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?