The statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett located in central London stands as a record of the enduring fight for equal human rights.

Editorial: Emergence of Progress Amongst Failure

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If there is one issue that connects the current sustainability agenda to the past, it is surely human rights. The struggle to understand, deliver and protect rights can be traced throughout history.

Slavery and the abolishment of the slave trade in 1838 is often cited as an example of how a powerful drumbeat, initially orchestrated by a handful of campaigners, can become an unstoppable force for change. Yet, despite the abolishment of slavery and all the protections put into law since, there are more people in slavery and forced labor today than at any time in the past.

A sense of failure would be understandable but mistaken. There have been successes, notwithstanding the scale of opposition and challenges. Fifteen years ago, most multinationals didn’t know where supplier factories were even located, let alone the conditions of those working in them. Supply chains were opaque at best — hidden from view. Pressure on corporates, particularly in the sports and apparel sectors, began a process of disclosure and transparency led by some far-sighted individuals at Nike and GAP, to name but two. Now, the levels of transparency are high enough for end-to-end tracing of products back to factories and farms. And this transparency is only going to increase as technologies are further embraced.

Yet, if we look at the list of SustainAbility’s trends published just before I joined the organization in 2012, they could be easily mistaken for current:

  • “Tipping points” to transform national energy policy
  • The global food agenda and its necessary transformation
  • The supply chain comes out of the shadows
  • Great expectations: The Arab Spring and the role of tech companies
  • Capitalism questioned

Only the Arab Spring marks its place in time, although the influence of tech remains a concern. In fact, these topics beg the question as to what progress, if any, we have made.

But, frankly, now is not the time to give up. A sense of failure is incredibly disempowering and leads to near-certain future failure.  There has been change. Awareness of and responses to the climate crisis are gathering pace. Two years ago Greta Thunberg was unknown and Extinction Rebellion was little more than an idea. The very first mention of “net zero” in the London Financial Times was in 2014. Now, net zero is common currency. Consumers are responding, with veganism on the rise. And, of course, the plastics issue has hit center stage.

As the Danes say, “predictions are difficult, especially when looking at the future” but what might lie ahead? We marked SustainAbility’s 30th anniversary (2017) with a look back at how the world has developed and where we might be in 2047. More immediately and personally I hope, even expect, that the momentum that is gathering on climate in the consumer, business, financial, technical and regulatory worlds will become mutually reinforcing leading to a massive and systemic shift towards net zero.

This is my last editorial for Radar and I write it at a time when the world is in an incredible state of flux. My deep fears include the possibility that the current geopolitical tensions characterized by trade wars are exacerbated by the climate crisis. We desperately need coordinated international action, but it is more than possible that much needed carbon pricing and taxation becomes another tool in global power plays by “strongman leaders.” I am also concerned that the near-inevitable failure to achieve Extinction Rebellion’s commitment to net zero by 2025 will lead to a large cohort of young people disengaging rather strengthening their commitment which is what we need most.

All around us the old world and the neo-liberal consensus is breaking down. As Gramsci said: “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. I believe the new can be born, we are starting to see the possibility of a full reset of the system that is needed to support a sustainable economy. That possibility is greater than ever before but so too are the risks and consequences of failure.