role and responsibilities of business, with a sense of urgency appropriate to the harms that are happening.
Why this was so humbling
But, I believe this is what a landscape in transition looks like.
The useful question to ask is: How can we accelerate this transition?
More specifically, bearing in mind that everyone, every organisation, irrespective of their relative position in the entire spectrum, is a node in the complex and diverse landscape, how can we support and facilitate all change journeys?
It’s therefore deeply humbling to be a judge in this kind of awards. Because you are aware that the two opposite ends of the spectrum are JUST AS REAL. The veracity of the reality at the voluntary end (where we encourage and support businesses to embrace ESG) is NOT diminished by the legitimacy of the reality at the other end (where we pursue accountability and justice). The bandwidth needed to hold these seemingly contradictory realities AND remain focussed on being of service, being useful and constructive (for accelerating this transition) is very humbling.
I wonder if I’ve made sense?