Tipping point

“The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” Malcolm Gladwell

To change or not to change

How many people does it take to achieve real change our societies, in our system? This is a question that has been popping up in my mind recently. Not from a negative sentiment, quite the opposite in fact. The reason why I’ve been thinking about this is that I see things change around me, faster than ever and in a positive way. Could we really be reaching that tipping point where we move towards a society where profit at the cost of everything becomes history? Where happiness is ranked higher than financial wealth?

Back to my questions how many people it takes to reach this change. Someone once told me it takes a few people to change the course of an organization. One person can’t achieve it, two is also too little, but if you have say four people, you can start achieving change. They become islands, or hubs, spreading the word in the organization.

This actually makes sense from what I see around me. These people can sow seeds, and some will take off an grow big. While others won’t. Why?

In my quest to understand, I have had the privilege to talk to different people working with change, and one of the most illustrative ways of looking at it was shared by the inspiring Catherine Sheehy in a networking session organized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is what I learned:

Just like the people actively working to change an organization or a system have their role and characteristics, so too do the recipients. There are those already convinced the change would be for the better. These people need no convincing, they are already on board. Then there’s the group who are utterly against the change, or perhaps any change. This group is not going to be worthwhile, as convincing them will cost lots of time and energy while the outcome is uncertain to say the least. This leaves us with the group in between: the people not yet convinced, but with an openness to listen and learn. The “maybe” group. This is where impact can be achieved, where the seeds can turn into something big and where change can happen. With the maybe group on board, the overall shift moves towards change and if enough people are moving in this direction, the tipping point is indeed getting closer!

To me, approaching the changes I find necessary bearing this in mind, has been hugely helpful. It means avoiding confrontations with negativity is not a cowardly act, but rather a way to choose to increase the positive – a much more rewarding way of working!

Reaching milestones

Legislation is perhaps the most effective way of achieving change in the European society where I live. When a ban on free plastic bags, often handed out as part of the service when you purchased something, was introduced in 2016, the impact was huge: a decrease of 70% plastic bags leading to a decrease of 40% plastic bags ending up as litter.

Getting to a point where such legislation is supported, passed and enters into force, however, does not happen without a general shift in mindsets. But when that point is reached, we can certainly talk about a tipping point for the issue covered in the legislation, in this example plastic bags.

For the broader picture, let’s say transitioning from an unsustainable economic system to a sustainable one, it may not be a tipping point yet, but certainly a milestone!

So how many milestones do we need to reach a tipping point?

Well, that’s the thing, I think we are getting closer to having enough milestones to start seeing true signals of a change in systems. Since the introduction of supply chain due diligence requirements, and the launch of the European Green Deal which brilliantly brings together and gives a name to ongoing developments and provides direction for new ones, I think what we are seeing may well be described as a shift. Getting closer to a tipping point.

Don’t worry, this is not based on my social media bubble which admittedly paints a much more circular and sustainable picture than the average visit to a shopping street will. This is based on what I’ve signalled in my work in the past year. Work with (inter)national trade facilitators, with businesses on both the demand and the supply side of the value chains, and with colleagues from outside the sustainability bubble.

But not just that. It’s broader. I’ve also signalled a change in attitude from friends, family and people around me. The people who were not the first ones to advocate for systems change, but who were also never against it. The “maybe” group.

The complexity of systems is still…complex

Now all this said, reaching a tipping point for a single issue like plastic bags is easier identified than reaching a tipping point for a whole system. Perhaps it won’t be so much of a point as a slope, with change picking up speed and finally causing a landslide…

Interestingly, the acceptance that everything is part of a larger system, and that systems are indeed complex, is another change I’ve started noticing around me. It seems we are increasingly ready to accept systems thinking and open to learn, observe, and try out what works and what does not in a broader perspective than we used to. All this opens up to realizing no single person, company, country or even continent can achieve global systems change alone.

Admittedly there are still some steps (or even giant leaps) needed in this aspect – I am not saying we’re quite there yet. But with the overall shift I see, I think there may be hope and I look forward to being part of it!