My wife talks to her father in Cantonese. He replies to her in Mandarin. It’s how they’ve communicated since she was a small girl.

My father-in-law grew up in Taiwan under Japanese rule, so he speaks fluent Japanese on top of his native Mandarin. Because his eldest daughter studied in Japan, the two of them also converse in Japanese when my North American brother-in-law’s around.

He studied in Japan, too. If you throw in my mother-in-law’s Indonesian, our family conversations are a bowl of tangled noodles. At first it looks like a mess, but in the end it’s pretty fine.

Alec Ross, author of a new book titled The Industries of the Future, thinks the days of sitting around in phonemic fogs like ours are numbered. Within ten years, he says, earpieces will be whispering simultaneous translations into our ears.

According to Mr. Ross, machine translation is about to steamroll the language barrier separating us all, accelerating the “world’s growing interconnectedness” to open up new economic opportunities.

I hope he’s right. Yet when I think about my wife’s family, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really our uncommon tongues that keep people apart.

Take conversations on supply chain sustainability in the apparel and textiles industry.

After a quarter-of-a-century, many brands and retailers are still dealing with more or less the same problems we’d identified twenty-five years ago.

In general, things are not as bad as they were. It used to be there were hardly any decent factories.

But now there are hundreds with exemplary practices in the responsible management of water, energy, waste and chemicals. And hundreds more are closing in fast on these sustainability leaders.

I say ‘in general’ because at the other end of the spectrum it’s not a rosy picture.

The question here is not so much why these factories exist, but how to account for the difference between, say, a Rana Plaza and the top two or three hundred standouts globally.

The answer has a lot to do with world views.

For owners of the best factories, being sustainable makes sense in the context of how they see the world. They aren’t doing it because it’s forced on them by brands. They’re not trying to bilk auditors.

They’re doing things well because it’s makes rational business sense.

There’s a chasm between brands and factories. Not always, but a lot of the time. It doesn’t exist because one side speaks Chinese or Bengali and the other side speaks English or French. It’s not a vocabulary gap. The divide exists because people with different world views talk right past each other.

Mr. Ross’s whispering ear might help us to understand what someone else is saying. But it’s not necessarily going to help us see eye to eye.

For that, you could do worse than emulate my wife and her family who speak multiple languages but share a common world view.

(Image, Ryan McGuireCC0

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