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The Next 20 Years of Sustainable Business

The Next 20 Years of Sustainable Business

The Next 20 Years of Sustainable Business

by Aron Cramer, President and CEO, BSR (Business for Social Responsibility)

Twenty years after the Earth Summit in Rio, and in this BSR’s 20th anniversary year, we are both looking back and looking ahead. And as we reflect on the past 20 years, it seems that everything has changed…and nothing has changed. There are reasons to celebrate great achievements, but even more reasons to redouble efforts to achieve the tangible successes that are necessary to put the world on a genuinely sustainable path. Just recently there has been an unprecedented turnout by business and civil society at Rio+20, while at the same time the American Meteorological Society reports that freak heat waves in the US and fatal floods in Russia were likely caused by climate change.

Most businesses, and many other institutions, now recognize that we have in our hands the ability to create an economy that delivers dignified lives of comfort and opportunity for the 9 billion people we expect in 2050; an energy system that enables economic growth without irreversible climate change; and access to food, energy, water, and technology. Whether or not we turn this vision into reality is not just of interest to sustainability professionals, it is nothing less than the central challenge of the 21st century.

There are indeed many great accomplishments that have been achieved since 1992. As sustainability enters the mainstream, we see that hundreds of millions of people have escaped poverty in the past generation, something never before achieved in human history. Most large multinational companies and countless small and medium enterprises (SMEs) all across the world have embraced sustainability. Consumers, investors, and governments have vastly more information than ever before to enable them to assess how business is performing on sustainability, allowing rewards for the best performers. Collaboration and dialogue between business, NGOs, and community organizations, once taboo, is now considered basic. Technology’s ability to connect us has created a global community unprecedented in human history. And where companies once saw corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a risk mitigation exercise, more and more understand sustainability to be the mother of all innovation opportunities. All this is great cause for optimism.

And yet, there are many, many areas in which, twenty years after the initial Earth Summit, progress is insufficient. Our planet continues to warm, with carbon levels nearing 400 parts per million, dangerously close to the point at which irredeemable changes will occur. We need only consider the thousands of record high temperatures in the early summer of 2012 in North America, capping the hottest year on record in the United States, to make the point. The International Energy Agency, hardly an alarmist organization, now sees serious risk of catastrophic climate change. Deforestation proceeds. Progress towards the Millennium Development Goals is inconsistent. The number of water-stressed regions in the world grows annually. And our measures of economic vitality remain tied to unsustainable levels of natural resource consumption. Governments have largely abdicated responsibility to take concerted action to promote low-carbon economic growth, wilting in the face of the global financial crisis. This litany makes clear that, by many objective measures, progress is far too slow – at best.

Without a change in course, the remarkable rise in living standards that have enabled countless people to live lives of dignity will either be halted or reversed.

But with new thinking, innovation, and collaborative action, we can transform our world, and turn the vision of sustainable, prosperous lives for nine billion people into a reality.

Where We Need To Go

If we are to build on the successes of the last twenty years, we need to change course. The task ahead is no longer about defining the challenge; it is about meeting the challenge. We don’t need more roadmaps; we need to move faster towards the destination.

The path forward is fundamentally different than the one we have traveled over the past two decades. In the first decade after the original Earth Summit, the time when BSR was founded, the primary challenge was to raise awareness in the business community about why sustainability was a crucial and legitimate topic for the private sector. In the subsequent decade, energies were directed less to awareness raising, and more to the integration of social and environmental strategies into business strategy and operations. For the decade ahead, integration remains crucial. Companies have made great progress in the past two decades, and we have been proud to play a role in that. There is considerable room to go further, and we write about that elsewhere in this article.

But a new decade brings a new approach. More substantial progress, however, depends on change not only inside individual companies, but also within entire systems. The era of the hermetically sealed, vertically integrated company is long gone. Every business, in every part of the world, operates within a web of systems: economic, cultural, political, and natural. Every business in every part of the world relies on networks of suppliers, customers, and investors. Even the most innovative companies won’t capture the potential of their efforts if these systems disregard sustainability. And as much as we value best practices, we also know from the past two decades that even the most creative experiments and demonstration projects are not going to meet the scale of the challenge.

So the solutions we need to achieve our goals must also be systemic. A genuinely sustainable economy depends on four inter-related elements: (1) the operational systems in which companies act; (2) the markets that shape the way investments are made and value is defined; (3) the stakeholder world that holds great promise, and (4) the world of ever more empowered individuals and connected communities.

    •       Truly Integrated Business Models: Business decision-making does not currently integrate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors into investment calculations. Fifteen years after John Elkington popularized the triple bottom line, very few companies have actually integrated this model into their economic valuations. Whether or not financial markets change the game, there is an opportunity for companies to get smarter about the intangible assets that increasingly make or break their success. While some companies are experimenting with economic valuations that include elements like carbon, we have not yet seen widespread adoption of economic models that place a value on ecosystem services, community goodwill, or the risk of stranded assets. It is now widely agreed that these things have value; our task for the next decade is to get more precise about what the value is, and how to measure it. The Natural Capital Declaration that 57 companies signed at Rio+20 is a good start down this path.

    •       Financial Markets That Promote Long-Term Value: Despite the Great Recession, public markets focus as intensely as ever on short-term returns. Shares in publicly traded companies in the United States are held for an average of seven months, down from seven years two generations ago. Markets allocate capital with great effect, and the challenge ahead is to maintain the best aspects of market flexibility while reducing the relentless pressure of short-termism. Financial innovation, which was blamed for the crash in 2008, can also be parlayed into new mechanisms that help create long-term value. Integrated reporting, integration of non-financial risks and opportunities into definitions of fiduciary duty, the creation of “L shares” as proposed by Al Gore and David Blood, as well as other mechanisms will create a virtuous circle in which companies are rewarded for taking the long view, and investors are cushioned from the risks of excessive short-term thinking. And there is little doubt that there is also the need to restore trust in our financial system if the “real economy” is going to thrive.

    •       New Frontiers of Collaboration: The past 20 years introduced the concept of collaboration among companies and an increasingly powerful network of NGOs around the world. The next 20 years will see the lines between for-profit and not-for-profit organizations blur substantially. A world of dialogue between organizations defined by whether they are for-profit or non-profit may be drawing to a close. Can we imagine a world in which every enterprise is a social enterprise? A world in which every NGO thinks about market solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges? How will companies collaborate when every individual has a megaphone bigger than those available to the world’s biggest NGOs 20 years ago?

    •       The Empowered Individual: The next ten years will continue to put more and more information and autonomy into the hands of individuals and self-forming groups. The demise of business models relying on big businesses selling to passive mass audiences will accelerate. More and more information will be available to individuals. The “internet of things” and widespread sensors will make the invisible visible. Advances in biotechnology will provide quantum leaps in our understanding of how the world around us, and our choices as consumers and citizens, affects our health. These changes can – under the right circumstances – be a net positive for sustainability. And it is undeniably the case that companies will need to adapt to a world of truly radical transparency.

At BSR, we want to see a world with a truly inclusive economy that enables all people to meet their needs, shape their futures, and achieve their potential. We want to see a world that values and preserves natural resources so that future generations have the same – or better – opportunity to thrive. We see a world where economic health – for individuals and for nations and enterprises – is measured not by the quantity of consumption, but by the quality of life that economic activity delivers. And we want to see a world in which public policy and markets create the incentives and rules that make it possible for businesses that point in this direction to thrive. Companies that embrace this challenge will be the ones to achieve the greatest success…and the ones who create a world of which we can be proud.

The road ahead needs greater emphasis on systemic solutions like those I describe here. If real progress is made in these areas over the next twenty years, we will have done a great deal to accelerate… and will have more reasons to celebrate.

Article by Aron Cramer, President and CEO, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) (www.bsr.org ). Mr. Cramer is recognized globally as an authority on corporate responsibility by leaders in business and NGOs as well as by his peers in the field. He advises senior executives at BSR’s nearly 300 member companies and other global businesses, and is regularly featured as a speaker at major events and in a range of media outlets. Under his leadership, BSR has doubled its staff and significantly expanded its global presence. Mr. Cramer is co-author of the book Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-changing World, about the corporate responsibility strategies that drive business success. He joined BSR in 1995 as the founding director of its Business and Human Rights Program, and opened BSR’s Paris office in 2002, where he worked until assuming his current roles in 2004.

Previously he practiced law in San Francisco and worked as a journalist at ABC News in New York. He has expertise in integrating sustainability into business strategy, human rights policies and practices, and stakeholder engagement.

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