May 18th, 2023

What does a preferable future look like?


Yvonne Filler chats to Professor Jo Meehan, about the Centre for Sustainable Business, a hub of actionable research insights, that supports businesses and policymakers in finding solutions to the climate emergency and social justice issues.

Can you tell us your role at Liverpool University and the Centre of Sustainable Business?

I'm Professor Jo Meehan, Professor of Responsible Procurement and Director for the Centre for Sustainable Business at the University of Liverpool Management School. My own research and teaching centres on modern slavery in supply chains, social value in public procurement, and corporate power. I am interested in understanding the commercial practices that allow social inequalities and environmental harm to persist, and crucially, what might be done to enable systemic change. In my role as Director for the Centre for Sustainable Business I facilitate the bringing together of researchers from across the Management School to spearhead debates on ‘business-not-as-usual’ and accelerate the pace and scale of change needed to address the climate and social emergencies faced. 

And can you tell us how the Centre came to be set up and what its objectives are?

In 2021, we recognised that we were doing lots of interesting and world-leading sustainability research across the Management School, but we didn't necessarily have an overarching strategy of managing the evidence we were generating. 

And so we pulled a team together to engage some of our key stakeholder groups, including staff, students, and businesses, through a series of focus groups to understand where they felt we could offer the greatest value. In parallel we mapped our research expertise against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which the University of Liverpool is a signatory to, the UN’s 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, and against emerging priorities identified Industry 5.0. This helps us to assess where we had critical expertise to help organisations urgently pivot towards sustainability and where we could spearhead inclusive debate on the pressing systemic problems. 

And so, from these analyses, we developed our priorities and themes; 1) non-financial reporting and accountability;  2) responsible consumption and circularity; and 3) disruptive technology and developing ecosystems. The unifying theme of our research is ‘business-not-as-usual’ and the need to act urgently, collectively, and responsibly. 

We pitched the idea for a new research and education centre to the Dean of the Management School and the Senior Leadership Team, with the objective to do really relevant and impactful research that was accessible for all (not just big companies who can pay for it, and to position ourselves as a ‘translational’ centre for our research.  They were really behind the project and the Centre for Sustainable Business complimented well our other existing research centres. 

We handpicked an advisory board, conscious of the fact that we needed to have businesses that reflected some of the principles that we were trying to achieve.   We wanted real leaders in the field of responsible business and people that would hold us to account on what we are trying to achieve, as well as sharing ideas of how to develop and generally steer our course and help us on the journey. 

Like us, you’re keen that strategy turns into impact - how do you make that happen?

We're planning lots of events and developing learning resources to get our messages and our evidence out to the business and policymaking communities.  We've got a bank of evidence from our research that companies can engage in and use.  Our role is to facilitate and broker knowledge. We've got access to knowledge from all over the world in many different contexts and want to ensure we make this accessible.  For example, some of our current research covers food security and poverty alleviation in Mozambique, corporate responses to tackling modern slavery in supply chains in the UK and Australia, the effectiveness of environmental regulations and state ownership in greenwashing mitigation, policy implications of mandating CSR Assurance in the EU, the effect of voluntary climate risk disclosure on Credit Default Swap premiums, and the organisational barriers to maximising social value in UK public procurement. 

We are working hard to make our knowledge accessible, but it is dangerous to think that we have all this knowledge and we know what needs to be done, and so we are very clear that we are also listening to businesses, to policy makers, to nature advocates, and to communities who are impacted by business decisions to ask what do you need us to be doing? What sort of research do you need? How can we help you? Where aren't we focusing our attention that actually we need to? Where do we need to shine a light on something? How can we amplify diverse voices and opinions?

It has to be collaborative. The strapline for the centre is ‘Reimagining Business’. We can't do that alone. It's not our reimagining, or that of the powerful voices only, it has to be a collective reimagining.

The centre’s strapline is ‘reimagining business’ and the advisory board talk about a preferable future. What does that look like to you personally?

Um, that's a big question!

To rewind a bit, the idea of a preferable future came about from some research I did a few years ago with Professor Louise Knight (now at Twente University in the Netherlands), commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, looking at the future of the procurement and supply management field. In that project we started to develop new methodologies to facilitate a move from probable futures, to exploring multiple plausible futures, and to shape preferable futures. 

The probable future is inevitable. We know it's going to happen or there is an assumed direction of travel.  In our research we worked with business leaders to map the probable future and evaluate who wins and who loses. Very few people were winning. 

So we asked, why are we making that our probable future? What can we do? What else is plausible? We devised a methodology to explore other competing futures and to have a look around - what did each of the other plausible futures look like, how did they feel, what would our jobs and purpose be, what would change, who/what would be impacted, and what do they look like? This technique was really powerful as it allowed people to realise that they do have agency, there are things we can do,  and changed the questions to what is a preferable future, preferable to whom, and what can we do today to shape this future?

When we consider the future, one of the things that many of us struggle with in sustainability work is that we are bombarded with dystopian and frightening messages. And while these things are very real, people get caught in the futility of its inevitability, and rather than being a call to action, it creates inertia, as people question whether their small actions can really make any difference. 

We want to show that we all make a difference.  As individuals we can't change the world but we can change the world around us.  There are things that we can do and we should do, and although they may seem inconsequential, they matter. 

The systemic problems are more difficult but very small things can have a domino effect and can lead to wider change. So the preferable future for me is inclusive, it’s fair, and is about all of us slowing down.  Everything's too fast. We don't take time to appreciate the natural world and social connections. And this might sound paradoxical as there is an urgency for change, but slowing our pace of life, taking it down a gear, allows us to see, respect, question, and make better decisions. Decisions are important as we are becoming pre-programmed to expect choice and that in itself is really exhausting. As an example, when we go into a supermarket, we expect all the different fruits and vegetables there whenever we want them, all the time. And that's just not sustainable. Choice is nice, but we need to recalibrate what choice is.  It isn't everything all the time. In relation to food choice and variety needs to align to natural cycles and to place, rather than artificial demands. Reimagining choice can also help us to transform our economy from a linear - take, make, dispose - where excessive goods are manufactured as people assume we need to ‘own’ things, to a circular approach where products stay in use for longer and the sharing economy where goods can be rented rather than owned. 

So for me, a preferable future is slower with power more fairly distributed, nature brought back into our lives at a fundamental level, and with human rights embedded into business decisions. There is increasing talk of carbon literacy and this is important, but I think we need to go further to embed carbon and social instinct. Just as we have legitimised ‘the business case’, organisations need to understand not only how sustainability will impact their business, but how their business models impact the natural world, society, and human rights. Businesses should strive to be better or regenerative, rather than faster, or bigger, to break our obsession with growth and manufacturing.

Do you think the pandemic offered us a glimpse of that?

Yes definitely but that small window of opportunity shut very rapidly.  During lockdowns there was a temporary reduction in CO2 emissions, air quality briefly improved, and through losing our freedoms we all had a glimpse into how vulnerable people live every day. There was talk of business-not-as-usual, building back better, 4-day weeks, and reconnecting with nature and community. But what did we do? Governments around the world pushed to spend our way out, to get us to buy more stuff, get back to the office, and get industry moving. As the climate and social emergencies exponentially worsen, the Centre for Sustainable Business is pushing for us all force open that window of opportunity and to support a collective step forward to shape preferable futures for all. 

And if anyone's reading this and is interested in helping or  finding out more about the centre in any way, what's the best way for them to get in touch?

People can find more about the Centre here.

And joining our mailing list is the main thing. 

Through this they can subscribe to hear about events and our latest research. 

If anybody wants to sponsor us, that would be amazing. They can sponsor events. We're based in Liverpool, but we're not just a Liverpool Centre.  Sustainability is a planetary issue and we have ambitions to hold events elsewhere in the world and certainly elsewhere in the country. Or organisations can partner with us on our research and we work with a range of businesses, charities and NGOs.

If they would like to use our research, we would to hear how our evidence is being used or sparking new conversations as this helps us develop our new research agendas.

And people can always get involved by speaking to our students.  Our students will be the leaders of the future and so we are keen for them to hear from inspiring organisations who are trying to do business-not-as-usual. 

Just get in touch.  We're open to any suggestions.