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Can business save the planet?

Lindsay Clinton's picture

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Can business save the planet?

This year marks two especially significant milestones in sustainable development: the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the 25th anniversary of the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future.

How far have we come since the concept of sustainable development was elevated to the global policy agenda? To put it simply, not far enough....

 

The recent —and ongoing— financial crisis has made for a dramatic and challenging backdrop to the Rio+20 Summit to be held in June. The February 2012 UN report by the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, Resilient People, Resilient Planet, clearly points to actions governments should take at Rio+20. Key in our view is the role business will play.

By virtue of its own growing power and the corresponding decline in the ability of many governments to deliver various public goods, business is under rising pressure to lead efforts aimed at systems change. Furthermore, business has started to realize it cannot continue to deliver narrowly on the imperative of shareholder return without wider attention to the systemic conditions that determine and support its long-term success.

Signs of stress are apparent in many of the world’s largest economies. Recent social protests indicate disillusionment with prevailing political and economic systems, reflecting growing distrust in leaders of all stripes. The collective ire is linked to questions about sustainability and survivability.

Humanity is living beyond its natural means. We are in debt to future generations and to the Earth itself.

New Roadmap for Society

Through The Regeneration Project we believe we have the opportunity to create a new kind of roadmap for society –one that clearly marks the way forward for achieving sustainable development within the next generation, focusing on the role of the private sector.

Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, speaks of an ambitious roadmap called Plan B, an alternative to Plan A because “business as usual isn’t an option any longer.” Plan B entails cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2020 (notably 2020, not 2050, the more common yet distant target often associated with this level of emissions reduction), stabilizing population to not more than eight billion people, eradicating poverty, and restoring the economy’s natural support systems, like forests, soils, grasslands, aquifers and fisheries.

It is clear that we need an alternative vision for development—a plan that could pave the way towards what environmental activist and philosopher Vandana Shiva calls “a new kind of stability” characterized by “vibrant local economies based on biodiversity, active, living democracies and diverse cultures.”

Where does the private sector fit into this vision? At the 1992 Earth Summit, many in business were merely learning about sustainability challenges and often were not part of the conversation. When and if business took action in the ‘90s, it was often accused (and found guilty) of greenwashing.

Business as Key Player

Today, business is a key player. Bill Ford, Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company, explains, “The role of business in the broader agenda really has changed and I think for the better…if you think back 20 years ago, business was the enemy.”

Corporate leaders are beginning to take up the challenge to drive engines of change forward. According to the latest The Sustainability Survey by GlobeScan and SustainAbility, experts point to a new generation of companies leading the charge on the transition to sustainable development, including Unilever, GE, Interface, retail giant Marks & Spencer and Natura. These companies have not only integrated a comprehensive vision with strong performance but have also been able to effectively engage stakeholders in their vision.

The challenge ahead will be translating the vision of a few leading companies to the majority of business, which often lags behind. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), acknowledges this challenge. He said, “Our global economic discourse is premised constantly on competition and therefore conflict. We are talking about zero-sum games all the time and not about what we can gain from shared objectives.”

Twenty-first century businesses will have to be more cognizant of planetary limits, and also be willing to create new models that take into account biodiversity and natural resources.

The Regeneration Project aims to engage business leaders and key stakeholders across the world on the most pressing sustainable development questions and how they apply particularly to the private sector. We look forward to co-creating a roadmap that will indicate how business can contribute to creating resiliency and change in the years and decades ahead. We hope you will join us in the year ahead.

 

Lindsay Clinton is a Manager at SustainAbility in New York and a member of The Regeneration Project team. Throughout 2012, The Regeneration Project will explore the past, current and future state of sustainability leadership. Visit www.theregenerationproject.com.