Last Friday, I spent some time away from my desk to join the Nordic ‘digilogue’ event A Sustainable Tomorrow in a hub generously hosted by Storebrand at Stockholm’s iconic museum Fotografiska. Nothing in our beautiful and serene surroundings suggested it, but, given the theme of this year’s conference – ‘Disruption’ – it was only fitting, perhaps, that the event itself would experience a dose of its own prescribed medicine.
For the most part, the tenth edition of the digilogue unfolded smoothly enough. Sure, we were all shaken by the revelations about more transgressed planetary boundaries presented by Professor Rockström. Later, we were dazed by the futuristic visions of a brilliantly eloquent entrepreneur, Märtha Rehnberg. Then came the shocking juxtaposition of a soft-spoken, down-to-earth former Prime Minister Reinfeldt and a relentless celebrity activist, Linnéa Claeson. Not to mention the unsettling spoken-word poetry that punctuated the proceedings.
However, it wasn’t until the very end that true disruption took centre stage. Traditionally, the event would culminate by announcing the worthy winner of A Sustainable Prize. Established in 2017, this accolade honours a person, company, or organisation that has prominently contributed to the year’s focal area. The award, a bespoke bronze sculpture by Agneta Gynning, is a coveted symbol of recognition.
This year, the organisers had chosen to commend the youth-led group Aurora for their audacious endeavour to disrupt the status quo in Sweden. You may recall the class action lawsuit filed as Anton Foley vs. the Swedish state last November, holding the government accountable for “not treating the climate crisis as a crisis.”
At first, Aurora’s representative in her playful Pippi Longstocking ensemble blended seamlessly with the rest of the colour-coordinated participants, matching the SDG rainbow1. That is, until she graciously declined the prize. Live on stage, mind you, before an audience reportedly exceeding 20,000 viewers and the visibly astonished initiative founder. As it turned out, Aurora’s young activists had scrutinised the event’s partner organisations and concluded that the sponsors’ good intentions for a sustainable tomorrow were not reflected well enough in their overall activities and investments. Accepting the prize would, thus, amount to greenwashing, according to them. Hence, a polite but resolute decline.
You can imagine the disruptive effect this announcement had on the mood of the audience. Should we applaud the kids’ integrity or be irked by their insolence? And if they refuse to play along, what does that imply for the rest of us, gathered in our snug hub? Are we all unwittingly complicit in greenwashing? Or is this simply a well-orchestrated publicity manoeuvre by Aurora?
For a week now, I have been trying to shake off the uncomfortable feeling. Were the young rebels justified in rebuffing the award? Or were they overly harsh, delivering such a collective slap in the face to all the organisations behind the initiative?
Browsing through the list of partners, none of them strikes me as a blatant greenwasher. It is a medley of companies and organisations spanning various sectors and industries, demonstrating a commitment to advancing the SDGs. Among them, I spot a global player in renewable energy, a Scandinavian specialist in climate and sustainability reporting, and a couple of asset owners and managers renowned for their leadership in responsible investing.
But then it catches my eye: one of the partners behind A Sustainable Tomorrow happens to be none other than Sweden’s Government Office. Suddenly, it all makes sense. After all, Aurora is presently in litigation against the Swedish state, represented by the government, for not taking sufficient action. Granted, the optics of accepting a prize backed, even indirectly, by the enemy are not that great. Case closed.
Yet, the ethical conundrum lingers…
1. By the way, last year, the prize was awarded to Jakob Trollbäck, the main architect of the visual identity and the language of the 17 UN Global Goals launched in 2015. ↩