30/30 Vision:

Looking Back, Moving Forward

By Denise Delaney

Shame about the past, concern for our future and particularly the way technology parses the human experience – were common undertones of conversations we recently had with our network marking our 30th anniversary.

Read on to reflect on the last 30 years and the next, informing our call to action to business.

How far we’ve come

The last 30 years have been quite a ride – from business becoming aware it was having environmental and social impacts, not all of them good, to actually taking on an often proactive role and delivering social value. One individual recalled raising issues of human rights with the senior management of a major global company just a couple of decades before and being laughed at; now they lead supply chain management in their sector.

Barring collective amnesia, that countries aligned on the Paris Agreement – and companies are getting on board – is a singular achievement of the last 30 years. In Gary Kendall’s words, “As much as we can criticize it, never before had there been an inclusive global treaty on climate change. We probably won’t appreciate it for another 25 or 30 years.” The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and technology enabling global connectivity, globalisation are all also monumental, we are not sure what their ultimate impact will be as the failure of neoliberalism crystalizes and we worry about artificial intelligence and what technology does to our minds.

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Things have moved from implausible to inevitable and only briefly pausing at possible.
Gary Kendall, Nedbank & SustainAbility alumni

It hasn’t all been positive. We had to lose rainforest and untold species before we started to even think about changing. Some of it persists today. Many echoed this sentiment, but Hendrik-Jan Laseur of Lead the Change put it best: “The notion of taking an internal combustion propelled car into a city centre, prioritising cars over people and children and polluting the air – we will look back and think, ‘How could we find this acceptable?’”

A call to action

Some people we spoke to feel that some improvements are foregone conclusions, particularly that we will be a zero-carbon society, human rights will be fully respected in value chains, and we will overcome inequality. On the contrary. Nothing is certain. On the one hand, we see rapid progress on decarbonisation, but what happens if we stop pushing? Will we fall short? The decisions we make – as individuals and organisations – matter. Below are some of the key actions business can take to help secure our future.

Making good choices in an era of rapid change: In such a time, we must consider the consequences of our decisions, which we failed to do in the past, and choose wisely.

There is no question that the energy transition will be profound, but we “need to deep dive on the consequences of the energy transition on job creation, taxes paid, business models, and new relationships between end users and companies providing energy services,” insists Clarissa Lins, Catavento & SustainAbility Council.

Globalisation shifted many economies from manufacturing to services, wreaking social havoc along the way. Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) casts similar threats. Can business shift gears to thinking about how they can positively influence the changes and consequences to come? We must leverage change with care.

Girl with Robot

A little girl, making friends with a robot in Osaka, Japan. Image © Andy Kelly via Unsplash

The choices we make on technology will shape our future. Some suggest all companies are becoming technology companies to some extent, and there is a strong sense that any online business is looking at bytes of data rather than people. More broadly, there is a feeling that there are likely to be two or three major technology transformations we do not even have sight of yet. And yet, we should not wait for technology to bail us out of disaster. We could also do a lot better to wield the technology we have today for good. Our cities are becoming smarter, but is that smartness and technology serving the communities within them? Could automation or AI further concentrate wealth into the hands of the few?

Tipping the balance on inequality: Inequality – in the broadest sense encompassing gender, race, socio-economic status, etc. – was top of mind for many.

We know closing these gaps is critical, with benefits for individuals, communities, communities of consumers and commercial value. “We have yet to have real conversations in the corporate responsibility or business community about poverty and the profound lack of equal access to resources and opportunity,” admits Rob Frederick, Brown-Forman Corporation. “One of the next big challenges for corporations may lie in questions of social equity if the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. The future of liberal capitalism as the organizing principle of even developed countries is at risk if middle classes continue to disappear and under classes feels left out by the capitalist system,” warns Neil Golightly, Shell/City of Houston & SustainAbility Council. Where and when will the tipping point hit on inequality, as it has with decarbonisation?

Merene Botsio of Care International summed it up well: “Women’s economic and political participation is no longer a fuzzy concept, but a genuine and demonstrated bonus for communities, businesses and nations.” From addressing pay gap, gender based violence, women in leadership and a whole host of other issues, progress is underway. And for all the distance we’ve travelled on gender, there are still shocking challenges. From endemic sexual harassment and assault across industries and institutions coming to light each day to rights many take for granted only now being opened to women, such as driving in Saudi Arabia.

Protestors at Me Too March

Demonstrators participate in the #MeToo Survivors' March. Image © PA Images

Advocating for good: Robert Barrington of Transparency International frames it nicely: “Governments and citizens need to create environment so that it’s in business interest genuinely to act sustainably and responsibly. Most corporate lobbying is very narrow. Business should be saying: ‘This is what we need from society for us to act sustainably.’”

There are also myriad causes that business can take on that can benefit their business – and society. “We would like to see them [business] lobby for more paid parental leave and implementing it themselves. The more time parents of either sex can spend with their child in the early years, the better for the child,” shares Patrin Watanatada of the Bernard van Leer Foundation and SustainAbility alum. Policy matters, and many strong policies have worked. And we have many challenges yet: for all the frameworks and institutions we have to protect against bribery and corruption, it still plagues business and society.

Direction of travel: Imperfect though they may be, there is wide agreement that the SDGs are the right starting point, a clear vision of the future we want, bringing broader notions of fairness, equity and accessibility to the fore. When it comes to the corporate role, some see it quite simply: business opportunity – that is, if your products and services benefit society. If they don’t, your business model must change. We may have been too focused on how business operates and not on what they do, and there is a sense among some that entire sectors of the economy may need to radically transform or ultimately die off.

While many companies have been busy aligning or mapping the goals, there is a sense of a lack of rigour. “We are not seeing enough of a holistic approach being taken to the SDGs. We need to be more demanding about how both companies and investment firms use the SDGs,” advises Seb Beloe of WHEB Asset Management.

Big business would do well to bring other businesses along with them, too. As Mike Barry of M&S puts it, “We need to be humble about creating a narrative for the SDGs that millions of companies can get involved in – SDGs are not in the language to engage the millions.”

Human terms: It may sound trite, but people are at the heart of what we do and why. It is also part of technological shifts. Bianca R. G. Conde of Fibria noted, “Others have made this point, but it bears repeating: Anything that cannot be digitized or automated will become extremely valuable.” Ethics, emotion, intuition, imagination, creativity will become really important. Several people spoke about the power of organisational and human behaviour as the key ingredient to drive change, as well as the intrapreneur. Merene Botsio of Care International put it simply, “Why am I here, what have I done, and who have I touched?” Can business think in ‘human’ terms? What mark does a business want to leave on the world?

How individuals make decisions remains important. “Consumers will understand the value of their spending and realise they vote for the world they want every time they open their wallet,” says Diane Osgood.

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How is it that there is an island of plastic in the ocean? How is it that we let things get so bad, and focus on the issues only when they become catastrophic?
Kavita Prakash-Mani, WWF & SustainAbility alumni

What we missed

Before we rush to deliver on the future, what did we not see coming? Not the turmoil in many of our societies and political systems that few individuals, if any, could truly foresee. For all the positive change of the last 30 years and the promise of the SDGs – for the most part, anyway – many in the sustainability community are aware that collectively we missed the signals on some issues. While no single industry or silo can be responsible for detecting all the issues that might threaten our shared future, and it would be arrogant to suggest we would, the field is often seen to be the canary in the coalmine.

But our network cites the limitations of this readily, acknowledging the specific crises of plastics in the ocean, microfibers in our drinking water and diesel emissions scandal. “How is it that there is an island of plastic in the ocean? How is it that we let things get so bad, and focus on the issues only when they become catastrophic?” asked Kavita Prakash-Mani, WWF and SustainAbility alum.

We need to think holistically to avoid future mishaps. "We should be careful of blindly driving circularity without critically questioning the sustainability of it. For instance, recycled content can be good as long as the product itself is recyclable, and that we aren't having substantial impacts in transporting recycled materials long distances,” suggests Anthony Abbotts of Rockwool.

For all our connection, too, we are still disconnected: Jeanne-Marie Gesher, author of Becoming China: The Story Behind the State, put it well: “How did we end up with a debate on climate change? Silos in our knowledge. I think it is critical that we find a way to address the fabric of our world rather than just its silos.”

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We can best help by raising the level of ambition in business: challenging them but also supporting them to commit to the equivalent of putting a man on the moon.
Geoff Lye, SustainAbility alumni & Non-executive Director

Where does this leave us?

Our network suggests that the field, and SustainAbility specifically, can draw strength from working at the intersection of civil society and corporations. Our network suggested that the term “sustainability” – which was a blessing when it was new and open to be defined in 1987 and has become ubiquitous, meaning at times everything and nothing in 2017 – has often been used to describe concepts that people do not understand. If so, there is an opportunity to do so much more – to decipher, bridge spheres and link stakeholders towards understanding and action for the shared future we want.

SustainAbility Council member Jeanne-Marie Gescher generously suggests that “SustainAbility holds a very special place, between the fixed world of systems and the imperative of a different way of thinking.” For that, we at least at SustainAbility, are proud of our first 30 years. We remain committed to our tagline “making the future the cause of our present:” driving social change for good, understanding where markets are going, anticipating changes and playing a constructive role. What can we do? Geoff Lye, SustainAbility alum and Lead Non-executive Director, “I’m a great believer in human endeavour and achievement – and it’s in proportion to the ambition. We can best help by raising the level of ambition in business: challenging them but also supporting them to commit to the equivalent of putting a man on the moon.” Join us.


With thanks to our contributors...

Anthony Abbotts Rockwool
Robert Barrington Transparency International UK
Mike Barry Marks & Spencer
Seb Beloe WHEB Asset Management, SustainAbility Council & alumni
Chris Benjamin PG&E
Merene Botsio Care International
Lindsay Clinton Intellecap & SustainAbility alumni
Bianca R. G. Conde Fibria Celulose S/A
Chris Coulter GlobeScan & SustainAbility Council
Maggie de Pree The Human Agency, League of Intrapreneurs & SustainAbility alumni
Rob Frederick Brown-Forman Corporation
Jeanne-Marie Gescher author of Becoming China: The Story Behind the State & SustainAbility Council
Niel Golightly Shell/City of Houston & SustainAbility Council
Eva Grambye Danish Institute for Human Rights
Gary Kendall Nedbank & SustainAbility Council & alumni
Geoff Kendall Future-Fit Business Benchmark & SustainAbility alumni
Janice Lao Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels
Hendrik-Jan Laseur Lead the Change & SustainAbility Council
Clarissa Lins Catavento & SustainAbility Council
Geoff Lye SustainAbility Non-Executive Director & alumni
Hiro Motoki E-Square
Diane Osgood independent
Kavita Prakash-Mani WWF, SustainAbility Council & alumni
John Schaetzl SustainAbility Lead Non-Executive Director
Koann Skrzyniarz Sustainable Brands
Lorraine Smith independent & SustainAbility alumni
Shankar Venkateswaran independent & SustainAbility alumni
Dominic Vergine ARM
Patrin Watanatada Bernard van Leer Foundation & SustainAbility alumni
Peter Zollinger Globalance Bank, SustainAbility Council & alumni

About the author

Denise Delaney

@delaneydenise

Denise is a Director in London leading sustainability strategy and engagement projects and tracking international development. She thrives on her work, travel, and reading and writing fiction.