The Right Shoes for Sustainability


“The seven dirty shoes,” an essay by internationally-acclaimed author Mia Couto’s, is gaining popularity because it speaks on both the individual and universal levels. Cuoto reflects on what we should “leave at the door” during these modern times. He suggests that we should leave behind ideas that can cause arrested development in society, put large groups at risk and also affect individual growth. If these ideas, which are very much part of our society, are so harmful, which shoes should we wear to replace the dirty shoes we leave at the door? 

Let’s play “reverse Mia Couto” and list the shoes we must wear to face today’s challenges. Here we list seven ideas to should guide individuals, the economy and society:

(1.) Long-term thinking. Behavioral economy shows that traditional economic models are failing to capture the irrationality of human decisions. We have a difficult time evaluating long-term effects, yet we have some urgency. We are far from being able to avoid climate catastrophes but it is as if we were fighting a forest fire with a garden hose. In the name of survival, we must include long-term thinking in all of our decisions, both as individuals and as companies.

(2.) Sense of urgency. This idea compliments the previous one. There are issues that deserve more attention than others; however, when trying to manage the consequences of our impact on our environment, we are acting as doctors dealing with acute pain while also treating a serious illness. Climate change can be compared to a cancer that is spreading silently, with imperceptible symptoms. Avoiding (or ignoring) the diagnosis and delaying treatment may be fatal.

(3.) Recognizing external factors, defined as side effects of a decision on people who are not part of making the decision. First we must recognize that the side effects exist and map them. Then, it’s necessary to reduce the impact and acknowledge the costs. The absence of this process leads to the unbalanced result of individualizing profits and socializing losses, which is a complete disregard for people and the environment.

(4.) Materiality. Mia Couto criticizes the idea that changing words alters reality. According to him, “we are promoting an idea that honors the superficial and suggests that by changing the frosting the cake will be edible.” This idea aligns with the Global Reporting Initiative’s definition of materiality, which are “matters and indicators representing economic, environmental and social impacts that can substantially influence stakeholders’ assessments and decisions.” There is no use in adopting measures that “look good” without acting honestly. It is a lot of work, but it is worth it. According to a study by Boston Consulting Group and MIT, companies that focus on material matters see up to 50% sustainable profit growth.

(5.) Understand that there are no simple solutions to complicated problems, and value science. Solving difficult issues require dedication, research and critical thinking. When different areas of society are questioning facts that are not aligned with our preferences, it is urgent to value science and fight laziness. As the saying goes, “running away from a problem only increases the distance from the solution.”

(6.) Value differences. There is evidence that the diversity of backgrounds and points of view fosters innovation and, consequently, adds value. It is only by respecting and valuing what’s different that we’ll be able to find the ideas necessary to save the world from ourselves.

(7.) Have the will and capacity to coordinate. We live in a globalized society that is going through a rise in populism, polarization and conflicts. In this context, we must find common ground through which it is possible to establish dialogues and find the way forward as a society.

This is the last idea on the list, but it must be the first when taking action. Without coordination, it is not possible to act effectively. On one side, people are aware of how important it is: the aforementioned study by BCG and MIT reveals that 90% of executives believe collaboration is key for the success of sustainability. However, only 47% say their companies are collaborating strategically.

If we are already aware, we must have the courage to act. In 1987, Brundtland’s report “Our Common Future” began to make it clear how big the problem is. Our generation must wear the adequate shoes for the challenges that lie ahead and must follow the path of sustainability with dignity, firmness, presence of mind and the certainty that these efforts are fundamental in order for us to have the chance to offer a “common future” to the generations that follow.

Author: Danilo Maeda, Account Director