Interview of Olivier Delbard, Sustainability Professor at ESCP Business School

We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.” These are the words of environmental activist Greta Thunberg. For Olivier Delbard, to whom we asked several questions regarding social entrepreneurship, activists such as Greta Thunberg can convey a vision enabling positive changes, and so can businesses eager to practice what we call « pragmatic idealism ».

The term “pragmatic idealism” was coined and explained by Nicholas Rescher, a German-American philosopher whose work reconciles European continental idealism and American pragmatism. In his series of three volumes titled A System of Pragmatic Idealism, he created an integrated philosophical position in which these two central concepts become a coherent totality. But « pragmatic idealism » can also be seen in the way the younger generation intends to tackle the different challenges of our time and era. Author David Burstein, who has written Fast Future: How the Millenial Generation is Shaping our World is also a real aficionado of pragmatic idealism. To him, millennials are able to use the tools that already exist in order to change the world.

And pragmatic idealism might as well be what our generation needs in order to have a real impact. Let’s face it: the world is not going to get rid of every destructive, polluting, immoral business in just one day. Inequalities will not disappear magically in the blink of an eye, every industry will not turn green overnight. But we might be able to start working today on new ways of dealing with our environment, and others. Today’s world, with the crisis we are facing as humans, is in need of some kind of reinvention. But that doesn’t mean we should throw everything out the window and start from scratch. In that sense, the development of social entrepreneurship shows a move in the right direction. This is what pragmatic idealism is about.

How can social entrepreneurship participate in the realisation of more pragmatic-idealistic ways of doing business and organising society? Here are a few answers.

Hi Olivier, let’s start with a big question: how big of a role would you say companies play in changing society today?

Companies play a role that keeps on increasing, and it’s even more obvious in countries where governments don’t have the means or resources to regulate social welfare or environmental issues or don’t play as big of a role as in Europe. There are major trends arising in response to the climate and social issues, and the business world is asked, more and more often, to take its share. People really feel large multinationals —who are very powerful, should not only put new products on the market but also provide responses to social and environmental issues. If we focus on Europe, I see a major shift in places where companies are starting to go « beyond CSR », and embed these issues in their own strategies. Recent research led by the University of Amsterdam showed that, apart from the top 9, which are countries, many of the most powerful entities are businesses — and most often multinationals. They are able to impact society, and I often say that they are part of the problem as well as of the solution.

“Multinationals are part of the problem as well as of the solution.”

What is your perspective on « greenwashing »?

We perceive big businesses today as doing a lot of greenwashing. But it’s not that simple. I think, knowing businesses as they are today, that some companies will indeed concentrate their communication efforts on washing their image, in a very cynical way. But, more often in the B2C sector, some greenwashing is the result of the gap between what companies are communicating on, and the time it takes to actually implement new policies and change. IKEA for instance has a long-term plan to become a circular business, but if you look at them today you might think they are trying to fool you. Changing your business model takes a lot of time, and I think that is why greenwashing is often around the corner. A real case of greenwashing, to me, would be if an oil company said they are turning green but keep on investing less than 5% on green energies. That’s greenwashing. That’s not being transparent on the reality of your investment.

How would you describe social entrepreneurship and how can it be linked with pragmatic idealism?

Pragmatic idealism can be summarized this way: how can we interact with other creatures and other human beings in the most respectful way, while managing to create viable business ideas? Bio-mimicry can help us learn from nature, and the interest in it is growing bigger and bigger. I think that’s a way of thinking beyond, trying to see what could be a desirable future and try to make it real, integrating it, for instance, in the way we do business or manage a company.

“CEOs are more and more inspired by environmental philosophy.”

You have worked on environmental philosophy, how does that compare or interact with social entrepreneurship, and what are the core values of that philosophy?

The way I would see it is both in terms of what it means to be ethical (beyond what we can see in business ethics), and how can companies formalize what it means to be ethical in their decisions. It means having a holistic vision of things, thinking in terms of systems, of interconnectedness between humans and nature… Some CEOs already have that vision and get inspiration from philosophers or scientists. Business is embedded in society, which itself is embedded in natural ecosystems. We have to think in terms of complexity. To be sustainable, you need to reset your mindset, to shift your way of thinking. And a way of achieving this is to hear what philosophers have to say about our relationship to the environment. Environmental philosophy has also a lot to do with governance and how we deal with common goods and resources. I think it’s very necessary, and CEOs are more and more inspired by that.

How can companies integrate the need for change on a global level, whether regarding the environment, diversity or gender-related issues?

We need to invent the right type of structure where social entrepreneurs can really develop and grow an idea and keep it going. Some companies have proven that having a diverse culture could help them have a more social approach. They can be good both to the planet and to people and reflect it in their HR policy. In ecology, diversity is a key value. L’Oréal did well doing that: they diversified their teams and it contributed to a shift in their way of dealing with sustainability.

“L’Oréal diversified its teams and it contributed to a shift in their way of dealing with sustainability.”

Finally, what are the skills required to become a successful manager in the social entrepreneurship sector?

I think you have to be able to convey a vision, as well as values of resilience and well-being. This is essential so that people will be willing to walk with you all along the way you are opening for yourself and for others, step after step.

>> Ethical leadership is at the core of ESCP MBA in International Management: the curriculum includes both core courses and electives on Sustainability & CSR, to study on the campus of your choice. In addition, one of the two Company Consultancy Projects (CCP) focuses on a real sustainability business case provided by a company.