Field Notes

Charting the Course to a Sustainable Economy

Charting the Course to a Sustainable Economy.jpg
Written by 
Scott Cavan
Jonathan English
September 2021

In Conversation With Scott Cavan & Jonathan English

In recent times, it has seemed as though the economy and the planet have been at odds with one another. There is a critical need to simultaneously address the state of the planet and the advancement of the marketplace. From discussions around the economic impacts of the boom-and-bust mining cycle in remote communities, to the unravelling effects of climate change in real-time, our current conditions require new paradigms of thinking and action.

In conversation, Scott Cavan, former Director of Sustainable Economies of Coeuraj Canada, and Jonathan English, Associate, discuss the principles underpinning the idea of a “sustainable economy” and the methods needed to champion it.

Jonathan English: Hi, Scott. I think a good place to start this conversation is around the idea of “sustainable change,” a concept that’s becoming more popular in mainstream discourse. What does it mean to you?

Scott Cavan: Sustainable change moves us to address tensions between how we've done things to how we need to do things, now and into the future. Society has a habit of simplifying the meaning of sustainable change to mean “change within specific sectors.”

It’s truly about rethinking what those economies are as a system, their values,  and trying to create positive transformation that can last over time, and generate even more value.

Examples of sustainable change are showing up all the time now. Whether it be conversations pertaining to environmental, social, and governance metrics (ESG), how broadband internet is linked to supporting rural communities, or redefining the role and inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the economy.

Each of these examples, when realized, can trigger future actions that have a profound ripple effect across the pond, and help us achieve a sustainable economy.

JE: And what do you mean by a “sustainable economy”? How does it challenge the existing values and principles that underpin the Canadian economy?

SC: People have been talking about sustainable economies for a long time now. I’ve seen interesting interpretations, but for me, sustainable economies embody the essential principles that come together to create a world that is economically, environmentally, and socially responsible.

And so, to build a sustainable economy means to transform different parts of a system that can then initiate a domino effect of positive, long-term change. This can look like aligning an energy company on its ESG values and engagements, from boots to boardroom, or assisting a not-for-profit navigate research sectors. When we talk about the need for sustainable change in our economy, it’s really about adopting a collective understanding of how industry, government, and communities intersect and interact, and then taking action with this knowledge in mind.

When we previously talked about the economy, it was firmly rooted in individual needs and market-focused impacts, and now I see us moving towards focusing on values and enabling broader participation in the economy. By being able to ensure value for everyone, through means that engage the capabilities of all, that creates a stronger economy that’s lifting people up. We want to focus on long-term narratives; understanding global consequences; and using tools to predict not an “acceptable” future, but an inherently “better” one.

JE: I was reading this report out of UBC Sauder’s Centre for Impact Investing and Social Innovation, and they noted the Holistic Impact Investment Spectrum. Where on the negative left-side was “destruction/extraction,” in the middle was “development,” on the positive right-side was “regeneration.” What role does a sustainable economy play in moving Canada towards the right of this spectrum?

SC: Because sustainable economies address the lifecycle of economic activities, versus the short-term outputs alone, they provide a guiding framework that naturally allows us to proactively plan for regeneration.

Take for example mining: we know we have to mine to create a greener future, that’s the inevitable piece. So with that in mind, we need to understand the changing principles and standards, like ESGs, in which companies are operating, and look at the supply chain and find ways to improve it to support better outcomes. So when a mine is in development, the goal is for companies to choose more sustainable businesses over others, triggering stakeholders to change their habits and priorities. Investors will pressure companies to comply, so that we can get to the resources that we need to be greener. Consumers will have a greater sense of the impacts of their own dollars and daily decisions.

JE: In Canada, we’ve always been involved in extractive industries with an economy that’s dependent on natural resources. While it would be short-sighted to think that we can adopt new approaches at the drop of a hat, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an urgent need to reimagine the systems that drive our economy.

Why is it so important for us to create new pressures and new paradigms now? I mean...the world is on fire.

SC: Yeah, the world is literally on fire. But some keep saying, “let’s put a bandaid on it, the next generation will deal with our mistakes'' while we spend, and spend, only to keep doing the same things. We’re putting the next generation into debt, without having long-term solutions to show for it—and climate change is only getting worse.

There’s a real social imperative to act now. In the case of the mining sector, investors leave once a mine’s life comes to a close. And in their trail, they leave behind ghost towns that no longer see money flowing through the local economies. This boom-and-bust cycle triggers harm that disenfranchises communities, and frankly, hurts the economy in the long-run. We need to switch from the notion of ‘closure’ to ‘re-development’ and beyond. To look at the potential that exists, not at the costs to maintain. Healthy communities enable healthy economies.

JE: With the urgency coming to a new high, what are we seeing on the ground from businesses and communities in terms of their interest in building a sustainable economy?

SE: There’s no doubt that this change will take a long time to start to manifest. There’s truly no immediate solution to the problem at hand. But I think people and companies are taking notice of the need to be more sustainable in their practices and through their legacies. Take for example, trillions of dollars funnelling into ESG funds. And yes, it is in part about making money, but it showcases a real desire to change the way we’re currently operating.  

In places like northern Ontario, people are asking: “where to from here?”. “What kinds of communities do we envision for ourselves?” Mining companies are asking themselves similar questions as they set out to make decisions about mining closures.

The natural resources sector as a whole, be it oil or mining, has its own share of harms and reputational risks, you know, gaping holes, scorched earth kind of stuff. But that’s one part of the story, and they’re allowed to share more on what they’ve been doing to be better and support innovation, because we are seeing progress.

JE: With all of these ideas in mind, how will Coeuraj help drive the Sustainable Change movement? What makes us the right business to tackle this challenge?

SC: I believe our work approaches problems from a unique lens: we’re challenging organizations and communities to look at today from a different perspective, one that enables sustainable change for the future, and is values-driven.

What we’re doing, through collaborative design, strategic foresight, and data and research, has the potential to expose systemic problems, and inspire conversations that lead to greater enlightenment across the board. And when people start to see this, they’ll be saying “yes, that’s where I need to be showing up.”

JE: Yeah, I am aligned with you there. One of Coeuraj’s approaches is to include the knowledge and histories of the people directly impacted by a problem, to help craft the solution. There’s so much potential for sustainable change if we could enter the boardroom or community hall and say: “We’re here to work with you, start the right conversations, and use our tools to collaborate on a new way of tackling the challenges we face.” And we’re seeing greater interest, across sectors and stakeholders, to do just that.

SC: For sure. I think the world is waking up—I mean, there’s a lot more work to do, but I think that the generations still coming will care. And we want to be part of the change they hope to continue. It’s already out there: the ways in which people, organizations and communities are thinking and operating.

Collectively, we need to be good ancestors.

Scott Cavan is the former Director of Sustainable Economies at Coeuraj Jonathan English is an Associate at Coeuraj. He leverages his legal education and Northern Ontario upbringing to unearth new solutions and challenge old, entrenched problems.