In a perspective article published July 24 in the journal One Earth, the researchers describe lessons for implementing lasting change, including insights on designing successful collaborations and making sure benefits are equitably shared.

“Conflicts between dealing with short-term emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic and long-term imperatives including climate change will only grow more severe if we don’t become serious about greening the whole economy – quickly and strategically,” said lead author Eric Lambin, a professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth).

Many solutions have already been put into practice, the authors write, from payments for ecosystem services to eco-certification schemes for producers, to fertilizer management systems that reduce methane emissions and water pollution. Yet adoption of even well-tested solutions remains low. In many cases, these efforts prove vulnerable to shifting political winds and market fluctuations. Or else they’re incomplete, failing to improve the lives of small-scale farmers and fishers in poor rural areas, or of marginalized communities whose health is disproportionately affected by pollution and deforestation.

Here, Lambin and co-author Jim Leape, both senior fellows at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, discuss obstacles to upscaling sustainability and pathways for overcoming them.


For you, what does it mean to achieve sustainability?

Eric Lambin: Chris Patten, the British politician, once described sustainability as a matter of “living on planet Earth with the intention of remaining there forever rather than simply for a weekend holiday.” In other words, it means ensuring that social well-being does not decline from one generation to the next.

Jim Leape: Fundamentally, the goal of the sustainability movement is to ensure a healthy, prosperous future for all. That requires that we maintain and restore the natural capital that makes prosperity possible, including a hospitable climate, clean air and water, and nourishing food. It also requires that we protect and build social capital – laws and institutions, markets, norms, public trust – which enables us to draw on those resources in a way that supports our well-being without depleting them for future generations.


What strategies will be most effective for accelerating sustainability going forward?

Lambin: We identified three pathways to create a robust sustainability transition at scale. The first one leverages the market power of private actors that became dominant in their sector due to market concentration. These actors can have a large positive impact by promoting sustainable practices in their operations and across their supply chains. The second pathway relies on integrating initiatives from civil society or the private sector into public policy. For example, when Bolivia revised its forestry law in 1996, it incorporated into the new law several principles from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standard, a voluntary certification scheme for forests. In the third pathway, government-led change is reinforced by private efforts. It requires willing and capable policymakers, and coordination with civil society and private actors.


Overfishing and deforestation have both been targeted for sustainable change, with very different outcomes. What lessons can be drawn from these two industries about what it takes for sustainability initiatives to succeed across national boundaries and economic sectors?

Leape: Over the past two decades we have seen that it is possible to shift large regions or whole economic sectors toward sustainability. In the market for whitefish, which is dominated by consumer-facing companies like McDonalds or Walmart that use species like cod and Alaskan pollock for fish sandwiches and fish sticks, commitments by those companies have helped drive significant progress.

Progress has been more difficult in the broader and more diffuse challenge of deforestation, which implicates many different commodities – from cocoa to beef to palm oil – and millions of producers and weak governance in many places.

One of the lessons that stands out from this sector is the importance of tapping into diverse interests. One stakeholder may care about nature conservation; others may be motivated more by food security, stable employment, human rights or profitable supply chains. Our research shows that fighting against illegal deforestation and corruption or promoting the health of local communities is more likely to spur local governments to action than arguments focused on mitigating global climate change and biodiversity loss.


What has to be in place for sustainability changes to persist long term, across national boundaries and economic sectors?

Lambin: If a transition to sustainability depends on just one visionary leader or a small group of pioneer actors, it is unlikely to create transformation at scale. Broad coalitions of multiple actors from government, the private sector and civil society, from the local to the international scales, provide a more resilient path to sustainability. With strong multi-stakeholder, multi-level coalitions formed around ambitious objectives, no single politician or administration will be able to fully derail a process toward greater sustainability.


You’ve noted that interventions designed to promote sustainability in some cases undermine market access for poor communities. How can this be avoided?

Lambin: This is another reason to design interventions that include governments, philanthropy and civil society organizations to make sure marginal actors do not become even more marginalized once sustainable practices become the norm. As the top is being pulled upward, efforts are required to simultaneously raise the bottom, to avoid increasing inequality. Leaving behind those that are not able to invest in more environmentally sustainable practices gravely undermines sustainability efforts.

Leape: This is an area in which collaboration among governments, civil society and the private sector is particularly important. All have roles to play in ensuring that small producers have the rights and tools they need to manage their resources sustainably, and that their sound management is recognized and rewarded in the marketplace.

One exciting example from our research is the Better Cotton Initiative. Fueled by commitments from some of the world’s largest apparel companies and working with governments in producing countries, the Better Cotton Initiative has established standards for improving environmental performance – reducing use of pesticides, for example, and conserving water resources. It is increasing incomes to millions of small farmers by helping them produce cotton more sustainably and sell it into the global market.


How has the ongoing pandemic altered the challenge of making sustainability the global norm? Are the viable pathways and solutions changing as a result of COVID-19?

Lambin: Times of crises also provide opportunities to reorient entire segments of the economy. In the next few months, the world economy will benefit from huge recovery packages piloted by governments – in the trillions of dollars. It makes a lot of sense to selectively help sectors that contribute to a greener, decarbonized economy while ending subsidies for destructive activities that are condemned to disappear anyway – such as coal and oil burning, forest destruction for agriculture and overfishing.

Read a research brief about this work highlighting key points for policymakers.

Lambin is also the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor at Stanford Earth and a professor at the University of Louvain, Belgium. Leape is also co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and the William and Eva Price Senior Fellow in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Co-author Hajin Kim is a PhD student in Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER). Co-author Kai Lee is a fellow with the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions.

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