Sustainable Business After the 2016 U.S. Election

November 11, 2016
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

The U.S. presidential election has delivered a political earthquake that will change our political, economic, and cultural landscape, in Washington, D.C., and far beyond.

For many of us, this is deeply unsettling. Quite apart from partisan political views, we have seen a disturbing level of disrespect for people, science, and rights. In the United States, too many of our fellow citizens feel a personal sense of vulnerability. And as I travel in Europe this week, there is also a strong sense that the United States cannot be relied upon in a way that many have taken for granted. This is heartbreaking.

For all of us working to advance sustainable business, it would be easy to turn inward, feel defeated, or express anger. But our mission is too important to take that approach. In fact, our task now is to redouble our efforts. This is a moment to stand up and be counted.

But where do we start? Let’s face up to what we know for sure. Trump the campaigner made clear his opposition to climate action, recent trade agreements, and open borders. He also made several statements causing alarm in the United States and elsewhere about women, people of color, immigrants, and human rights more generally. One can hope that Trump the president will take a different approach.

As we know well, hope is not a strategy, and neither is anger.

Our agenda is too important to drop. As this new world emerges, four actions should shape our strategy:

  • Raise the voice of business to reinforce the principles and values we stand for. Business can have an influential role in promoting a more respectful civil discourse. We have already seen calls for respect for institutions from the National Association of Manufacturers, and more such calls for civility and equal treatment of all our fellow citizens are badly needed. Many businesses have stood up for immigrants, women, marriage equality, and the Black Lives Matter movement this year. And in the aftermath of the election, many CEOs have called publicly for a more civil discourse, such as PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, who said: “The first thing we have to do is assure everyone living in the United States that they are safe.” These examples provide a powerful counter to the comments that caused concern during the election, and will help return our discourse to a more constructive tone.
  • Influence the new American government to embrace climate action, inclusive economic growth, and the fair and respectful treatment of all people. The debate is over in most companies: It is well understood that the future of business is a sustainable one. The government that will take office in January needs to hear this in loud and clear tones from the business world. The business community should publicly reinforce its view that building a climate-smart economy is inevitable and irreversible, that it is an unparalleled opportunity for innovation, and that any American government that thinks otherwise is handicapping its economy and its peoples’ future. It should also make clear that climate skeptics have no place in the U.S. government. Businesses also know that rolling back the social safety net will create economic uncertainty that will hinder, not help, the economy, and must come to grips with calls for living wages and ensure that innovative sharing-economy models foster inclusive growth. 
  • Reshape the sustainable business agenda to promote inclusive economic growth: It is also true that the election represented a cry from large numbers of Americans who feel that their futures are bleak and that the existing system does not work for them. All across the world, there is a need to develop 21st-century strategies to ensure that all can participate in the economy and sustain themselves and their families. In the United States, it is clear that more attention to inclusive economic growth is both a political and economic necessity, and this should be a more explicit part of the sustainability agenda. This means more attention to maintaining quality employment in an era of automation, addressing income inequality, and facing up to the fact that the public views business as neglecting the public interest for turbo-charged private interest.
  • Promote the kind of business innovation and leadership that will build a 21st-century economy that works for all. Finally, let us remember that sustainability is one of the main drivers of innovation. This is something that does not have to wait for government action. Examples are everywhere. The shift to low-carbon business models is happening, often from the bottom up. Many businesses are reformulating their products to enable healthy lifestyles. New technology platforms have the potential to open new markets and enable excluded populations to access products and services. Innovators won’t be deterred by the election, and they demonstrate a different—and positive—example of where the economy can go.

BSR is committed to continuing our efforts to promote human rights, climate action, inclusive economic growth, and women’s empowerment. These are our core programmatic commitments, but they also reflect our sense of purpose and the values we have stood for throughout our nearly 25-year history. We will share more thoughts and plans in the weeks ahead about how we plan to respond to the challenge before us.

This week’s election means that our work is more important than ever, and yes, also more difficult. I know that our member companies and our many partners from civil society and the public sector remain committed to our vision of a just and sustainable world.

Together, we will make it a reality. We have it within our power to make history, not only for the next four years, but for decades to come. We most certainly do not intend to stop now. 

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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