Learning from others to share innovations and world views is an important pathway to achieving sustainability. The basic premise is that when people know more about sustainability, they will act to achieve sustainability. Such learning can be about what sustainability is, or the impact of their current actions, or innovations or alternative actions that can minimize negative impacts. In this blog post, we demonstrate that we are often constrained in our ability to act on what we learn, and indeed in our ability to learn in ways that really lead to sustainability.
In this recent paper, we look at how opportunities for learning are created in the German Textiles Partnership. The partnership is a collection of governmental, private sector and civil society actors (130 members) who are learning together to try to improve sustainability in the textiles sector. The textiles sector in Europe needs drastic reform to address its huge environmental and social impact. The partnership recognizes the need for reform, and seeks to achieve it through member road maps to sustainability, and by influencing production processes. The focus is on mutual support and learning to identify and create these conditions of change.
In the paper, we did research with the members of the partnership to understand the opportunities to learn and create such conditions. We explored how structures were created to allow learning across the partnership, using a mixture of interviews and documentary reviews. We used social network analysis to explore who was collaborating with whom, for what purpose, and discourse analysis to understand the quality of learning and perceived barriers and opportunities.
We found that learning was meaningful to participants, and many felt that their practices and attitudes were changing in response. In particular, the partnership created opportunities to challenge each other. However, there were also limits to the learning spaces being created. In this large partnership, formal structures were created that lead to efficient decision making, but in the process limited the opportunity for discussion, constructive conflict and deeper learning. In particular, the civil society actors had deeper engagement than many of the market actors, despite the greater numbers of market actors. In essence, there was a tension between the need to get things done, and the need to think deeply about transformations in the textiles sector. We link such tensions into the voluntary nature of the partnership, and the large and diverse demands on the participants time and priorities.
We can see from our example that the market actors are limited in their ability to learn about sustainability by their position as market actors – time is limited, they must find efficient solutions. There is not space to meaningfully engage with deeper learning about what sustainability is, and the role of the textiles sector within it, nor to act on such knowledge. Within these constraints they are therefore unlikely to be able to question the deeper market logic (e.g. high levels of consumption) that shapes their activities. And if they are, it is not possible to act on it – indeed this would be an act of self-destruction. Learning is therefore limited to be learning about innovations and actions within existing (unsustainable) systems. There is a limit to what we can expect such market-led activities to contribute to sustainability.
We should, therefore, be adding more nuance to which actors need to be engaged in what kind of learning. These are questions of power and of understanding systems:
- What is the power and position of engaged actors within the system?
- How does this shape their opportunities to learn and act on what they learn?
- Which actors can shape the broader system logic so that the innovations of market actors actually deliver meaningful outcomes?