What matters most: a report on The Meaning Conference 2018

Etienne Stott, 2012 Olympic gold medallist, motivational speaker, environmental activist, attended the 2018 Meaning Conference in Brighton as a guest of Performance1.  We’re pleased to share his report here.

“An existential yearning to matter.” That’s how Marjo Lips-Wiersma, a professor of ethics and sustainability leadership and one of the first speakers at The Meaning Conference 2018, defined meaning. The conference duly delivered a packed day of various provocations and perspectives on what matters, and how a person might find meaning by engaging in these areas. A strong environmental/sustainable/ethical thread connected all the sessions, and I will now share some of my highlights, unapologetically hoping that they may lead you to deeper thinking about your future relationship with Earth and all of its inhabitants, something which I find personally both challenging and meaningful.

One session, ‘Climbing Mount Thriveability’, which I thought would be an inspiring, motivational talk on thriving, was in fact an unexpectedly interesting explanation of new accounting methods for corporate entities! Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in having misunderstood the session content; several people in the room seemed to have been similarly bamboozled by its opaque ‘sell’. The central proposition was that it is impossible to steward something properly unless you have some way of accounting for it. Reporting 3.0 outlined ways that companies could show that they are attending responsibly to matters beyond the traditional ‘bottom line’. They were making the case that companies should be accounting not only for monetary capital, but also human, social and environmental capitals as well. They argued that a ‘monocapitalist’ orientation (where money is the capital of significance) is leading to a systemic collapse and suggested that behaviours will only change when organisations are  accountable for their performance with these other capitals. The striking examples of organisations already making strides with these ‘multicapital’ approaches were BT and the Crown Estate, which indicated that this was a possibility for mainstream organisations. For me, the session was provocative because they were proposing a method of fixing the system with the system itself, albeit a profoundly modified version.

Another inspiring session was made by Helen Taylor of Forest Green Rovers, a 100% sustainable professional football team (who are currently 8th in League Two). Their grounds are powered by battery-supported renewable solar and wind energy, the stands only serve vegan food and the pitch is organic. Amusingly, rival fans are said to turn up to matches against Forest Green with inflatable hot-dogs, burgers, fish, cows (you get the idea) to poke fun at the club for its vegan/sustainable footing! Helen explained how their radical and visionary stance had attracted media attention disproportionate to the club’s size and standing. Furthermore it was changing the behaviours of football fans with its alternatives to ‘pie & mash’, but also with outreach work engaging the community in sustainable practices and attitudes. For me, it was a glowing example of making stewardship of the planet not only fun and interesting, but commercially viable and meaningful to all involved.

Bibi Bleekmolen did a fantastic job of revealing the darker side of modern technology and provided a sustainable, ethical and effective alternative business model in the form of Fairphone. Her argument was that mobile phones manifest at the end of a very long, but ethically and environmentally dubious supply chain. Apparently, there are up to 38 precious metals in every phone, much of which is extracted in dangerous, exploitative and less-visible ways. She said that Fairphone have developed ethical supply chains for their phones in response. Fairphones also have a clever modular design which means rather than getting a new phone when your camera is outdated, or your screen is cracked, you can get an upgrade/replacement module sent out, install it yourself (as it is held together by screws that are not microscopic) and return the old components for recycling. It is fair to say that the phones are expensive compared to ubiquitous ‘throwaway tech’, but I reflected that when you start to properly consider more capitals than just monetary, á la Reporting 3.0, you enter a new world of choice, and responsibility!

Although space limits me, there were more excellent sessions of which I could write further, so I will tempt you with a couple of links which might invite further investigation: first of all, the story of Zaytoun was an inspiring tale of the challenges of bringing Fair Trade olive oil from Palestine to the global market. A deeply contentious political and social challenge, Atif Choudhury told the story from a humorous and human perspective, and there is no doubt that he had found great meaning from operating in that complex part of the world. Second, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Game workshop was super fun and thought-provoking. We all had a go at a game which essentially models how the world could develop to bring the global population up to a sensible standard of living whilst ‘living within our means’. Apparently, it is a phenomenon in Japan, where 12,000 people played last year. Keep your eyes open for it!

I would certainly recommend the Meaning Conference 2019 to anyone who has an existential itch to matter, as I have no doubt that next year’s conference will supply the delegates with a significant dose of provocation regarding how their lives can contribute to the world through their personal and corporate actions. See you there in November!