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 were 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.
Fast forward exactly three years to the day (September 25, 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,” announced Jeffrey Sachs, renowned professor of economics and since 2017, special advisor to the UN Secretary General on the SDGs.
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 it’s destroying everything.”
Not only do markets not do social justice, they actually undermine any attempt to do so.
It is 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 voiced his own frustrations. In a reflective speech littered with questions seemingly directed as much to 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. It’s 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. The 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 businesses don’t know how to change. Besides, while pressure is indeed growing on businesses, there is still no real sense of urgency to change their mindset. Understanding this, Chassaude cut right to the heart of the matter: “We need to accelerate the activism of customers to focus minds.”
We need to accelerate the activism of customers to focus minds.
At the second 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, a dinner co-host and the CEO of neighbourly.com, an online giving platform, welcomed customer activism but added, “Businesses also need to do much more to educate their customers.”
Participants included senior representatives from M&S, Sodexo, The Climate Group, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, JCDecaux, Suntory, Santander, EDF Energy, British Airways, HSBC, Kering, and the University of Plymouth. Many shared Nick’s view that businesses should do more to educate their customers but the reality is that it’s tough to get airtime in cultures where one-eyed senior executives are totally consumed by achieving short-term financial targets. “It’s difficult for sustainability experts who tend to use complex technical language to explain things and on the other hand, it’s also tough for marketing and brand people who are easily cast as being ‘fluffy’ to get anywhere with decision makers.” Clearly, this was a familiar sentiment.
“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 on the floors of supermarkets, overnight banning of plastic straws and cups, plastics companies literally going bust—it’s 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 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; it’s 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 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published its report on October 8.
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 organize 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 it 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 accelerate a sustainable future.
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.
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.
Read an excerpt from Neil Gaught’s recent book, CORE: How a Single Organizing Idea can Change Business for Good on the Global Engagement Forum: Online.