This has been a remarkable year politically. When looking at Brexit, the U.S. presidential election, the ongoing refugee crisis, and crackdowns by some governments on civil society, it is clear that faith in Western political institutions, globalization, and our future is dangerously low.
This landscape contrasts starkly with the exhilarating promise of 2015’s big achievements: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. This year’s developments send a loud and clear message that the values underpinning the global goals reflected in the SDGs and the Paris climate win are far from a consensus view.
During the UN General Assembly and Climate Week in New York last week, it was painfully clear that all of us working to achieve the vision of the Paris Agreement and the SDGs are living in a bubble. The latest version of “An Inconvenient Truth” is that many of our fellow citizens are ignorant of, or downright hostile to, some of the ideas that the sustainability community embraces every day.
Given this sobering backdrop, it’s time to confront a number of truths as we work to continue our path to progress. First, many in the United States and Europe have lost faith in belief that global trade is advancing social, economic, and environmental progress for all. We see ongoing stagnation and suffering in the aftermath of the financial crisis that erupted in 2008. It is also clear that many people feel increasingly marginalized, as our economies and societies experience profound change. Technology delights us but is also leading to a future that often seems to present more threats than benefits. And our societies continue to suffer with the long human tendency to fear the “other,” whether a Syrian refugee, a transgender colleague, or a newly arrived family speaking little English.
Second, many people are deeply skeptical of whether business is genuinely committed to an economy that works for all. For many people, corporate commitments to sustainability are not taken seriously in the context of an ongoing stream of missteps and scandals.
And finally, many struggle with a system in which there is a mismatch between local reference points, global forces driving the world forward, and national governance structures. Case in point: The fact that extreme poverty is falling sharply worldwide provides no comfort to people whose future is threatened by global economic shifts. Many of these factors have manifested themselves in a political environment that seems increasingly wary of connected societies, openness to diversity and tolerance, and global viewpoints. These fears, if they go unchecked, risk erasing the very real gains that we have made over the past 50 years and risk a turn inward that could create a vicious cycle in which our differences are seen as a liability, not as assets that enable our societies to thrive.
The best way to protect against a darker future is to recommit to the core values that underpin the drive for a just and sustainable world.
- Basic economic fairness and opportunity are necessary to maintain public support for open markets and societies. It is no coincidence that rising income inequality has coincided with a loss of faith in globalization.
- All people, regardless of their personal characteristics or economic status, deserve an opportunity to participate in and benefit from economic activity, and all people and communities are entitled to respect.
- Environmental sustainability is required to ensure human progress and security, and these ideas must be considered together. A thriving environment is necessary for humanity to thrive.
- Innovation is essential to human progress, yet it will be welcome only where it takes into account the impact innovation has on people, communities, and the environment.
- Business should engage constructively with public policymakers to advance the social and environmental progress required for long-term economic progress. To do so credibly, business also needs to be transparent about engaging with and funding political activities.
Business holds the key to many aspects of sustainability. In fact, business innovation has been a crucial factor in the unprecedented human progress we have experienced over the past few decades.
Companies and their leaders have an important role to play in upholding these principles, in word and in deed. They also need to recognize that the private sector continues to be seen by many as part of the problem, due to chronic issues such as short-term thinking, excessive executive pay, and recurring ethics scandals. The private sector will be viewed as a legitimate and respected driver of progress only if business backs up its commitments with action and with a recognition of what is not working.
There are big lessons here for all of us who work to advance sustainability. Let us remember that the goal of sustainable business is not to produce sustainability reports, write codes of conduct, or score well on sustainability indices. It is to make a real difference in peoples’ lives, preserve the natural resources we need to thrive, and catalyze business innovation. BSR is strongly committed to these principles. They underline our commitment to working with business to achieve truly inclusive economic growth within the natural boundaries of the planet.
The final few months of 2015 produced two powerful visions for our shared future. Those visions are now at risk. We should redouble our efforts in the final few months of 2016 to articulate why we believe what we do; to restate, every day, the core principles that motivate us; and to ensure our actions stay true to our principles.
If we do this, the powerful vision of 2015 will become a reality. And if we don’t, we risk allowing a much darker vision to triumph, creating poor outcomes for business and society. We have in our hands the opportunity to achieve great things. Our principles remind us both how and why we do what we do.