Sustainability Frames of Reference in New Economies

February 10, 2012
  • Guy Morgan

    Former Director, Advisory Services, BSR

We all know there is no “one size fits all” approach to corporate sustainability. Management of sustainability is a function of local market dynamics, socioeconomic conditions, national history, and cultural contexts, among other factors. Indeed, the frames of reference for sustainability are dramatically different around the world.

As the Brazilian, Chinese, and Indian economies roar, and those in the West falter, it is interesting to consider the different frames of reference for sustainability in these new economic epicenters, and how these may engender a new approach to sustainable development.

BSR is exploring the factors shaping the future of sustainability in these economies for a research project sponsored by Novo Nordisk. Our aim is to understand the implications for both “home-grown” and multinational corporations. Although we are at the early stage of research (we’ll produce a detailed report later this year), we have learned some key distinctions about these countries:

Approach to collaboration: For a number of years, multistakeholder collaboration, partnership, and engagement have based in decidedly “Western” approaches to sustainability. Is the same true in Brazil, China, and India, where the roles of government, civil society, and business are very different? Are we going to see new models of collaboration to ensure that sustainability risks are mitigated and new business opportunities captured in these markets? One of the experts we interviewed predicts that, in India, multistakeholder collaboration will never follow a standard template. “It’s too plural and diverse,” she said. She believes many different types of collaborative initiatives may form instead—public-public, private-private, or private-public.

The importance of values: In his seminal book Good to Great, Jim Collins writes that those companies with strong values will endure over the long run and be successful. What if those values transcend the corporation and are embodied in the social fabric in which it operates? Is this an important frame of reference for sustainability in Brazil, China, and India? In China, for example, the government has been pushing for the creation of a “harmonious society” as its development strategy for a number of years, and this ideal seems to be resonating throughout the country. In India, an anticorruption movement has been gathering momentum and, for some, represents evidence of India’s innate spirit of equity that may, over the long term, enable the country to embrace equitable, green growth.

Joined-up thinking: In the West, companies like to label individual social, environmental, and governance challenges as a way to get to grips with the management of sustainability. Given the rapid growth, scale, and interconnectedness of sustainability challenges in Brazil, China, and India, will companies take a more “joined-up” approach to issues in these markets? For example, in Brazil, companies are devising solution sets that, at their core, seek to create new public policies and which are, consequently, cross-sectoral and scalable from their inception. Will it become the norm for companies operating in these markets to think big and recognize the multilayered nature of sustainability challenges and their solutions?

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