5 Questions for… Malcolm McIntosh

On the release of SEE Change, we put our ‘5 questions’ to Malcolm McIntosh.

1. What was your inspiration for writing SEE Change and what do you hope the book achieves or changes?

In SEE Change: Making the Transition to the Sustainable Enterprise Economy Sandra Waddock and I first put the case for a necessary change because of the state of humanity, the state of the planet and, then, humanity’s effect on the planet.

We argue the case for an economy where all organisational, institutional and personal behaviour makes a transition. Collectively, individually and in many other places and spaces over many decades, Sandra and I have written about corporate responsibility and citizenship, about human rights and sustainability, about instruments for corporate engagement such as the Global Compact and SA8000. Partnership initiatives such as these have formed the basis for the corporate responsibility movement and have had some effect in terms of promoting transparency, accountability and reporting – but now we have come to more difficult, dangerous and thoughtful moment in the history of humanity.

Now is the time when we need to learn from what we have done so far, that’s all of us – in business, government, NGOs and academia – must ask ‘how might we re-see the world so that we can make a great leap forward, so that capitalism is better aligned with social progress and is Earth-centric?’.

SEE Change is about that transition thinking. We present examples, case studies and behaviours that talk of the new, that show that it is possible to rethink and reform because the future is already happening in many parts of the world. It is to be found in all economies, in all cities, in many communities – but it is not yet the norm. SEE, a Sustainable Enterprise Economy, as we have written in the book, and as I have written many times over the last few years, is an economy where the whole economy changes, where the fundamental principles on which society is based are rethought. This is not so strange, but it does require courage, enlightened unselfish leadership and a whole-systems approach. We see it in the post-apartheid constitution in South Africa, in the democratisation of the former Soviet Union, in companies like Interface, Unilever and Siemens, and in the current massive restructuring of the Japanese economy and political systems after the Tsunami and earthquakes that have literally shaken the country and major companies like TEPCO to the core.

Change is possible.

SEE Change is about change in society, corporate behaviour and organisations that will ensure ‘health, wealth and happiness’ for all, to quote Shakespeare’s King John. CSR is not dead, but long live the integrated, low-pollution Sustainable Enterprise Economy!

2. Who has influenced and inspired your thoughts on sustainability, CSR and life?

There have been many personal influences on my thinking in this area, some from people and some from other places. First I want to salute Geoffrey Chandler who died last month (April 2011) with whom I had a great deal of contact in the 1990s and early 2000s. To me he was the embodiment of enlightened business thinking. In his role as Chair of Trustees he employed me as European Director of what is now Social Accountability International (then the Council on Economic Priorities) and he later served on the advisory board of the Corporate Citizenship Unit at Warwick Business School, when Warwick was a leader in this area. The combination of a ferocious intelligence, vast transformational business experience and a great sense of humour made him a formidable speaker and a scythe to the biggest cynics and the most smart-arsed doctoral student! It is a lesson to all those studying now to go back to Shell’s Statement of Business Principles in 1976, which Geoffrey wrote, and see how we have all learnt and progressed from that point.

There have been others with whom I have worked, too many to mention here, who have helped me along the way but a few stand out. Not least of these is my co-author Sandra Waddock who is able to turn her inquisitive mind to any new thought and come up with a few thousand well-crafted words while I sleep in another time zone.

Then there’s John Elkington, Deborah Liepziger, Simon Zadek, Jan Aarte Scholte, Mark Swilling, Ralph Hamann, and a whole host of others – all with the sharpest of minds and far more able than me to put thoughts in writing. But also, especially when I was making films about CSR and sustainability for BBC TV in the 1980s and ’90s, people who we filmed but whose names are now unknown. For instance, the chicken farmer, and largest supplier to M&S, who connected his love of bird watching (yes, irony) to the sea food meal he was feeding to his chickens to sustainability and made a switch.

Then there are the people that I was involved with helping getting the UK Farmers’ Market movement going some fifteen or more years ago, and the fifty workers’ cooperative owners of Essential Trading in the west country in the UK, doing the right thing against the odds. All on the ground, not just in the mind.

3. What are the three best books on sustainability/CSR? And what are your three favourite books ever?

Three books that inspired me way back – and still do today;

Small Is Beautiful E.F. Schumacher (1973)
Silent Spring Rachel Carson (1962)
Turning Point Fritjof Capra (1983)

These are to be recommended now as then.

In my opinion there are no best books on sustainability/CSR because it depends on your personal starting point, but Schumacher’s chapter on Buddhist economics in Small is Beautiful is a wonderfully short consciousness tickler.

My other choices may seem unrelated to the question, but they are central to the need to re-engage with the world by re-seeing it:

The Saturated Self Kenneth J. Gergen (2000)
Apocolypse Now Francis Ford Coppola (1979)
Four Quartets T.S. Eliot (1944)
The Emperor’s Nightingale Robert A.G. Monks (1997)
The Postmodern Condition Jean-François Lyotard (1979)

Furthermore, listening to Abdullah Ibrahim always lifts the spirits.

4. What do you think are the major challenges we face in advancing sustainability/CSR – now, and in the next 10 years?

Leaping forward across the decades, today I am inspired by an eclectic range of books as befits a multidisciplinary person with a background in business, journalism, teaching, activism and academia. My current reading is founded on a positive approach to finding solutions to the current crises facing humanity. Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (2001) is a sobering reflection of the interface between technology, capitalism and the worst of humanity that is a significant part of the twentieth century.

Neil MacGregor’s monumental radio series and book A History of the World in 100 Objects is a magnificent way to re-see the world through artifacts, art and enterprise.

Glover and MacGregor rub shoulders with books that complement our new book, SEE Change, because they talk of a new future and inspire change. The very practical activism in Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook (2008) is supported by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s vast in-depth scholarly research for The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2010) and Sara Parkin’s eminently accessible The Positive Deviant: Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World (2010).

My current home is Australia and from here two books stand out: Tim Flannery’s Here On Earth: An Argument for Hope (2010) and Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species (2010. All talk of a new consciousness and relationship between humanity and planet. These are the issues that have always faced humanity but have come into sharper focus in the last one hundred years.

I become more of a historian as I search for answers, which, in an increasingly distracted, always-on, ephemeral world makes me want to shout, not ‘stop the world the world I want to get off’ (the cry in the sixties) but ‘please, please, stop and think: what assumptions are we making that we don’t know we have made that have got us to this point?’ (with thanks to Ben Zander in The Art of Possibility).


5. What are you working on now?

I am currently working on four topics:

Transition and transformation issues in the journey towards the emerging sustainable enterprise economy, leading to conference in Brisbane in September 2012.

GOLDEN for Sustainability: a large-company engagement research project with colleagues all over the world, based in Bocconi, Italy.

The linkage between the uptake of corporate responsibility initiatives and national sustainability indicators in the Asia-Pacific region with Susan Forbes.

The implementation and impact of corporate responsibility policies in Australia over the last few decades with Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh.

With many thanks to Malcolm McIntosh for his varied and interesting insights into sustainability, CSR, literature, history, art and beyond.


Penny Walker
Greenleaf Publishing


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AVAILABLE NOW: SEE Change is about the myriad problems that we face and the systemic changes that are necessary for all enterprises in whatever sector and however constituted to operate within sustainable limits, to lower their ecological footprint, to enhance social equity, and to develop a sense of futurity. Limited offer: Order direct from Greenleaf and get 40% discount. Use voucher code ksbg611 at checkout. Offer ends 30 June 2011.

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