The Ethos Institute in São Paulo (www.ethos.org.br) has been working for 10 years on promoting socially responsible business in Brazil and engaging companies to become partners in the construction of a fair and sustainable society. Its 900 members account for annual revenues of approximately 30% of Brazilian GDP and employ roughly 1.2 million people. It is safe to say that Ethos has contributed greatly to putting socially responsible business on the map in Brazil. Meanwhile, in the Institute’s 10-year reflection completed in 2009, a central observation was that while much has changed in the thinking and attitudes of the corporate sector, sustainability has not yet truly made it into the core of Brazilian businesses to the point where it influences central business decisions. Reos Partners in Brazil is working with the Ethos Institute on an innovative three-phase programme set up to address this challenge.
The programme, called GRES (Business Reference Group for Sustainability), seeks to advance sustainable business through innovation, collaboration and leadership development. It builds on foundation-laying work by eight pilot companies, which through 2008 worked on identifying critical themes in sustainable business. This first phase of the process resulted in the formation of two working groups: one on development of sustainable products and services, and the second on the impact of companies on the local communities in which they operate.
GRES is now in its second phase and the two working groups have started addressing their respective themes. The overall membership of GRES has expanded to include 13 major Brazilian and international companies, each of which has invited two additional stakeholders to the process. The invited stakeholders include organisations from company supply chains as well as NGOs, international institutions, academic institutions, government, and local communities affected by the company’s operations, resulting in a diversity of players that greatly enriches the process.
On September 26–28, 60 participants met at Rancho Silvestre in Embu, São Paulo, for the first residential workshop of GRES. In this workshop, they started building relationships with others members of the group, exercising their capacities for perceiving with an open mind and an open heart, and mapping their “learning agendas” for the process moving forward. In November, each participant joined at least one of four “learning journeys” to different destinations and conducted dialogue interviews with additional stakeholders who represent voices missing from the group. On November 26, the two working groups came together again for a “synthesis workshop” to share their learnings to date and start mapping systemic connections related to their respective themes.
At the synthesis workshop, participants worked on understanding the underlying patterns, structures, and mental models behind the challenges they observe on a daily basis, using the metaphor of an iceberg. The iceberg is a useful systems thinking tool. Because only 10% of an iceberg is visible above the surface, if we want to know the direction the iceberg is going in, we need to understand its und¬¬erlying structure and how it interacts with water currents—all of which are invisible to us under the waterline. In a complex social system, these invisible underlying elements are the patterns, structures, and mental models that influence the system’s behaviour. The more we understand these elements, the more we can influence the social reality. This tool cannot be used effectively at an individual level, because it relies on collective perception. The only way to come to this kind of common vision is through collaboration between companies and stakeholders. One stakeholder summarized this learning when, at the end of the GRES synthesis workshop, she said she had truly discovered her role in the process and that “we are all here for a reason”.
On December 3, the group shared its work to date and engaged in dialogue with CEOs and other senior leaders from the participating companies. In February, the participants will then gather for a three-day innovation retreat, where they will test ideas for systemic, innovative, and collaborative solutions. By mid-2010, the group intends to be implementing such solutions in partnership across the participating organizations. At this stage, they will enter the third phase of the project—a full year of “learning while doing” that will conclude in mid-2011.