Episode #148 Matereality and Corporate Mischief: reshaping Business as if the job were to create a world that works with B.Lorraine Smith
What if businesses existed not to price-gouge consumers and destroy the planet, but to be part of a pathway to a flourishing future? What if the end-of-year reports were not expensive exercises in greenwash, but were actually truthful – and useful. With B.Lorraine Smith, creator of Matereality.
B. Lorraine Smith is a writer, speaker, corporate mischievist, and generally curious student of life. She changes minds (most often her own), casting a dubious eye on the line between work and play. She holds a vision of a future where all industry is a force for healing and any exceptions compost themselves into history.
She has been working towards this vision with global companies since 2004, bringing together activists, executives and thought-leaders. she shares what she finds as she goes along, telling as much truth as she can figure out how to spell. (Or, in the case of Matereality, how to respell.)
Lorraine has consulted for leading change-agents and large companies, informing strategy and stakeholder dialogue to shift us to a regenerative economy. She is also a frequent speaker at conferences on sustainability and corporate innovation.
She speaks fluent French and Portuguese, as well as conversational German and Spanish. Originally from Toronto, Canada, Lorraine has lived in Australia, Brazil, Germany, New Zealand and New York City. She currently calls Montréal home.
In this episode, following on from our conversation with Jennifer Hinton 2 episodes ago, we delve deeply into the concepts that underpin Lorraine’s idea of ‘Matereality’ – what it is, and how her experience as a ‘sustainability consultant’ to some of the world’s largest companies has led her to a new way of assessing the impact a business actually has on the planet and people it is, in theory, designed to serve.
What would the world be like if corporations actually decided to benefit people and planet? Actually. Not their share holders or the vulture capitalists?
With grace, humility and endless humour, Lorraine describes her journey and her conclusions of how we could re-shape the business world in time to change the trajectory towards global melt-down. This is an episode full of ideas at the corporate level, that we can nonetheless bring into our own lives. We all live in the corporate world. Even if we don’t talk at C-Suite level, we are the glue that holds everything together – and we can change the ways we interact with the corporate Masters of the Universe.
ERRATUM: Scott’s Miracle-Gro is only the sole marketer of consumer products containing RoundUp in the US and China, not the commercial agricultural marketer.
Manda: Our guest this week is someone who works at the forefront of bringing that flourishing future into the world of very big business. B Lorraine Smith is a writer, speaker and describes herself as a corporate mischievist and generally curious student of life. She changes minds – most often her own – casting a dubious eye on the line between work and play. And she holds a vision of a future where all industry is a force for healing and any exceptions compost themselves into history. I met Lorraine when she came to speak to us on the Thrutopia program. And since then I’ve been following her medium posts with great joy and great interest. She’s one of the sparkiest, most emotionally literate writers I’ve come across in a long time, and I will link in the show notes to her medium posts and to her new Matereality site. There is so much of depth and beauty in this podcast. I sincerely hope you enjoy it as much as I did. People of the podcast, please welcome B Lorraine Smith.
Lorraine, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast all the way from Canada. Thank you for joining us on what’s the evening here on the morning there. At least we’re in the same hemisphere. I was talking to someone from Australia recently and had to remember that they’re heading into summer as we’re heading into winter. But you’re in, heading into as far as I can tell, Canada hits -40 all winter. Is it that cold yet?
Lorraine: No, not quite. Thank you so much, Manda, for having me on the show. It’s a real pleasure. And we’ve just passed the equinox, and so now my neighbour upstairs and I, we debate: do we turn our heat on yet? That’s the kind of temperatures we have. So not not too chilly, but in about three weeks, the answer to that will be an affirmative yes. Turn the heat on.
Manda: All righty. So with everything else that we’re talking about, you are my go to for companies and how they are beginning to approach the fact that we are running at tipping points. Are they even noticing? Are they taking it seriously, or is greenwashing just something that you do to keep everybody else happy? So with that context in mind, could you tell us what it was that you used to do in some of the biggest companies in the world and then what you do now and why the shift in the middle?
Lorraine: Sure, yeah. So I used to be what would be easily referred to as a sustainability consultant, which meant that I did projects, I’ve mostly worked for the last 20 years as a freelance or independent consultant. I did work in-house for a while, actually at a company called Sustainability. It’s kind of a gutsy name for a company, but some of your listeners will probably be familiar with John Elkington, who coined the term The Triple Bottom Line. He founded Sustainability back when that was kind of an avant garde term. And then decades go by and now it’s sort of in everybody’s marketing material. So I worked for Sustainability. I was the head of their New York office for a number of years back when I lived in New York. And that characterises the kind of consulting work I used to do. So I’ll say a little bit about what that was and what I’m up to now. That would mostly entail working with large companies, a lot of them publicly listed, a lot of them fairly international. I would typically describe them as Western, so headquartered in North America, Europe, also some companies in Brazil, which is an area I’ve got a connection with, and helping them understand how to have better outcomes for society and the environment. And so we’d be looking at their strategies, usually looking at things like their climate change goals, their social impact goals.
Lorraine: And a lot of that work would also involve what we call reporting. And it’s more and more called ESG reporting: environmental, social and governance reporting. There’s a lot of jargon out there, but ESG reporting has really sort of caught on in the mainstream. So we would be helping companies understand what stories do they need to tell, what information are their stakeholders looking for, what performance metrics can they disclose, and how can they put that in context? And definitely the word greenwash would come up a fair bit. But I will stand behind what I’m about to say, which is the companies I worked with genuinely were, were and still are, trying to make real improvement. So I’m sure there’s nonsense out there and I’m sure there’s people not telling the truth. But, you know, these are documents that are signed off by legal counsel. They’re reviewed by all kinds of people. It would be pretty tough to put out completely specious content. However, after nearly two decades of that type of work that really evolved for me over time, I was learning more. And as the climate story has been evolving since the beginning of the century, well, for more than the beginning of the century, but in corporate sustainability, I think it’s really started to catch on in the last 20 or so years.
Lorraine: I noticed that the harder I worked, and the more interesting the projects were that I worked on, and the more dedicated the teams, the more senior the conversations, nonetheless, the less impact I felt I was having. So I started to notice that while I could be really busy travelling a lot, getting really cool speaking opportunities, getting paid quite, I think quite fairly, I was not changing anything in relation to climate change. I was not enabling biodiversity to increase or ecosystems to restore. Learning a lot about what some of the problems were, and walking alongside some very committed and in some cases some very powerful and influential people, but I did not feel that I was having the desired effect. And so I’ve shifted gears. It’s been a kind of slow gear shift, but quite officially in 2022, I stopped taking on new project work that fell into that sort of corporate sustainability or ESG category. So I stopped getting paid to do that work, essentially. And full disclosure, I should say, I did accept a very small piece of work with a client doing some of that work where I said, Well, if I can be totally honest and tell you what I’m really seeing and thinking, then yes, I’ll do this little piece of a much bigger project that I used to have a role.
Manda: Hang on a minute. How did that go down? Did they say yes? Did they take you on on that basis?
Lorraine: Yes. Yes, they did. Although this will give you a little inkling into how these things end up kind of disaggregating and happening in spite of really amazing people. So a lot of my work as an independent consultant, and I think this is true for a lot of sustainability folks out there, although we may be working for a company like a Coca-Cola or a Unilever or a Shell or big companies that people have heard of, often we’re part of a team that’s brought in by the company. And so we’re part of a team that’s been brought in by a team that’s been brought in by a team. So we’re kind of like second or third tier providers, if you will. So that project that I did say yes to, I was brought in by an agency and the agency knows me really well. And so they sort of deployed me in very specific ways for the project. They can give me full rein within the agency. I love those folks. They’re terrific. The agency is called Buzzword, by the way, and they’re really thoughtful, amazing folks. And they will decide what is appropriate and useful to bring to the client and what isn’t, based on how they understand what the work is. So all to say, I do feel like I was able to bring my real self there – tiny little piece of work.
Manda: Have you seen the end result? Did they integrate anything that you told them?
Lorraine: Yeah. So the end result of those kinds of projects, which is a big piece of why I’ve stepped away, is a report. It’s an ESG report. Now there’s another end result which is harder to see. And that’s where I guess I’m pivoting, which is: what happened to what people thought? What happened or is happening to people’s decision making, what’s happening to their understanding of the world around them, and how their decisions impact that world? So that remains to be seen, because part of my role and that was, I was doing the executive interviews, I interviewed the CEO, interviewed a couple other senior leaders, and also interviewed some of the external folks, as well as offered some guidance to the team doing the work. So will I ever see the results of that? That’s a little tough to say, but that leads me to what I’m doing now, and it’s evolving in real time. I guess something that I’ll say and it’ll probably be obvious, but anybody who takes a look at what I’m doing or hears this conversation is, I’m kind of making it up a bit as I go! Because I, and I think you as well, and many of the others I’ve heard on your podcast, we’re moving into a space that doesn’t exist yet. And so that’s exciting, but it’s also sometimes difficult to articulate. So I’ll do my best to say what it is I’m moving towards, which is staying in a corporate space. So I have a lot of expertise and experience across sectors: mining, oil and gas, tech, food, agriculture, manufacturing, automotive, apparel, construction, finance.
Manda: That’s everything, right?
Lorraine: Yeah. Most of the major industrial sectors, the ones that I haven’t gone super deep are pharma, I know enough to be dangerous, but it’s not an area I know a lot about, and a few other areas of course I don’t know that much about. But those others I’ve actually gone backstage, I’ve gone on site, I’ve gone into the facilities, into the field, into the boardroom in a few different cultures and languages. And so for better or worse, I have really deep expertise in ESG frameworks, reporting, investor dialogue, stakeholder engagement, and, and, and, and. And so what I’m doing now is repurposing that expertise with, I guess, two key layers. And the first one is to help decision makers within industry see how what they say their purpose is and what the company actually does, how it earns money, what it brings to the marketplace, how and if they are aligned. And I can say a bit more about that if it’s useful, but that gap right there is already a big starting point. And then there’s this other big gap that I’m helping folks see, which is, regardless of what you say your purpose is, let’s look at what you actually do and then let’s look at what we need. And what I believe we need is an industry where every entity, every company, every organisation is a force for healing that by dint of doing what it does, biodiversity is increased, human wellness improves, we are restoring and rewilding and rewelling ourselves. And at the moment that’s like, people spit their coffee out when I say that. Like, industry, a force for healing. That’s very silly. Lorraine.
Manda: Hang on a minute. Have you actually said this to people, you know, fairly high up the tree who would have the authority to make changes if they actually heard you?
Lorraine: Yeah, I have.
Manda: And once they finish clearing their coffee off their keyboard, does it sink in anywhere, or is it just a pure reflective? You might be talking to a mirror and it’s just bouncing straight off?
Lorraine: Yeah. It’s a really interesting question. I feel like the folks who find me, right, some beacon out there, some signals, some something that’s put them in front of me at their behest. They’ve come to me. They can more than hear me. In fact, they’ve already heard that they’ve their river told them, their forest, their grandmother. There’s something there. Like I know there’s something kind of strange here, but I haven’t been able to articulate it. What I’ve heard from that, let’s say that crew, is you are writing things down and saying things out loud that I’ve been thinking but didn’t know how to put in a sentence, and that: I’m actually getting goosebumps as I say that, because that for me is goosebumpworthy, where there’s that level of resonance like, oh, kind of making it up. But I’m also saying it on your behalf, and you’re helping me say it better, and I’m learning from you. That’s exciting when that happens. Typically those folks are fairly senior and yet within a structure where they’re like, I’m not sure what to do with this, right? Like, I see it, I know it, and I’m trying to find that way. And so I’m sort of sparring with them or connecting them with others. I do a lot of connecting, like, oh, have you met so-and-so? Did you know about this? And the other category, which is so far where I’ve often been plunked, and it’s not a nice feeling, I would say they’re not hearing it. And I have to be really honest. I can relate to that. I can think of things that I’ve been told over the years that I was either like, this person doesn’t know what they’re saying, or I’m already doing that, you know, like I’m not able to take it in. And I will say it often gets repurposed. So what I’ll hear is something like yes, yes, we’re we’re very committed to that. In fact, we are working towards our 20% operational emissions reductions by 2030. And you sort of think, okay, cool. It’s not industrial healing, but it’s better than increasing your emissions, you know?
Manda: Yeah. What you are probably doing is off-shoring them anyway. You haven’t probably reduced them. But anyway, that’s a whole different conversation. Okay, so if I were to ask you, because you clearly are connecting across a very broad spectrum of current industry and business, roughly what the percentages are between those who who get it but don’t know what to do, and those who just don’t get it. What would that be, do you think?
Lorraine: Yeah, that’s a tough one because it assumes that I get it, and I think there’s a lot that I still don’t get. So let me kind of answer a slightly different question, which is what percentage of us are on the receiving end of these decisions? And what I mean by that is even where I see some of the most deep getting it at a, let’s say, northern western corporate level. I still feel like it’s overly centred on the northern western results of our decisions. And I say this as a white settler sitting in Canada who grew up fairly middle class. The vast majority of humans and non-humans on the receiving end of these decisions are not northern, Western, white. So even the real ambitious, like, starting to get it and go: ah yeah, there’s whole new paradigms. It’s multiple paradigms in which we can perceive our needs, delivery mechanisms, call them businesses, call them the economy. Often those decisions are being made within the context of a fairly wealthy northern white universe and where I see incredible beacons of hope, and yet I think the numbers are small, but I think they’re only small because I’ve only been exposed to a small number. I suspect there’s a whole world so much bigger, but I just don’t know.
It’s coming from the global South. It’s coming from what I would describe as a fairly young female community, interconnected across countries. It’s not just like a couple of folks in Manilla, although there are a couple of folks in Manilla or in the Philippines doing some really cool things. And I think there’s this vast potential of knowledge and understanding and a kind of intellectual and spiritual empowerment that I’ve been kind of blind, deaf and dumb to. And as I’m open opening my mind to it, I realise, oh, that’s been there all along. And so for me, that’s why I’m giving a bit of a dodgy answer to what percentage? Because like, well, I’m only just waking up to what it is I’m moving towards. And so it’s tough for me to say how many are already there, but I suspect a lot more than I ever understood, it’s just nobody was asking them to drive, you know?
Manda: And that, I think that’s the key. We’ve got the metaphor of the bus that’s hurtling towards the edge of the cliff, and the old white blokes have got the wheel, and they’re only going to give it up to the young women in Manilla or whoever, if they realise that the cliff is there, and that stamping your foot on the gas is probably not the best idea. And this metaphor is going to fall apart very quickly. I hear you. And I was talking to Jennifer Hinton a couple of podcasts ago, and she’s a lovely woman who lives and works in Sweden, I’m going to say, and already I’ve forgotten. Anyway, Scandinavia somewhere. And her whole life’s work is not for profit. And how not for profit is a way of changing the nature of how we do business. Because it seems, she says, and it makes a lot of sense to me, that while shareholder value, that while your whole fiduciary duty is to return money to your shareholders, it doesn’t matter what you think or you tell everybody in your 750 page glossy manual that your ESGs are, actually you’re just there to make a profit.
Manda: And how you make it is… if you as CEO don’t make a good enough profit, they will replace you with somebody else who does. And all the rest is advertising, or making you feel fluffy and good. But, and it may well be that there’s huge amounts of things happening around the world, in the global South, and increasingly, I think in the global North, there are people at ground level doing astonishing things. But while the mega companies are the giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, the little fish on the outside are not going to get a look in. And so somehow you and I, mostly you, I think, because you’re in the right environment. They listen to you, I guess. How do we help the ones who have listened to the river, or the grandmother, or the tree, to change the nature of their companies and to connect up so that they are becoming the dominant paradigm within business. Does that sit better as a sensible question?
Lorraine: Yeah, it’s a beautiful question. And Manda, I wish I knew the answer. I feel like I know it on a cellular level. But I don’t know it on a linguistic or intellectual level, so I’ll try to explain it in some kind of human translatable way. First of all, I think the possible answer is: we’re not going to do that. I think it’s very possible that those behemoths will continue as they are until they keel over. Which they will inevitably. I mean, the math is blatant, right? The potential to continue as they are, we are, is limited. So they will end somehow.
Manda: It’d be nice if it didn’t end with the bus going over the cliff though. And at the current rate that seems the most likely. I listen to a podcast, Nate Higgins and Simon Michaud, which I sent to you. And whenever Nate Higgins would go, Yes, but you know, 20, 30, 40 years from now, Simon would go, No, complexity will solve that one. And what he meant was the bus will go over the cliff before we get there. So kind of finding a strategy where the bus doesn’t go over the cliff would be nice if we could. And it felt to me that that’s what you are doing with your new work. You’re shaping a new paradigm in that way.
Lorraine: Yeah. So I guess I accept that I can’t convince anyone of anything, and I don’t have – my job is not to convince, but more to invite. And so I openly invite anyone who will come along to join a way that is in service of Life, where by meeting my needs, I’m enabling the needs of others to be met, and my needs are able to be met because somebody else had his, her, their, all of our needs met. That is a coral reef, that is a forest, that is migratory birds in their flyways. That is how nature has done her amazing job of evolving over years. And I think we continue to evolve. We may go over a cliff, and I believe that even that over-cliff-going is an evolution. And so a couple of things I hold, and I promise I’ll come back to some people not going over the cliff. But a couple of things I hold to comfort me with the over-cliff-going. One is there are a lot of folks, including those in parts of the global South and past and other sort of cultural context who could say dudes, we went over that cliff hundreds of years ago. So sorry you’re just noticing the discomfort now. But I can tell you, because I’m still alive, that people survive and they get on with things and they evolve.
Lorraine: So part of me just plops to a place of humility, of like, Oh yeah, my world is maybe shifting. And where I’m going with that is around things like the effects of colonisation, of very exploitive industrial activity, the birth of the multinational corporation, et cetera. And I know you’re going to have smart things to say in response. Let me just give you the the other thing that I hold, is some will go off the cliff, but not all. And as some of this runs out and really very uncomfortable things happen as a result, other things are being built, other non-cliff-going pathways are being created. I don’t buy that we’ll build wings, we’ll just fly. There’s some pretty cool tech going on, but I’m definitely not counting on that. But some are turning around, some are stopping and reflecting and saying, wait, it’s not just that. And I think the ones who can’t or won’t, for whatever reason, it’s not my job to decide or judge. So I’ll try to focus where I can play a role. But before I get to that role and where I see that actually playing out, I’ll just pause because I know you had a thought there.
Manda: Yeah, yeah. I have so many thoughts. I’ll try and organise them. The one that floats closest to the top is: I completely hear you that the genocide of the North America is the South Americas, Australia, Africa. A lot of cultures have been destroyed by the dominant wetiko culture of our people. What hasn’t happened in the current iteration of humanity for the last several hundred thousand years is four degrees centigrade rise and more. I mean, we don’t know because we can’t map what will happen if we get there. I listened to somebody the other day pointing out that we know less than 1% of 1% of what’s actually happening in the climate, which is very humbling. But the 1% of the 1% that we do know is not looking good. And if we annihilate the oceans and tip ourselves into runaway global warming, even the people in the middle of the Amazon who’ve never really been hit by modernity, if there are any left that Bolsonaro hasn’t just dumped glyphosate all over them, then surviving that’s going to be hard. Anything with a pulse is going to find that hard.
Lorraine: Yeah. I don’t have a strong argument against that. And I don’t take that lightly. I think what you’re saying is true. So you’re hearing slowness in my voice because I feel like I’ve walked into this like impenetrable forcefield a number of times where it’s like, and business is designed to just keep doing that, right? Like, even though what I think you just said is true, and you’re not the only one saying it, right? And there’s other people articulating it in different ways, from different angles, and different languages, and different contexts. And still the world’s largest corporations are extracting for a profit. And if you look at the profits of the last two years, it is shocking. Like, well, many, many people, individuals, families, etc., suffered for all kinds of reasons. The bottom line of many companies is staggeringly up. So what happens to me when I go into that forcefield is I say I can either become completely debilitated with sort of existential dread, which doesn’t feel great.
Manda: And doesn’t help anybody.
Lorraine: Yeah, and I don’t mean to belittle it at all. I don’t mean to like, ‘don’t worry your pretty little head’. I mean, I have to find a way to keep swimming towards the plug so that I can unplug it. I have this visual, I’ve been drawing it. I’m a very mediocre artist. And so one day I want to find the mojo to really draw this. But I’ll describe it because I think it’s better spoken than drawing right now – where I straddle two worlds. And I am an archer. One world is this world of it’s how I understand Thrutopia, that we realign. We re-look after ourselves. We get to where we need to be with the help of our non-human support crew. And it’s a beautiful place. And I’ve got one foot or talent or whatever part of me there. And the other part of me is in that shiny towered world, that is the boardrooms at the top and very isolated from all that life and vividness. And I have my arrow pointed at the kind of power source. I don’t even want to call it the heart because that’s too alive. The power source, the On button that’s sort of glowing at the top of one of those towers. And my arrow is not a point of poison or violence. It’s a point of infection, of understanding, of awareness. If I could inoculate that power source with this power source, you know, isn’t Life just such a better power source? You know, then what would that be like? So I keep going in that forcefield with that arrow in my quiver because I feel like I’m there, you’re there. We’re all there. We’re born into that power source. And so I don’t have a better answer for that reality about climate and the ecosystem degradation and the species loss in it. And it crushes me. I’ve had very uncomfortable kind of personal fall down moments, like literally just holding it and falling down, and then realise, well, get back up. Keep going. Where is that power source? And inoculate it as best as I am able. So that’s how I hold that.
Manda: Thank you. Thank you. And I want to give a moment’s space to just honour your metaphor, which is beautiful. And the sense of that force field and the despair that it can inflict on us, and then the spark of the life that we’ve, I think both feel that gets us up. And while there is still a possibility of your arrow hitting that button and the world changing, then what else are we going to do but try? And if we fail, at least we tried our hardest. So. In the trying. I want to explore two things. I want to explore your run. Because it felt to me that that really was a big changing point in your life. But I got to know you before that, I think. And you had already set up Matereality and you were looking at one of the big software social media giants that you hadn’t worked with, and exploring what it would look like if it was actually the force for good that you were telling us about. And I heard today from somebody completely different that they were working with this giant software company to create bio regionalism in their area with the government of the state that they’re in, and that they really seem to be working towards actually trying to heal. And I wondered, really, I put my ears up a little and thought, had you hit their button, really? Basically had they somehow got to know what you’re doing? So do you want to tell us what it is that you were doing? And then let’s explore that, and then let’s have a look at running and where that took you.
Lorraine: Sure. And they’re, of course, connected as everything is. So materiality is already a word well used in the ESG consulting world. I just changed the spelling. I put reality into it. And let me explain a bit more about that just for a moment. I’ll dip us in the river of jargon, and then I’ll take us out and dry us off, because it’s not a very fun river to be in. A materiality assessment, if you were to go to pretty much any sustainability consulting firm and the Big Four, so the PWCs, these guys are all doing this now, you can kind of ring them up and say, I want to buy a Materiality Assessment. There are fairly received methodologies there. They all hover around the same idea, which is helping a company understand what its most material issues are, what matters to this company. And there’s a few reasons a company might want to do that. We’d like to think it’s because they want to know what matters, but it’s also because it really helps define their disclosures. And more and more, as various bodies, more legally oriented and more investor oriented, have started to require disclosure around lots of things: climate, but lots more, materiality assessment has become an important piece of that to say, Well, we conducted this type of assessment, it checks the boxes you all recognise. And so now we’re going to disclose around our most material issues. And that – in and of itself there’s nothing terribly wrong with that. But having been involved now in literally dozens of materiality assessments – and by the way, these are not cheap, so companies pay not necessarily me, I would be on a team with lots of folks, but these things can run, depending on how it’s being assessed, how many people are being interviewed, how many folks are involved, these are easily over 100,000 dollars. And depending on what else is going on, they may be significantly more. So this is not peanuts, right? And what do we get at the end of it? We get a chart, usually a two by two matrix or a list in a sustainability report with a list of issues like climate change, human rights, conflict, minerals, maybe obesity, or it depends on the industry, right? And we get disclosures around those issues.
Manda: And we still drive for a profit regardless.
Lorraine: Right. And honestly, I could humour an argument. No, no, Lorraine, we get more than that. But I’ve talked with peers in the space and they’re like, Yeah, that’s kind of the thing. So what is materiality when I spell it, and I swap out the I of the traditional spelling and I put in an E, it is a reality based assessment, and it’s seeking to do two things. One is look at: does this company belong in the future we want? So whatever its issues are, and let’s face it, we know the issues, we know what’s going on with climate change and agriculture. We know what’s going on with obesity and human health and fast food. You know, sure, we can always learn more. There’s always more details, but we know what the issues are. Knowing what those issues are, does this company, based on how it currently delivers into the marketplace, belong in the future we want? Well, that leads to a couple of interesting things. One is: what is the future we want? I know the future I want, but I’m just one little person. What do I know? What do other people want? And by the way, what do non people want – and want is, of course, a human construct. But what what does the Saint Lawrence River right near where I live, what does it want from a company like Google? This is all public. I made my assessments public for anybody to have a look at. And I – you know, I don’t know what the St Lawrence River wants, but I do know when we take a look at a company like Google, their stated purpose is to make the world’s data accessible to all people everywhere. That’s a really cool purpose, actually. I really like that purpose. And then when we look at how the company makes money, sometimes just referred to as their business model, the vast majority of the way they make money, which in 2021 which the data I was looking at earlier this year was I think 150 billion USD in revenue in one year. They made the vast majority of it from advertising.
Manda: Yeah, strange that, which is the selling of data to very specific people.
Lorraine: Right. And so in fact in making data, the world’s data, available – interesting things like, where is the St Lawrence River? That’s free, anybody can look at that. The company harvests of course data, and then sells it to advertisers and advertisers pay them. That is how they make money. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’ll stay neutral on that. I will simply say that is not making the world’s data accessible to people all the time, and it is not necessarily what the future wants unless we are advertising knowledge, right? Unless we’re advertising ways to look after one another, we’re advertising ways to feel better. But no, come on, let’s face it, we’re advertising black handbags and all kinds of silly nonsense. So Matereality seeks to ask, does this company belong in the future we want? And let’s keep this based in reality. Not ESG disclosures, not investor dialogue, but actual as much as I can perceive it and translate it objective reality in the ecosystems and the human societies in which we function. So that’s Matereality.
Manda: So let’s stay with Google as our model. A number of questions arise from that. First is, what is the world that you imagine that you want? I completely hear you that it might not be what everyone wants and it might not be what the more than human world wants. But what is it that you want?
Lorraine: Yeah, at a high level, the world I want is one where industry, for all its joyful innovation and complexity and delight and magic, serves Life. That it is truly normal and expected and delighted in, that by getting the food that I can eat and serve to my friends and family, I have enabled others to get food and feed their friends and family. By wrapping this scarf around my neck, I’ve enabled others to be warm and comfortable. That integrated, interconnected elegance that I see happening in the natural world and the human world as well, to me, that is the centrepiece of the future. Yeah, there’s details I could tack underneath that. But I will say in the Google assessment and the way I’ve approached Matereality, ever evolving, I kind of took the existing ESG methodology and I tinkered with it with my sort of imagination. So one of the ways that traditional, as it’s called, ESG materiality is conducted: we interview stakeholders. So what I did with my Matereality, my reality based materiality, is I interviewed stakeholders. And unlike traditional – so so get this, it’s actually kind of fascinating. People don’t realise, all that money being spent on materiality assessments – the only visible thing that – and I would love it if someone could show me an example where what I’m saying is not true, but all the ones I’ve been involved in and all the ones I’ve researched independently, the only visible, publicly visible element of materiality is a page, maybe a page and a half, in a report that basically says: We did an assessment, here’s a snapshot of the issues and maybe a bit more detail about the process itself.
But almost never do you see the names of people. You might see the types of people. You might see – we interviewed 180 people, but you don’t know who. And even in the very rare instance that you know some names of the people you don’t know who said what, you just get the conclusion. Here’s the answer. Human rights is the most important, and community engagement is a little bit below that. You have no idea what people said. So in my materiality assessments, I make the conversations open. You can read the transcript, you can watch the video, you can listen to the audio. There’s a couple of instances where, for certain reasons, it made sense to stay anonymous. No problem. You can still read the whole transcript. And each individual says where he or she – and in some cases there’s a few folks, in some cases there’s natural systems – so where they place the company in relation to the future we want. And so with Google, what I find really interesting is I’m just one person. I’m doing this because I can, nobody’s paying me to do it. So these are, as I mentioned, they’re normally very expensive assessments. For one little person to do it on her own is actually a lot of work. So I’ve been kind of constrained in how many interviews I can conduct and then process and produce into something people can participate in. But the Google ones, I think I had ten or 12 interviews, and if you look, two or three folks actually put Google in the ‘Yeah, they’re totally contributing to the future we want and here’s why.’ No, not way off the chart: ‘Yeah, these guys are it’ but definitely contributing. Whereas one person was like had them at the bottom. I use a matrix, I’m kind of winking at the old process, has at the bottom left, like these guys are the devil incarnate. They are the problem, the lowest of the low in terms of social and environmental.
And so I would offer that there’s a lot of room for complexity of interpretation. And when I asked in this instance, I asked the Atlantic Forest, the Mata Atlântica. I asked them via a human being named Ricardo Kardhim, who I can say because I know him quite well, he actually sort of is the forest. He’s human, but only temporarily. He’s very much a representative, he’s very unusual, wonderful gift to humanity. And he spoke on behalf of the Mata Atlântica, and he actually sort of role played. It was quite a beautiful thing. And I asked him, Mata Atlântica, what would you like from Google? And he had the most amazing things to say, absolutely beautiful. And he spoke quite positively of a lot of what Google is already doing, and the potential to do more of that. So it isn’t all death on a stick. You know, there’s a lot of really cool stuff already going on and a lot of infrastructure upon which to build that new way.
Manda: And has anyone at Google contacted you, and are you aware even have they looked at this? Because it sounded – my conversation today sounded like they were beginning to do some quite innovative stuff, but then who knows? And it may be that they were doing that anyway.
Lorraine: Yeah, I’m not aware that anybody has, but I should say, you know, I mentioned that metaphor of sort of straddling the worlds and pointing my arrow and trying to inoculate it. Well, whatever ends up being on the tip of that arrow, isn’t really mine, right? It’s like I’m just an aggregate and composite. And so whatever is brushing off on me, the spores of the world around me, is brushing off on others, too. So I would be very surprised to imagine that something I said or did specific to that assessment triggered a decision. Likewise TD Bank. So what I did on TD Bank was much more pointed and I actually ended up producing a sort of dramatically simplified video to explain the assessment, because sort of feedback from my peers here in the space who totally get it, they’re like, Oh my gosh, like I know what you did there, because they know the kinds of assessments we do.
Manda: Tell us more. What is it that they saw that we wouldn’t necessarily see because we’re not in the space? And tell us who TD Bank is.
Lorraine: Yeah, sure. Yeah. So TD Bank is one of Canada’s big five banks. We have a number of banks in Canada, but there’s kind of five big ones in their own, roughly the same size and roughly doing the same thing sustainability wise. TD Bank happens to be one that I’ve never worked for and which I’ve been a customer of since I was seven years old. So they seemed like a good one to kind of go, Hey, what’s going on there? What did my peers see – that anybody can see, by the way, it’s all public, but you’ve got to really want to click around in my crazy links – is the slide deck. So when regular consultants are hired to do a materiality assessment, there’s a kind of tadaa! at the end, like lots of consulting projects. Like here’s our deliverable, and our deliverable is a slide deck. And the slide deck says this is what stakeholders said, and these are the key trends, and here are your most material issues, and here’s why we think it, and we might humour them and call it a validation exercise, we want to know what the executives think. Maybe they’ll tweak it here and there and give some feedback. Basically, it’s a slide deck, and consultants are great at making beautiful slides. I have made, I have to say I’ve made some beautiful slides in my day.
Manda: You brought some beautiful slides to Thrutopia. I was most impressed.
Lorraine: Yes. Thank you. What I will say for my Matereality slides is, they’re hideous. I put almost no time into the slide development. I used Google slides, a little kind of meta wink, and I was like, I am not formatting these slides. I am putting the material here. I’m going to make it visible and digestible, but I’m not going to kill myself to make the slides beautiful because I’ve got to move on. I want to hear more perspective. I want other people to form their own opinions. I don’t want to funnel people’s brains into the beautiful church on this slide, but the feedback I got from my friends, including a lovely, super-talented ESG whiz who lives in the Channel Islands – Hey, Eva! – was like, Lorraine, this is great and I know what you’re doing, but the rest of the world can’t hear you. It’s too complicated. And she was absolutely right. So I took the TD one and I said, okay, I’m not going to kill myself making beautiful slides, but I’ll make similar slides. And I made a way easier deck that doesn’t have all the data, all the footnotes, all the compressed charts. And I did I think it’s about a ten minute video voiceover of very simple, very basic slides just saying, Hey in case you don’t know what’s going on here, this is what’s happening. And I got really good feedback like, Oh, that’s what Matereality is. My mom was like, Oh yes, I see now, thank you. Of course, also a TD customer and one of the stakeholders I interviewed for that project.
Manda: Yeah. When your mother gets it, you know you’ve got it right. Because always our harshest critics. Mine’s not around any more, so that’s fine. And have you heard TD Bank itself?
Lorraine: No. And you know, I’m realising maybe I need to be more gracious and reach out to companies before I say things publicly. I’m only using publicly available information and I’m only using their disclosures. So I’m not telling them things they don’t know, their legal counsel signed off on it. But I realise it is maybe a little bit pointy.
Manda: So expand on pointy. What does pointy mean?
Lorraine: Antagonistic. So I do feel like I’m being a little bit of a brat in the public square. And so I probably need to look for ways, because I don’t want notoriety. I want change, right? I don’t want to be known as that lady who did materiality assessments. Like, boy, that’s a great way to go to your grave! I want to have folks at TD and other decision makers in relation to the financial system say, Huh, right. You know that economist, she interviewed Mark Anielski, who’s talking about the Wellbeing Economy? I’ve heard about that, and I see that he’s implementing that in a few different bio regions, and he’s offering really specific guidance to our bank, and one of the other stakeholders being, huh, so I need to open up ways for that to happen. Maybe it is happening, of course not in every conversation, so not yet. And on the antagonistic thing, I know you and I have riffed a little back and forth. I have taken a slightly different tack in my most recent Matereality work, partly just for time. I’m doing a couple more assessments. I’m hoping to put a couple more full ones out there. But I did like a mini one on the company Scotts Miracle-Gro, and I wasn’t planning on doing that, but in a roundabout way, and it’s a long story that I’ll cut short here to say I learned that the chemical compound that inadvertently killed my compost worms is one that sold easy peasy retail environment Home Depot here that my landlady used to keep the mosquitoes at bay, which in and of itself I wouldn’t have been a fan of.
Lorraine: But the trail that led me on helped me see that this company, whose purpose is something like growing good things, their purpose to grow good things, or grow more good. It’s a lovely idea. Yes, let’s all grow more good. But what they actually do, the way they actually make their billions of dollars is by selling pest control substances. They are the only marketer of Roundup, which is glyphosate, for the United States and China. Just picture those farmers’ fields in your mind’s eye, if you will. That’s a lot of glyphosate. And they also recently heavily invested in the cannabis industry to the tune of $125 million. And so you know, again, I’m not to judge what is right or wrong, but I would say their stated purpose is quite different from how they are in their money, and is not working in service of Life, not of my life. Maybe in service of Roundup Ready Soy, but there are other lives I’d like to prioritise over Roundup Ready Soy. I haven’t heard from Jim Hagedorn. I did write a very directly worded letter to him because I was so upset about my compost worms like suiciding themselves trying to get out of the barn. I didn’t even know they’d been gassed, but I’m hoping someone will write me back or call me.
Manda: I did want to ask you about that. I will put that in the show notes because it’s one of the most direct, beautiful, fantastic – and actually, it invited this company to engage with you. You weren’t just standing in the town square screaming at them. You were going, okay, guys, I think we have a bit of a problem here, and maybe we could look at things a bit more deeply. And I’m incredibly sad, but not remotely surprised that none of them has come back to you. So in all of this, we have a person with a lot of experience in a lot of different companies, businesses, big businesses, and talking to people with salaries that you and I could not begin to approach, and gathering all that experience, stepping out, which I think strikes me as an incredibly brave thing, and trying to find ways to influence those. To be the archer. And you’ve talked a number of times about connecting with the more than human world. And I know you did a quite extraordinary run earlier this year or late last year. I can’t remember which.
Lorraine: About a year ago.
Manda: So tell us about your running, and particularly about f and how it helps you connect to the more than human world, because I think that’s really important in terms of who you are.
Lorraine: Sure. Yeah. So. I’ve been a distance runner for quite a while, I guess without really meaning to. I didn’t grow up particularly athletic. If you could see me sort of standing up, you’d think I’m a pretty average person. I’m by no means an elite or particularly athletic person, but I enjoyed getting around on foot. I like covering ground and just sort of seeing the world, making eye contact with it. And so I started distance running, and ran my first marathon in 1997, so going back quite a while. But it was super average. It took me over 4 hours. It was just fun. I enjoyed it, but not that exciting. And I continued to dabble with distance running until I lived in New York, which I did for ten years, the ten years prior to moving back to Canada in 2018. And New York is a great marathoning city. I mean, they have a great marathon, but they also have a great running culture. And I ended up teaming up with this great group that runs out of a shop called Urban Athletics on Madison Avenue. And that unlocked something in me, because I came to realise that not only could I train, and learn a lot, and become a more skilled runner. But we’re all capable of so much more than we’re doing. And let me just lock that in a little bit, because it’s more than like, oh, if you try hard at something, you can get better at it. Like, Yep. Okay. That kind of stands to reason.
But hang on now, Lorraine, you’re working with these companies. At this point, I’m still a fairly mainstream sustainability consultant, but I’m nibbling on the bars of my cage. I’m like, Wait, we’re still not, we’re not making the change. Look, what’s happening? Why aren’t these companies seeing the urgency, the ginormousness, and by the way, the opportunity of being so much more awesome? What’s in the way here? So here I am asking entities to reinvent themselves, to take on capacities and potential that they don’t really have a mandate to, and that not everybody’s asking them to, and that they maybe don’t even understand, because they’ve sort of never been there, done that. And as I’m bumping into this, I’m starting to really feel the forcefield. I’m running with an amazing group, from like couch potatoes who are just finding running to Olympic athletes. For real. Like either retired, or or qualifying, right? These are like real runners, poetry in motion, and everything in between. And I’m right in the middle of all that. So I start to realise we are worlds of potential, we are worlds of reinvention, and things we haven’t done before. So I invite myself to embrace that kind of paradigm shift. And I go from somebody who ran pretty slow marathons and had a fun time as a 20 something, to I take almost an hour off my marathon time 20 years later, which was really cool. That was a really fun accomplishment. But then I ran my fastest marathon in Chicago. I’m on my own. I sort of took myself there, got it done. And I’m walking to get lunch afterwards, and I’m really feeling good about the experience. I crushed my time goal. And I see a bat, a dead bat, at the foot of a skyscraper. And I realise this bat has struck the building. Because it’s early October, it’s migratory season, and these migratory birds and bats become – and I’ve known about this for a long time, I used to work at World Wildlife Fund, learned about bird strike and bat strike and whatnot in the mid nineties. But of course it continues, it continues apace to the tune of billions of animals a year. I think the numbers are starting to go down because the number of critters is going down. And I think, my God, you know, I’ve just taken an hour off my marathon time. I’m 46. I think I’m good stuff. And this bat and its buddies cover thousands of kilometres. And they navigate by the stars, and they do the most incredible things. You know, what else is possible that I haven’t even begun to realise? And so fast forward a bunch of years, because that leads me to just keep holding that question: like what else is possible? I go meandering, I do other things, I’ll spare you here.
And I’m now here in Montreal. I’m training for an ultramarathon, which is anything over a marathon. I was training for a particular one not far from here. That of course got cancelled, as lots of things did when COVID hit. But I just kept training. I just kept kind of doing bigger and bigger distances. And the punch line of this particular experience ended up being after a few rounds of single day training, like how much could I run in a given day? I learned I could run a lot in a given day, and I could start to put those days together. And I ran. I did a 255 kilometre run over five days. So that’s an average of over a marathon a day. I stayed with friends and amazing community members across that. So four different nights being hosted. A very dear friend of mine, the incredible Sarah Climenhaga, who some people might recognise as a mayoral candidate in Toronto right now, putting her name into the fray in spite of the what we know politics to be. And she offered months before she knew that I was kind of musing about doing a long trip of some sort going on foot, just kind of having a look around, She said, Can I help you? Can I bike beside you? And I was like, Wow. Well, that opens up all kinds of possibilities because then I don’t have to carry everything.
Lorraine: So anyway, she biked with me. We went for five days. And so to the nonhuman world, what I hear a lot of people saying about running or hiking or walking, which I deeply appreciate, is the chance to get out in nature. And I like nature. I like trees, I like paths. But the more I think about it and the more I have thought about it, the more I know everything is nature. And if we have to get out to it, we’ve got a problem. Everything ought to be it. And what isn’t feeling lovely to be in right now? Well, urban infrastructure can be a little much, bridge construction, etc. So I like to run through those urban infrastructure projects, those oil refineries and port lands, and to see, well, how does it all fit together, what goes on? And so those 255 kilometres comprised 14 river crossings, sometimes the same river at different points. Montreal is very… I live in Montreal and we’re surrounded by the Saint Lawrence and the Ottawa. I did indeed run through the old port lands, the new portlands, islands that are made of fill, right past the major oil refineries. People have no idea that a lot of oil goes between here and Texas. People just… and rail lines, and lots of bridges. I ran, and was welcomed into two different First Nations communities.
Lorraine: I have several friends in the Mohawk communities, Kahnawake and Kanesatake, welcomed onto people’s farms, welcomed into people’s homes. It was a really empowering experience from a bunch of angles, including reminding me as a regular mortal, not that special, an athlete with the right kind of prep and support and will, I am more than capable of running a marathon a day, back to back for five days. I had a great time. I hosted a dinner party at the other end for all my hosts, and I learned a great deal. And to bring us to Matereality, just to put a little bow on it, when I came in the door… I used to live in a different apartment than where I’m speaking to you from now. And I just knew. That moment, I opened the door to my home, and Sarah and I were getting home and I thought, I’m going to move, and I don’t take on any more ESG projects. It just landed on me. I hadn’t been asking, I wasn’t holding that question, Like when you walk a labyrinth or you’re sort of holding a question you’re trying to solve. But I’d been perhaps holding that question for the last few years. And so when I walked in, the question just answered itself. No more ESG projects that are not kind of driven by this sense of materiality that is based in reality. And so here I am now.
Manda: And you moved house and you didn’t take on any more. So having inspired us all to get out there and run, or at least walk, where is your life heading now, do you think? Because you’ve been forging a new path, it seems to me. Are there other people following you, or do you have an idea of of where next?
Lorraine: Yeah, I guess there’s a few people following me. My media page has gotten a little noisier in the last little while, which has been really encouraging. Mostly I find myself following others, and really seeking out those who can sense and feel what’s needed, and try to learn from them and share as much of what I find out as I can. So I guess where I’m headed, where I really feel the wind in my sails is doing as much as I can to tell the truth about industry as it is, with honesty, with respect, as it is, to those who make decisions, and to empower them to really recognise there is another way. It’s okay to recognise that, and to even want it and to lean towards it. And so I plan to just sort of keep telling that truth, keep inviting greater awareness of what that truth is in myself, I’m learning every second of every day. And inviting others to join in that conversation with me, in whatever way feels right and helps them to lean towards that. So I guess it’s a sort of journey of truth telling in the belly of big industry, or maybe in the – I joke in the duodenum, the sort of part of the intestine, because I’ve sort of been in the belly of the beast and I’m kind of getting pooped out. And so what happens is I get pooped out and tell that truth and compost into the next round of nutrient cycling.
Manda: Yeah, yeah. Moving past, I can imagine there’s a hepatic duct, there’s a pancreatic duct. You could get all kinds of interesting metaphors down there already. I’m thinking there’s so many things I want to ask you, Lorraine. There’s so many other ways we could have taken this, but I’m aware that we’ve basically hit our hour, and actually that that constantly learning, constantly connecting, it seems to me that if there is hope for humanity, and I think there still is, and hope for the more than human world, it’s this capacity to learn and share ideas in real time across very large distances, and with huge numbers of people simultaneously, that are going to make the difference. And you just nailed that. So I look forward to another podcast with you, because it feels that we’ve barely scratched the surface. But for now, if there was anything else you wanted to say to people listening, now is the time.
Lorraine: Well, firstly, just thank you again Manda for the opportunity for the conversation. I so appreciate the energy and ideas that you’re bringing into the world. And I guess my parting thought is just to keep inviting ways that we work in service of Life as opposed to the economy asking us to serve it. So how can that economy serve Life? A question I’ll keep asking and listen for the answers.
Manda: Thank you. That’s brilliant. And I have a cat purring quite loudly on my lap, and I can see yours on the window ledge behind you. So while we can still link cats across continents, the world is a good place. Lorraine Smith, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. That was fantastic.
So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Lorraine for all that she’s doing, for reaching out, for being the archer, trying to hit the button of the huge companies that are running and frequently ruining our world, with light and love and compassion and understanding, and a real grip of the depths of change that we need. It seems to me that the more each of us can hold these narratives, and make them part of who we are and the world that we live in, the harder it will be for the heads of industry, the captains of the universe, to continue to behave as if the damage they’re doing didn’t matter. Or alternatively, to give the ones who already understand the damage they’re doing the ability to pivot and start to be part of the solution instead. As somebody said recently, of being part of the precipitate. So if you too want to be part of the solution, please hold these conversations with all the people around you.
Manda: We never know the chance conversation in the queue for the bus, or at the supermarket, or with our weird uncle over Sunday lunch that will make a difference to so many more people. So we need to keep having them. We need to know what we want to say, and be able to say it clearly. But when we have people like Lorraine Smith to listen to and to read, that gets easier. So there we go, people. Head off and read the Medium posts. Read her website. And then go and have conversations out in the world. And then in our endeavour to make the world different also, we will be back next week with another conversation. In the meantime, thanks to Caro C for wrestling as ever with Intercontinental Sound and for the music at the head and foot. Thanks to Faith Tillery for the website and the conversations that keep us happening. Thanks to Anne Thomas for the transcripts. And as ever, huge thanks to you for listening. If you know of anybody else who has influence on the industries and work of the world, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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