Sustainability and the future of Business at Globe Forum Dublin 2010

This session was in my view one of the most encouraging and inspiring during Globe Forum Dublin as it indicated that Business is changing how it thinks about sustainability. Notions of Corporate Social Responsibility have been around for a long time now but only recently has a paradigm shift begun to take place. Sustainability, has in the past been seen as very much as part of a reactive strategy and as part of serving a niche market, preserving corporate reputation or as part of a risk mitigation plan.

Many of the actions taken by businesses using such a perspective have been seen largely as ‘greenwash’. This is where companies seek to capitalise on the positive connotations of being seen as environmentally and socially responsible without actually doing very much. Examples abound from early carbon offsetting efforts through to ‘green’ marketing campaigns that did not alter any of the underlying business practices.

Peter Lacy Head of the Sustainability Practice at Accenture in Europe painted a different picture as he presented the results of a recently conducted study of top (Fortune 500) CEOs. In the study design, Accenture were careful not to choose companies that had already made a strong and visible commitment to sustainability such as the Body Shop. Instead they selected companies that represented a broad group of sectors across a wide geography. The results, for all of us who want to see faster change towards sustainability were encouraging.

The origin of the CEO study is in itself interesting. The study was commissioned by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon as part of a strategy for better understanding the shifting attitudes of CEOs towards sustainability as part of developing and gaining renewed support for the UN Global Compact, which was itself a significant milestone in achieving corporate buy-in to sustainability.

Perhaps the most astounding finding was that 93% of all CEOs (including some from mining and other extractive industries) saw sustainability as RESHAPING their business. This is significant because business leaders see sustainability and sustainable innovation as a key driver for future business growth. Sustainability then is no longer an add-on or a varnish to gain a few extra sales or prevent a Greenpeace protest, but instead is becoming central to their business development strategies. For more detailed information on the study and the perspectives of CEOs you can visit the study website here

It is crucial that businesses recognise sustainability as the scale of the challenge is huge as pointed out by Peter Lacy. In order to keep mean global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (which is no guarantee of avoiding severe impacts) while accounting for expected economic growth and carbon emissions growth, particularly in developing countries, companies alone must achieve a 7 and a half times increase in efficiency in every product and service.

As Peter Lacy pointed out, there is a widespread recognition that the only sustainable growth is decarbonised growth, any other type will surely kill itself. To wrap this up I would draw your attention to a TED presentation featuring the head of WWF sharing ways i which companies can move beyond carbon reductions and contribution to the preservation and nurturing of biodiversity which is becoming ever more threatened globally:

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