Welcome to the Doughnut Dialogues

For all the high-powered roundtables that were held in Davos last week, here’s one roundtable that couldn’t be found there – but should have been.

Photo credit: Igor Emmerich, given a spin by Lisa Dittmar

Imagine a company’s top executives sitting down around this table of planetary and social boundaries (’Ladies and Gentlemen, please, take your seats at the doughnut’…).

The CEO places one of their most iconic products right in the middle of the table – be it a hamburger or kids’ clothing, a solar panel or sun-tan lotion.

And then they discuss that product’s story – all the way from its supply and distribution to its consumption and disposal – in terms of whether or not it is helping to bring humanity into the safe and just space between social and planetary boundaries.

There’s plenty to talk about.

– Of all the nine planetary boundaries, which are the boundaries that this product is really adding pressure to? (Intensive use of water? Or large-scale land-use change?) Or which are the ones that it is helping to reduce pressure on (Renewable energy technology; water-saving devices?)

– Of the eleven social boundaries, which ones does this product really affect? (Are the women and men who make it paid a living wage, and free to organise? What is the  impact on consumers’ health or nutrition from consuming it?)

– Next, tell the story of this product’s evolving social and environmental impact over the past ten years. How has the company improved its business practices so that it has positive impacts on the social dimensions, and simultaneously reduced resource use and hence pressure on planetary boundaries? Where, in contrast, have been the social and environmental steps backwards, pushing the product out of the safe and just space.

– And then, importantly, tell the story of the company’s ambition for this product over the coming ten years. In which dimensions can the company make transformative change both in improving its social impact and in reducing its environmental impact.

I can think of several companies that could proudly put their products on the doughnut table, telling an impressive story of the progress they have made and an honest assessment of how far they still have to go. And I can think of plenty of other companies that would probably refuse even to approach the table because it would starkly show the extent to which they are operating outside of the boundaries on both sides.

So could this kind of visual roundtable dialogue help drive commitment and action within companies? Listen in to discussions of this I had with Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) and Gail Whiteman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in a recent Guardian podcast on planetary boundaries and business.

Indeed, the SRC and WBCSD have just entered into an interesting collaboration. They plan to spell out a set of “planetary boundary must-haves” by 2020, and then turns these into a set of Key Performance Indicators for companies to assess their performance by. So I’m interested to see how the WBSCD’s member companies will use those KPIs in their daily work.

But meanwhile, if you think these corporate Doughnut Dialogues sound off the wall, well at least I’m in good company. Robert Jones of Wolff Olins – one of London’s leading branding agencies – blogged to suggest that every company should be asking itself: Is your brand a doughnut?

8 thoughts on “Welcome to the Doughnut Dialogues

  1. 31 January 2013 at 09:38

    Hi Kate,

    While we can always point to a few outliers where companies behave in a socially-optimal matter and certainly would appreciate a future where more did the same, is this really the most practical way of proceeding? Surely it is the job of governments to just give companies the incentives to operate within the nine boundaries. Or are you worried that incentives crowd out the outliers who are already internalising their actions?

    1. Kate Raworth
      31 January 2013 at 10:00

      Hi Matt, I totally agree it’s the job of governments to put the incentives and regulations in place so that all companies respect planetary boundaries and human rights throughout their supply chains. If only they would get on with doing it. Governments, of course, argue that they need progressive companies to support them in upping the standards. Whether or not we buy that argument, there have to be some tools or incentives for progressive companies to keep assessing themselves against tougher (truer) standards than those that governments set for them. So we need to keep lobbying the governments to raise the bar (Oxfam spends much of its time doing this) and meanwhile, provide a higher bar for progressive companies that are ready to jump it.

  2. Brenda Henderson
    1 February 2013 at 11:09

    Vision comes before transformation. if, for example, people are not aware that all the cheap clothing they love buying, involves tremendous water contamination because of the dyeing process, how can they see any reason for change? Ditto with companies. They have to become aware before they can become incentivised. I like this project. Visualisers and catalysts are an important part of any management team and we need catalysts for change.

  3. 8 February 2013 at 22:13

    Hey Kate,

    First off, I think the Doughnuts work that you’re advancing at Oxfam GB is right on target, and logically extends Rockstrom’s planetary boundaries work into social impacts. I’ve been applying both sets of work to my own work on context-based sustainability, which is likewise thresholds-based, including with companies such as Cabot Creamery Cooperative as well as ratings such as Climate Counts (pilot project forthcoming.)

    I like your application of the doughnuts concept to the corporate realm, but I have one concern: you’re applying the concept at the product level, following in the footsteps of much of the field, in taking a life cycle analysis (LCA) perspective. I think a more logical and practical approach is to apply doughnuts at the *organizational* level, for several reasons. First off, accountability for social and environmental impacts resides with the organization — it’s hard to dis-aggregate accountability to the product, which is inanimate and hence can’t act accountably. Companies are made up of human actors (and hey, here in the US companies are considered persons under Citizens United…) and as such are accountable for their impacts. On the product side, strictly speaking, users are accountable for the impacts of the use of the product, so there’s less leverage here.

    The second reason is more compelling, I believe: applying accountability to the product level leads spreads it out across the entire value chain, where a host of actors — suppliers, producers, distributors, retailers, end-users, etc… share accountability. Applying accountability across the value chain opens up the “double-” and “triple-“counting (ad infinitum) can of worms.

    By contrast, holding a company accountable first and foremost for its direct impacts makes most sense. After this direct accountability has been established, it may then make sense to delve up and down the value chain, as I acknowledge that companies at the core of the value chain have significant influence over their value chain partners. But it doesn’t make sense to me to start there…

    Glad to chat more about this…