It’s time for the next wave of the sustainability revolution, says Sally Uren
February 2011. Central London. The CEO of a major multinational takes the stage in front of over 1,000 senior people from business and NGOs, to give a compelling presentation about how his organisation is dealing with its direct sustainability impacts. Proof surely that sustainability is now mainstreamed in business? Indeed, this is impressive stuff: a sign of how seriously business leaders now take sustainability.
So, we can all relax. The top guys get it.
Well, not quite. The CEO mentioned above unwittingly went on to offer the audience much more accurate coordinates for where his business is on its journey towards sustainability. When someone piped up with that supremely inconvenient question about whether he saw the company's sustainability programme ever prompting the business to rethink its growth strategy, back came the answer very quickly: "No".
According to many, we are currently witnessing the next industrial revolution – the one where business puts sustainability at the heart of its operations. If this is a revolution, then most businesses are still in the first wave of change. They see sustainability through the lens of their organisational goals. Which is why the question around what constitutes sustainable economic growth is so difficult.
There are far fewer examples of organisations who have upgraded their lens on sustainability to take a wider view – a systems view. One in which they begin to look at the broader, indirect impacts of their business on both society and the planet. This is the next wave of the revolution. And it needs to happen soon.
It's all very well to see squillions of businesses with carbon reduction targets, tweaking the sustainability credentials of their goods and services. But if we are producing more and more stuff, which is only slightly more sustainable, then on aggregate, it's likely that carbon emissions will keep rising and key resources will either run low, or run out. Frustratingly, many businesses still insist on using 'normalised' targets – to reduce carbon or water intensity per volume of sales – instead of absolute targets. So the impact per product may be less, but they're selling more.
For me, the next wave of this sustainability revolution must be characterised by a fundamental shift in perspective from 'my business' to 'our world'. The question changes from 'How can we reduce our impacts?' to 'What is our role in a sustainable future?' It's a much harder question to answer, but one that can't be avoided for very much longer.
Sally Uren is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future.