The Sustainability Challenge – or how far will you go for your values?

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Most organization have values and ideas of how they would like to treat our planet and the people that live on it. Reality, however, is much more difficult – especially when it comes to upholding values of sustainability. Here’s how NOW tries to deal with that.

Being active in social change, it is not a surprise that most of our team members and quite some of our participants are vegetarians, vegans or sensitive when it comes to the food they eat. Yet, I think that some NOW team members were quite surprised when they first heard that some of us would like the NOW food to be vegan. This turned into a vivid discussion about how this could affect our participants and if they would possibly be unhappy about it. The result of this discussion? We agreed that what our participants expect for our NOW Encounter is good food. That they will get. Good food that also respects the different beliefs of the people that will be present: besides being in line with ethical concerns about eating animal products, vegan food is also fine for most people who eat halal and kosher. And – just as important – vegan food is in line with commitment to sustainability. This of course also means that we are aiming at sourcing local and seasonal products as much as possible, for example by trying to find local farmers that could provide our fruits and vegetables.

For me, when creating an event and an organization as a whole, it is very important to listen to others who are more sensitive about certain areas of social change. Just like I described in my previous blog post, we cannot be active in all spheres and areas where social change is needed, but we can become allies. My goal for the NOW Encounter is not to turn anyone into a vegan but rather to create their awareness and ally – ism for a cause I personally believe in. My own experience has shown that the fear of vegan food disappears once people can just try it out and realize they are not being converted. They will realize that actually they often do it vegan anyway and often motivated to do it more often. Climate change, global hunger and ethics: nobody has ever really negated any of these reasons to reduce animal-products in our diet.

Speaking of sustainability, opting for vegan food is also good for our financial sustainability. That is not always the case of course. Being sensitive and opting for sustainable products and solutions is often more expensive. That is for example true for the materials (paper, booklets, Tshirts, pens, etc.) that we are currently sourcing for our event. But the best example for this challenge is by far traveling.

NOW is about bringing people together and learning from each other and we truly believe that the positive impact that is created through our program outweighs the negative one related to CO2 emission.  That does not mean, that we won’t try our best to keep our CO2 level low. But “trying hard” can be interpreted in different ways. Over the last weeks, we’ve been booking participant’s travels to our NOW Encounter in Switzerland. And just as described in the article we recently shared, we are committed to reducing flights as much as possible. The interesting part comes when you have to decide where exactly the line of “possible” is.

Many of us, including myself, feel very strongly about wanting to show that traveling by land can and should be possible for such a program (and that it can be fun!).  Yet, there were other team members who believe that having our participants travel for 20 hours could be a challenge and asking too much from them.

In our logistics sub-team, it had been quite simple to decide that participants from Turkey, Morocco or Estonia would travel by plane and that we will offset the CO2 created by their travels. It was also quite a simple decision that participants from Germany and Bosnia would be  traveling by land. What made it more difficult were countries like Greece or Romania.

The NOW value “trust”  guides us when making these challenging decisions.  It allows us to openly discuss within our team and to share different points of view. You want to know the outcome, right? Taking together the bus ride, ferry ride and train ride that Greek participants would have to embark on to reach Switzerland, they would travel for over 32 hours. We also consulted them about this adventure and finally decided that we don’t want our Greek participants to get to the Encounter completely exhausted. This means, the will be flying to Switzerland. Of course we will offset their travels too. We also reached the compromise to have them travel by land within Greece despite the higher costs that means for us.

Luckily, for Romania we found an option of having our participants travel by land. They will all travel to Budapest and meet there to board the night-train to Switzerland. Like this, the train ride will be a first opportunity to get to know each other. Of course, also our Romanian team members will travel by train.

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Map of our participants (Green) and team members (orange).

So what can we learn from this? Redefining the routine is not that an easy task. While at NOW we are willing to pay more to uphold our core values, there are certain limits in time that we have to accept. We also learned that it takes a lot of time to look for sustainable alternatives and find solutions that everyone agrees on.

To me, the most important learning is the following: sustainability has to be a core question from the start. That is why for our second event, the Future Forum, we are currently looking into a location which can be reached by most participants by land. If you have a look at the map above, I think Serbia and Bulgaria look like great options.

P.s. In case you’re a vegan-skeptic, don’t worry: our participants will get the chance to try Swiss cheese 😉