October 24, 2014

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Sharing a Common Fate: Why Is It So Hard To Be A Good Neighbor?

With complex global supply chains making it difficult to know where products originate, and the conditions under which they are produced, becoming a good neighbor has, ironically, become a game of hide and seek.

John_friedman

By John Friedman

The analogy of ‘Your Backyard is My Frontyard’ personalizes the concept of a Shared Fate because the idea of being a responsible neighbor is simple and understandable, and yet it remains difficult for people to change their way of thinking – and living.

Geography Is Not The Problem - Nor The Solution

Some argue that distance and geography make it difficult for people to see – and, therefore, understand and modify their behavior – because of the repercussions on people (or the planet) thousands of miles away, assuming that the evidence of one’s own eyes is enough to gain understanding.

Sadly, the adage ‘good fences make good neighbors’ is a troubling one for me, because it seems to advocate the idea of separation, rather than cooperation, as the key to good relations between neighbors. But neither the Berlin Wall nor the Israeli West Bank Barrier has promoted better understanding between those on either side.

In fact, for me, good fences are only necessary when one has given up on being a neighbor and is instead seeking to create an artificial barrier to overcome differences made more troubling by misunderstandings, mistrust and working to artificially create distance.

We Don’t Always Get Along With Our Neighbors

We don’t live in ‘Mr. Rogers’ world where everyone knows and gets along with their neighbors. In fact, neighborsstories about feuding neighbors are a staple in history, from the Hatfields and McCoy’s feud right through to YouTube videos showing people treating each other incredibly badly (often over the smallest of disagreements).

We Don’t Always Know Our Neighbors

There is a difference between living in a community and living in a neighborhood. Today the idea of spontaneous get-togethers seems as quaint and archaic as a pick-up game of kickball in the cul-de-sac.

Today, we shuttle our children to organized sporting events and arrange ‘play dates’ because our children have schedules that are nearly as busy as a day full of meetings for the parents. I have friends who refer to the people across the street as that – the people across the street. They are cordial and wave when they see each other, of course, but there is no deeper connection.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Of course, taking care of our neighbors means we have to know when companies are doing things that we think are ‘wrong’ and making the decision to vote with our wallets.

To make matters difficult, most companies live their values quietly. Most consumers have no way of knowing, for example, where companies source their products unless or until something dramatic happens – such as factory fires in Bangladesh. When they do ‘stand up’ – like Chick-fil-A’s Dan Kathy – they open themselves up to consumer backlash (or the rare support). These individuals and organizations make it easy for people to make purchasing decisions based on values but they remain few and far between.

Then the market can decide.

With complex global supply chains making it increasingly difficult to know where products originate, and the conditions under which they are produced, becoming a good neighbor has, ironically, become a game of hide and seek.

For instance, after Nike ran into problems with its factories, it implemented strong programs to ensure Take a bite out of crimethat its overseas factories met international standards as well as stakeholder expectations. More recently, the discovery of horsemeat in what was packaged as beef pointed out just how complex it can be to trace products back to their source(s) when you don’t own the entire supply chain.

Information Is Not Enough To Drive Change

Confused?

I believe – and several organizational change and adult learning models confirm – that information is necessary but not sufficient to drive change.

A quick example: News stories connecting Apple supplier Foxconn with deplorable working conditions received a great deal of attention but were not enough to discourage consumers from their desire for the latest i-Musthave devices.

That is because even when people know the facts, they need to understand how their actions relate to the situation and believe that what they do matters before they can be mobilized to act. This approach, called the K-U-B-A model explains the success of anti-litter campaigns (every litter bit helps), crime prevention (take a bite out of crime) and patently false but effective “only YOU can prevent forest fires.” Each of these campaigns sought to convince the individual that their actions make a difference and matter by overcoming the  ‘it doesn’t matter what I do because the problem is so large’ mindset.

Put another way – think locally to act globally.

And that's where the argument started.

‘Your Backyard is My Frontyard’ is an effort to personalize complex global issues and help people understand that their actions, no matter how small, contribute to the overall fate that we all share. Like putting starfish washed up on the shore after a storm back into the ocean, no one person can save them all.

But if each of us saved those within our reach, we would not only save them all, we’d save us all as well.

_______________________

Part II: Redefining What It Means to Be a Good Environmental, Social and Economic Neighbor

Part I: Your Backyard is My Front Yard: Bidding Adieu to Insularity

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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