3 Important Lessons Sustainable Leaders can learn from the Renaissance

Sometimes, YouTube can be an absolute lifesaver.
When people ask me what I think about unfamiliar subjects such as out-there political theories, literary masterpieces that I probably should have read but haven’t, or the artistic works of Johannes Vermeer and his attempt to bring glamour to everyday menial actions (true story), I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really have an educated opinion about them. Instead, to not seem quite as uncultured as I actually am, I’ll generally watch a brief 5 to 10-minute video on YouTube on the subject to get the gist.
So, in preparation for a holiday to Rome later this year and to formulate some basic knowledge about the city’s rich culture, I decided to gel up on my knowledge of the Renaissance. This involved paying yet another visit to The School of Life’s YouTube Channel. These guys do an amazing job of taking important historical ideas and events and translating them for modern-day audiences and clueless individuals such as myself. If you’re like me and need an overview of complex subjects which you have a very limited understanding of, I can’t recommend these people enough.
While watching the video and listening to the core ideas behind the historical period, I was surprised to find some similarities between the lofty goals of the Renaissance’s great thinkers and those of us who are trying to instigate some sustainable change throughout our spheres of influence. No – I’m not subtly trying to compare myself and fellow change agents to the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, but I do believe the delivery methods of the period’s ideals can teach us important lessons on how to better ourselves, and the planet at the same time.
On that note, here is an undeniably amateur translation of what the Renaissance’s goals can teach those of us working in sustainability:

1. Present a vision for the world that inspires others to follow your lead

Beauty. Truth. Wisdom.
These were the ideals that Lorenzo de’ Medici, one of the Renaissance’s most famous financial figures and most important patrons, wanted to promote to inspire others. As the leader of The Medici Bank, a prominent financial institution in Europe during the 15th Century, Lorenzo helped to secure philanthropic funding for some of the period’s greatest philosophers, architects and artists. Under his guidance, Lorenzo directed these artisans to create beautiful, inspiring works that focused on his vision for society; changing the Italian peninsula forever.
For individuals looking to create their own sustainable renaissance, filled with circular economic principles and all things environmentally friendly, one of the most important attributes to have is a compelling vision for the future. Ensuring organisations develop an authentic purpose that drives positive sustainability impacts is critical, but without an empowering vision that encourages employees and customers alike to aspire towards greater sustainability performance, the scale and impact of initiatives will always be greatly reduced.
The comprehensive vision Lorenzo had was arguably the main driver responsible for the Renaissance. Although it’s estimated that the Medici spent roughly $500 million USD in today’s wealth, the reason the Renaissance is so iconic to us now is because of the desire to make philanthropic efforts to promote philosophical values.
Considering the world’s economy is currently valued to be around about the $86 trillion USD mark, it’s fair to say that the potential availability of finance for sustainable measures isn’t the issue. It seems to me that what’s lacking is a shortage of inspiring, sustainable visions that mobilise the right people into action.
…without an empowering vision that encourages employees and customers alike to aspire towards greater sustainability performance, the scale and impact of initiatives will always be greatly reduced.

2. Develop creative examples of your vision based on systematic evidence

In case you’re wondering, the building in the banner image is The Duomo, Florence’s iconic cathedral.
Built in early 15th century, there’s no denying that it’s a staggeringly beautiful building. When you compare it to some of the buildings that are being erected around London at the moment, it really does put our 21st-century construction efforts to shame. If you’re like me and you’re also a complete layman when it comes to architecture, you’ll be looking at the shape and design of the building and wondering “how the @#$% did they build this?!”.
The truth is that everyone from artists and architects to philosophers and politicians from this period had a good deal of material to learn from and apply towards their goals for beautiful cities and wise societies. The Renaissance, meaning ‘rebirth’ in French, was a revival of Ancient Greek and Roman ideas and examples that came before. From the specific dimensions of a Corinthian column to Epicurean thoughts on how to live a rich and peaceful life, key Renaissance figures were on a philosophical mission to conduct research into systematised Classical ideas that had worked in the past, and apply their inspiration into practice, with artistic works and urban planning.
While it’s perhaps a little unfair to compare your average business strategy to a Renaissance masterpiece, there are some practical lessons we can take away from the period. When it comes to designing a sustainability action plan, build credibility into your plan by ensuring practical consistency with benchmarks from leading sustainability leaders in the industry, as well as adhering with recommendations from the globe’s scientific communities and recognised sustainability organisations.
Granted, your action plan may not be as stunning as a painting by Raphael, but with a little effort, your consistency and progression against key sustainability targets might just cause some inspiration for the next generation.
Align your organisation’s efforts with proven methods to improve sustainability performance by:
  • aligning objectives with those of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs);
  • tracking and measuring progress with climate science metrics such as science-based targets; and
  • ensuring transparent communications through standardised reporting systems.
  • 3. Harness the power of advertising to make behaviours more attractive and desirable

    Beautiful stuff sells.
    All marketers and advertisers know this very well. When it comes to marketing a particular product, service or belief, if you can make it irresistibly desirable, chances are you’ll have a line of people wanting to buy into whatever you’re selling.
    It might surprise you to learn, but the Renaissance artists were arguably some of the best advertisers ever to have existed.
    Famous masters like Botticelli and Michelangelo made their works in the service of the Renaissance’s core ideas and intellectual ambitions. By making stunningly creative works of art that depicted honourable and desirable qualities, they utilised beautiful imagery to make people want to instinctively aspire towards imitating the characteristics promoted. Through this innovative combination of advertising and philosophy, the Renaissance’s great masterpieces helped to translate beneficial ways to live one’s life into a beautiful format.
    When it comes to advertising sustainable values, the world has much to learn from these master promoters – sorry, painters. To truly captivate the world’s interest and desire to address our highly materialistic and damaging lifestyles, we need to make sustainable alternatives attractive enough to encourage people to change. Where the conversation around sustainability usually reverberates around ’climate catastrophes’ and ‘inhospitable environments for humans’, we need to reframe the focus and highlight the exciting and realisable future that sustainable development presents us with.
    I’m not saying that companies and other organisations should paint a lovely picture of their brand’s poor attempt at self-improvement and distract stakeholders from the lack of tangible and meaningful sustainability efforts that their implementing. Far from it. The threat of climate change is very real, and no one is disputing that half measures, shown sexily, will be enough to deliver the impacts we need.
    What I am saying, is that to encourage the radical shift in our unsustainable behaviours, we need to use the incredible power of marketing and advertising to showcase examples that are for the good of the planet and that also aspire others around us to become economically, environmentally and socially virtuous.
    To truly captivate the world’s interest and desire to address our highly materialistic and damaging lifestyles, we need to make sustainable alternatives attractive enough to encourage people to change.

    Recreating our own Renaissance

    So, there you have it. Through a little bit of philosophical plagiarism and subliminal messaging, the Renaissance brought about one of the most creative and celebrated periods in human history. By recreating some of the period’s approaches to promoting desirable behaviours, there’s no reason why our generation can be responsible for the latest inspiring chapter in our history:
    The Sustainable Renaissance.
    The Sustainance…
    The Sustainassance…
    The Sustainabilassiance?
    You get the idea.
    If you’re interested in learning more about the time period, take a look at The School of Life’s video on The Renaissance, available here.

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    Pete Snow | Co-Founder and Head of Strategy
    Pete’s passion for all things green and eco-friendly has driven his work with sustainability projects; with focuses ranging from turtles to turnover. With a background in international environmental policy and diverse experience within the corporate sustainability field, Pete is OMBRA’s lead strategist and loves it when a plan comes together.
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