[#FutureGenerations series] External Advisor Olivier Dubray: “It is time we designed a new global system that favors cooperation”

— Anh NGUYEN

Future Generations is a series of interviews in which we invite individuals in different fields to talk about their visions of the world we will leave for our future generations. We discuss the biggest challenges faced by future generations, their hopes, and why not, a little piece of advice. 

These individuals are chosen among our network of colleagues and friends, who are experts and specialists in their field. 

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Olivier Dubray is a French External Advisor at Bain & Company, former SVP of Reckitt, and Founder of Antarctica Brands & People with 450+ consulting missions helping companies with sustainability-driven innovation & strategies and purpose-led brand performance.

We have been following his LinkedIn account for a while. We have been impressed by his insights from the perspective of a consultant with 37 years of working on sustainability corporate strategies. We decided that Olivier would make a compelling case to add to our Future Generations series. 

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Anh (A): What are the biggest challenges for our future generations in your opinion?

Olivier (O): If we look at the news today there are many things that are at stake. The protection of nature, climate change, geopolitical tensions and wars… But all of these come back to the same thing – the inherently flawed system that we build for our economy and society

We have built many institutions – including massive international ones, but with virtually no significant impacts on the biggest challenges of our times. Meanwhile, local initiatives are too oftentimes restrained by national policies, or slowed down by the administrative layers, and they cannot operate at a maximum capacity to mitigate the negative impacts [of climate change, biodiversity loss, etc.]. There isn’t enough cooperation across these different levels of operation vertically and across nations horizontally. 

This can indeed be done. It doesn’t seem like it, but multinational companies understand this dynamic very well, for example. They operate globally across borders, but understand and interact with their local communities on the ground, both by offering jobs as well as selling products and services.

The same operative effectiveness can be leveraged also for the greater good: our political and social institutions could benefit from emulating the transnationals to manage better horizontal cooperation – trans borders – as well as the top-down and bottom-up frameworks that give both direction and autonomy to the people on the ground at a local level.

The second reason explaining our fragmented, non-optimal system is the fact that our many institutions, multinationals, communities and citizens are not sharing the same goal when it comes to climate change and biodiversity loss. As the direst consequences are not right here and right now for them to see, they are under insufficient pressure to solve it. Yet it is extremely important to have one common objective, so that we can start designing a system in which everyone can cooperate and live together, while respecting the diversity of each one and respecting nature. 

This dynamic of working towards the same goal under pressure has been observed during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the former case, for example, big companies in the US and elsewhere have helped with logistics and materials in order to vaccinate not only their employees but the local people in the regions in which they operate. 

I believe we are underusing the power of businesses and companies in social and environmental issues by being stuck in an obsolete system of competition and chasing after profits of yesterday. Again, I stress the importance of designing a new system that favors cooperation and well-being. This way, companies can eventually use their resource, global and local reach to operate with the same virtues as that of NGOs or non-profit organisations. 

(A): This is extremely interesting. What I hear from your answer is this hopeful and positive note on the possibility of cooperation and working towards the same goal. We are both consultants and advisors, and we know that it is not at all easy to convince businesses and industries to change their models. And despite the failures, the put-offs and the delays, we keep on working with them in order to seek impactful changes. 

Isn’t it a welcome trait of an aspiring consultant? Despite all of the clichés such as “you become a consultant because you don’t know what else to do”, in fact, being a good one means you try your best to lead and guide people to a goal, day by day and month by month…It requires resilience and unweaving determinations.

(O): Indeed. Especially in complex topics such as sustainability and economics. Industries and businesses are made up of individuals who are in need of being accompanied and motivated as well. And consultants and advisors can influence these individuals and companies, and in a larger sense, societies. 

Most big companies have their strategies stretched out to a horizon of 3 years, with a focus on short term financial performance. It is difficult for them to look beyond that horizon. It is our responsibility to say “even if you don’t know, you still have to think about it”. Think beyond 3 or 5 years. Look into 20 – 25 years and imagine what kind of world we would like to create and then work backward to the implications for the here and now.

The same is for politicians, whose activities are tied to an electoral cycle. They cannot think beyond that. So either we prolong the political horizon, or better, our politicians must run projects that can last for several mandates to assure the continuity of a chosen goal. This can be done through the influences and demands of citizens, communities and organisations. 

Maybe I’m a bit naive and too hopeful [laugh]. But if not, I’m not going able to continue my work. And I agree, we need people with resilience, working with different stakeholders and at the confrontation lines of different parties, in order to influence changes in terms of sustainability

These people must come from all fronts. Businesses, experts, citizens, policy-makers, NGOs…

(A): You are currently staying in North America. As in Europe, we tend to believe that we are the best-in-class in this matter, I’m quite curious… what is the situation of sustainability over there?

(O): It is quite peculiar. From my observation, being the cradle of “capitalism” and liberalism as we know today, there exists this paradox – that sustainability is a business as well here in North America. So different issues of sustainability are still treated with the same optic: Is carbon capture and storage exciting enough? Is electrification a big opportunity? What about biodiversity and nature conservation, things that don’t “excite” don’t generate profits as we know it? Regulation-wise, it is not as advanced as in Europe.

Brands and businesses have a responsibility upfront. Consumers and customers, when presented with a solution, will have the tendency to accept that solution without digging further into what has happened before in the factory, in the supply chain, etc. The logic is that, if some products are on the supermarket shelf, they are compliant – and yet regulatory compliance plays catch-up with our global environmental or ethical issues, such as pollution, plastics, human rights. So once more it is the duty of responsible brands and businesses to anticipate and do more than what is required by law at any one time.

I was very surprised by the recent announcement that plastic suppliers are considering doubling their production capacity to fuel more plastic packaging. If the industries produce something, then consumers will use it. 

But we should not stop our effort to influence changes. We are literally in it, in the movement of fighting against climate change and environmental degradation. If we fail now, this is the end.

There are reasons to believe that this fight can be victorious. After all, according to a study by McKinsey, the transition to net-zero by 2050 will require an extra 3,5 trillion a year in capital. This is feasible by the means of corporates and of our societies. 

It is not the time to give up. Each person in their scope of activism, in the sphere of their activities, can influence changes.

(A) If you could give one piece of advice to future generations, what would it be?

(O) I find the young generations to be extremely creative and motivated. They are inheriting a world in which it is not easy to navigate, but they have the capacity to learn fast and will be ready to be in command in the next 5 – 10 years, when the last generations of operators having first denied and then resisted the required change will leave the scene. 

I also see the scale of creative initiatives as never before, multiplying from local successes to a much bigger scale. The pandemic and lately Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are the examples, in which peer-to-peer, country-across-country aids are multiplying. It shows again the power of global cooperation and responsibility. 

The younger generations are learning from past mistakes as well. The models and practices that have been in place, but completely ignored sustainability, are being studied so that the same mistakes will not be made again.

When there is something that runs against that current, for example, a new oil and gas plan in the middle of the world’s largest nature conservation area in the Kavango in Southern Africa, it is facing resistance. In this case, we can say “oh the battle is already lost” and do nothing, or we can protest, sign petitions and voice up on our chosen platforms. If we are trying to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels we cannot search now for new sources and especially not in a prime conservation area and biodiversity hotspot. We do not need what we are not yet using if we have to use less of what we already have!

So my advice to younger generations would be to choose to continue to raise your voice, to continue to write and to discuss the things that are dear to your heart. Everyone disregarded the Gaia hypothesis of the chemist Lovelock decades ago. Yet we understand better than ever before now that we depend on the one-only planet with a fragile equilibrium that cannot cope safely with the magnitude and the speed of the changes induced by human careless resource depletion and habitat & biodiversity loss. Eco systemic services from Nature are our life support system, it can only be marginally repaired here and there but probably not restored whenever broken. The breaking point is probably closer than what we assume…

(A): Thank you very much for this great talk. We hope to have you again on our platform to continue the discussion. 

(O): Thank you!

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