The time for business to act is now!

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Neil Gaught Published on October 8, 2018

On the 25th September 2015 in New York a document entitled Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was endorsed by the 193 countries of the UN General Assembly. The Agenda set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets covering a range of issues facing humanity including action on ending poverty, combating hunger, universally improving health and education, making our cities more sustainable, tackling climate change and protecting our oceans and forests. 

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals that came before them, the ambition and universality of the SGDs meant that every country on the planet, developed or developing, stands to benefit. Delivering on the goals we we’re assured by the authors of the agenda would create a fairer world, one where reduced poverty, improved health and better education would create greater wealth that would be more evenly distributed. 

Agenda 2030 and the SDG’s were touted as theopportunity for capitalism to change for good by doing good. 

Fast forward exactly three years to the day (September 25th 2018), in the very same city just a few blocks to the north and west from that milestone event. A small gathering on the fringe of Climate Week NYC co-hosted by French bank BNP Paribas and SparkNews’ fabulously well intentioned Positive Innovation Club are the recipients of some rather sobering views. “We’ve achieved almost nothing.” Jeffrey Sachs, renowned professor of economics and since 2017, special advisor to the UN Secretary General on the SDG’s announced. 

In an impassioned speech Sachs explained “Markets don’t do social justice”. Not only do markets not do social justice they actually undermine any attempt to do so. “We simply can’t help ourselves - we’re completely addicted to wealth and its destroying everything.” 

Its a bleak analysis and one that he wasn’t alone in sharing that evening. Before Sachs took to the floor Jean-Louise Chassaude, CEO of French utility multinational Suez, had vocalised his own frustrations. In a reflective speech littered with questions seemingly directed as much toward himself as anyone else, he rounded off with a stark assessment of the situation. “What do we do?” he asked, “How do we move from A to B? How do we close down our cash cows? Companies cannot and will not move alone. Its a simple question of supply and demand; if there is a need companies will meet it. They will not change.”

Intrepid pilot of the Solar Impulse Bertrand Piccardo was a little more optimistic. In his speech he offered up a whole range of examples of disruptive technologies that are changing the world for good. These breakthroughs he underlined were coming from businesses. “Businesses can understand that growth can be achieved in a sustainable manner and some can even see beyond the short-term when necessary but the argument needs to be logical not ecological to get them to change.” he said.

The real problem is simply that too many business don’t know how to change and besides while pressure is indeed growing on businesses there is still no real sense of urgency to change their mindset. Understanding this Chassaude made for me what was the most interesting comment of the evening “We need to accelerate the activism of customers to focus minds.” That the CEO of a major multinational corporation should make such a comment is quite remarkable. 

“We need to accelerate the activism of customers to focus minds.”

At the 2nd London Core Dinner Debate* hosted by my partners Innate Motion a couple of weeks later I asked the guests what they thought about Chassaude’s remark. Nick Davies, CEO of co-host neighbourly.com, an online giving platform, welcomed customer activism but hand in hand with that he said “businesses also need to do much more to educate their customers.”

Guests around the table included senior representatives from M&SSodexoThe Climate GroupGlobal Partnership for Sustainable DevelopmentJCDecauxSuntorySantanderEDF EnergyBritish AirwaysHSBCKering and the University of Plymouth. Many shared Nick’s view that businesses should do more to educate their customers but the reality is that its tough to get airtime in cultures where one-eyed senior executives are totally consumed by achieving short-term financial targets. “Its difficult for sustainability experts who tend to use complex technical language to explain things and on the other hand its also tough for marketing and brand people who are easily cast as being ‘fluffy’ to get anywhere with decision makers.” was a frustration clearly experienced by several around the table.

“What we need is more programs like David Attenborough’s BBC series ‘Blue Planet II’. We’ve been banging on about sustainability for 30 years and then suddenly this program comes from nowhere and the impact is instant. People leaving plastic packing ion the floors of supermarkets, overnight banning of plastic straws and cups, plastics companies literally going bust - its been remarkable.” said one guest.

“David Attenborough can capture the whole nation’s attention with his Blue Planet documentary and suddenly we have real momentum behind anti-plastic activism. Yet, the core message of the documentary”, argued one expert, “was actually about climate change itself.” She went on “How do we make this more visual? We have consistently been informed and educated about climate change; from geography at school, to news channels and reports. Why is it so hard to relate to? Why are we not fearful? How can we understand the urgency of these implications? Is it because climate change appears hypothetical, because we cannot see it for ourselves? What will it take for us to act?”

Several of the guests cited the progress that was being made in their supply chains. Growing consumer demand and persistent pressure has shifted the position of many companies from one of compliance to the wholehearted pursuit of a sustainable agenda. “When I look at what we have done in our supply chains I can see we are making real progress.” said one “New efficiencies, innovations, opportunities to collaborate, benefits for multiple stakeholders and enhanced reputation are all positives we can point to and talk about - but sustainability is not consistent across the entire business; its not joined up with our core business strategy.” 

At both the New York and London events there was a sense of frustration that I had not experienced quite so tangibly before. That frustration needs to change quickly into urgency was brought sharply into focus when the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), published its report on 8 October. 

"...but sustainability is not consistent across the entire business; its not joined up with our core business strategy.”

Businesses have the resources and are in a unique position within society to take the lead. We cannot wait or rely upon cautious, popularity seeking governments to make the right decisions quickly enough. It’s entirely possible for businesses to redefine their purpose just as Unilever has shown and organise themselves around a Single Organizing Idea (SOI®)** that will accelerate the opportunity for a sustainable future, both for themselves and their stakeholders. For some businesses this means making fine words of intent real. For others its means taking the good work they are already doing in their supply chains and applying the logic of sustainability across the rest of their business. But for most it means starting from scratch and identifying and defining a Single Organizing Idea that will. 

What the IPCC report makes clear more than anything else is that climate change is not the next generation’s issue. It’s ours and it’s our businesses that need to change by putting sustainability at their core. The time to act is now. 

*Core Dinner Debates and events have taken place in London (twice), New York, Washington, Montreal, Toronto, Auckland, Sydney, Copenhagen, Oslo and Beirut. Representatives from leading national and global ethics, human rights, NGO, academic, media, investors and sustainability organizations have debated with senior executives from over a 100 business including: IBM, Walmart, IKEA, Maersk, HP, Visa, Ørsted, MasterCard, Arla, Dell, Xero, Fransabank, Novo Nordisk, Centrica, Ipsos, Unilever, Pearson, Aviva, Pfizer, and Sumitomo.

** Single Organizing Idea (SOI®) is a management tool that makes purpose real. Identifying, defining and aligning your enterprise with a SOI® is proven way to define, align with and monitor the progress of a sustainable business strategy.

Neil Gaught is the author of CORE: How a Single Organizing Idea can Change Business for Good published by Routledge. CORE is available at Amazon and other stores in paperbackaudio and Kindle. In the USA you can find it here - paperbackaudio and Kindle.

CORE was a finalist at the 2018 Business Book Awards