Mike Berners-Lee on Action, Owership and Mindset in times of Climate Change

Sometimes it is not always the most obvious companies which are the most regenerative, and sometimes it takes real attitude in business to take a leading stance when doing what you feel is right as a business. Last Saturday, as reported in my previous article, BrewDog made two major announcements at their EGM – Extraordinary Annual General Meeting.

Credit: BrewDog

The first announcement was that they are now the world’s first carbon negative brewery, which is a huge achievement. And the second was that they have now purchased a 2,000 acre area of land in Scotland to create one of the largest natural areas of forest in the UK in recent years.

Credit: BrewDog

“Our Carbon. Our Problem. So, we are going to fix it ourselves,” James Watt, cofounder of BrewDog, stated. “The scientific consensus is clear: we are sleepwalking off the edge of a cliff. Unless the world confronts the urgent carbon problem, science tells us that the results will be catastrophic. There has been too much bullshit for too long. Governments have proved completely inept in the face of this crisis. The change our world and society needs, has to come from progressive business and we want to play our role and nail our colors to the mast.”

Virtually everyone reading this article will already have quite an advanced level of consciousness around climate change and the issues we are facing. So in this article rather than talking about the why of climate change, I will focus on the how.

The reason is that in the sustainability and regeneration communities it is possible to see a range of stances on how to communicate the challenges of climate change and the types of systemic response needed to a wider public. I personally do not always feel that approaches based on developing a certain level of panic or fear, or criticising and moralising through blame are often the most impactful, and can actually generate the opposite responses in people than those expected.

Credit: Lancaster University

In order to develop their systemic approach to sustainability across their entire value chain, including their supply chain which many businesses do not consider, BrewDog worked with lead scientific advisor Professor Mike Berners-Lee who is a fellow of the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University and the of Small World Consulting, based in the Lancaster Environment Centre. He is also the author of There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years and How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything.

As one of the world’s leading experts in carbon foot-printing and sustainability, Berners-Lee led the process of calculating BrewDog’s carbon footprint and the design of its carbon removal plan. These plans have been made available by BrewDog via their BrewDog Tomorrow project here.

Speaking about BrewDog’s initiatives, Berners-Lee said “After decades of inaction we have a full-on climate crisis on our hands. The scale and speed of the change we now need is enormous, and cuts right across politics, business and every corner of society. The good news is that if we are smart about our transition, we can make our lives better at the same time as making them more sustainable. With the actions laid out in this report, BrewDog is giving some of the leadership the world so badly needs. They are raising the bar for the business world, both in their strong carbon cutting action and their straight talking. BrewDog beer can represent another small nudge for a better world.”

At the EGM Berners-Lee presented for over half-an hour on just exactly why BrewDog’s initiative is so important and also both the thinking and science behind it. You can watch his complete presentation here:

The presentation really stood out for me due to the way in which Berners-Lee both constructed his argument around a small number of core scientific findings as well as also focusing on the how – and this did not just relate to organisations but we as personal individuals. For those of you who are involved in helping with the transition to a new level of consciousness around climate change and regenerating our natural and urban regions, there are some really useful elements from this talk which we can learn from.

Right from the start the presentation Berners-Lee takes a systemic perspective. It is a sobering thought that as he points out, none of the actions so far taken from any business, organisation or individual has managed to make a dent in current carbon emissions.

Credit: Mike Berners-Lee

In the presentation Berners-Lee does as much as possible to avoid “doom and gloom”. One of the really interesting slides was his explanation of the size of world’s land area needed to be covered in solar panels to meet today’s human energy needs. The interesting point is the question that if this is solvable through technology, why are we not making the change?

He answers this question saying that there is not enough imagination, leadership or pushing for this change. This makes BrewDog an extremely interesting example of regeneration in action. They are stepping into this leadership position and taking personal ownership of the problem, deciding to invest today as waiting to enact in the future is simply not an option available.

Berners-Lee then shifts the focus of his presentation allowing us to think about the actions which all of us can take as individuals straight away. Taking one example from his book There is no Planet B, he talks us through the research carried out at Lancaster University mapping out the global food system.

You can click on the graphic below to see the full-size version:

Credit: Mike Berners-Lee

The main point about this chart in relation to i) how we can ensure that we are able to feed everyone in the world, ii) deal with climate change and iii) manage our biodiversity, is that “the single most helpful thing we could do is to reduce our meat and dairy”. There is no need to go vegetarian or vegan, it is more a case of reducing the proportions of meat and dairy in our diets.

Photo: Simon Robinson

BrewDog have always led in this respect, for example in 2018 by putting put their weight behind the #NoMeatMonday initiative by offering customers a vegan or vegetarian meal from their meat-free menu on a 2 for 1 deal in any of their UK bars, and teaming up with Beyond Meat, to launch their Born to Live burger.

The final part of the presentation deals with the transitions needed in the way businesses and organisations work. I fully agree with Berners-Lee who speaks about the need to develop new thinking skills, outlining a number of ways of thinking “that we need to get so much better at”. These are summarised in the wheel below:

Credit: Mike Berners-Lee

For those of you who are regular readers of Transition Consciousness, you will have seen that Holonomics, together with 1STi and Vai na Web earlier this year launched the Deep Tech Network, which our philosophy summarised in our Deep Tech manifesto. Our four main pillars are Deep Tech, Deep Thinking, Deep Talent and Deep Collaboration, and these are all very much aligned with the course of action that Berners-Lee is discussing.

Technology along is not enough to take humanity out of our predicament, we need a much deeper level of thinking and more effective forms of collaboration, all based on a systemic perspective. It was therefore interesting to hear Berners-Lee talk about the conversations he had with scientists and technologists when researching his book, observing how many of them would end the interviews with the thought that “maybe it just boils down to our values”.

Credit: Mike Berners-Lee

I could not agree more, and for this reason Maria and I have been introducing universal human values into organisations to complement their initiatives developing their visions, missions, purposes and corporate values. The five universal human values are peace, truth, love, righteousness and non-violence, and these are thought by many to articulate the greatest expression of humanity; who we actually are, our essential essence.

vai na web

Credit: Vai na Web

For this reason we inlcuded human values in our Deep Tech manifesto, which also speaks about the need to search for the most talented individuals in non-traditional locations, i.e. the world’s top academic institutions. So for example Vai na Web is a not-for-profit technology initiative training young adults in IT skills in some of the most disadvantages favelas in Rio de Janeiro, enabling them to take ownership of their lives and make meaningful contributions to society. If we really are to transform, as Berners-Lee points out, we need to make this shoft to respecting both the truth, and also understand that all people are of equal inherant value.

These values are in contrast to the way in which Berners-Lee points out that “the world is absolutely awash with some desperate BS”. Organisations of the future will only thrive by being trustworthy, and therefore it was fantastic to see Berners-Lee speak out so strongly about greenwashing and the need for transparency, honesty and authenticity.

I love his closing observation that “every time we spend money, we are pushing for one future or another”. So for example, when we buy a beer, we need to ask what the supply chains are that we are supporting and ask ourselves “is the company really pushing for the world we want to see?”.

Photo: Holonomics

Brand Finance recently named BrewDog as one of the world’s top 20 beer brands with more brand value than Stella & Carlsberg, which shows just how much of a global platform and impact they now have in relation to their sustainability and climate change initiatives. This growth has been achieved through BrewDog’s cutting-edge approach to crowd funding and collaborative co-creation with it’s community of Equity Punk investors.

This is why, as a company with an coherent and consistent focus on both people and planet, Maria and I have been charting BrewDog’s trajectory for a number of years, for example writing about BrewDog as an in-depth case study in our Harvard Business Review Brasil article Não comece um negócio, comece uma cruzada (Don’t Start a Business Start a Crusade) and also with James Watt’s contributions in our book Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design.

Simon Robinson with Erika Thais Rocha

Erika Thais Rocha, GM, BrewDog São Paulo

The two recent announcements on being carbon negative and the BrewDog forest are totally coherent with BrewDog’s previous actions in both the social and environmental spheres. I really like the focus on action, the systemic thinking behind it and the attitude of taking personal ownership while many other businesses are simply greenwashing, and our governments are keeping their heads firmly stuck in the sand. Watt sums up this attitude in the following way:

“The government has not proven itself to be taking this issue seriously or urgently enough. We are taking matters into our own hands but would gladly work [alongside] policy makers to make change happen faster.”

There is a lot of inspiration to be taken from BrewDog and much we can learn and share from the narrative structure of Berners-Lee’s presentation. As he observes though in the BrewDog Tomorrow sustainability report, “Going forwards they [BrewDog] won’t be perfect. They’ll make mistakes and they’ll need to be honest about them. They won’t need to beat themselves up but they mustn’t let themselves off the hook either. The message they send to the rest of the business world is that if they can say it like it is, everyone else had better do likewise.”

This is ownership in action. When a business has the right attitude, mindset and values, it is amazing what can be achieved.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Mike Berners-Lee for allowing me to include his slides from his presentation in this article.

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