Seldom has there been a year in which all aspects of sustainable development have had more mainstream attention. This was absolutely clear in New York late last month when Climate Week, the UN General Assembly, the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and countless other efforts dominated the attention of heads of state, CEOs, and NGOs from every corner of the world.
This is great reason for optimism. The “forcing function” of the climate negotiations in Paris late this year at COP21 have catalyzed dozens of commitments on climate, and the arrival of the SDGs is having a similar impact on companies’ commitments to sustainable development.
The business world is moving far more aggressively on climate and development than it did at the time of COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, or the launch of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. And not only are these big events occurring, but we appear to be at a moment when the private sector is truly moving more rapidly toward a just and sustainable world.
Examples were evident everywhere in New York. BSR is a proud founder of the We Mean Business coalition, which has catalyzed more than 500 new commitments from businesses and investors on everything from using 100 percent renewable energy, to science-based climate targets, to policy advocacy for climate action at local, national, and global levels. We welcomed new commitments at the UN’s Private Sector Forum on the SDGs, from Facebook’s announcements about connecting people who most badly need it (such as those in refugee camps), to Gap’s commitment to improve the lives of one million women. Literally dozens of CEOs were telling heads of state why they want a strong deal at Paris. Hundreds of companies—including many in the energy sector—are calling for a price on carbon.
The caution that has too often marked company efforts on social change has been replaced by boldness and an appetite for progress—more than at any time I can remember in two decades of work on sustainable business.
That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to heed Alan Greenspan’s famous warning against “irrational exuberance.” The Volkswagen scandal cast a diesel-fueled cloud over these efforts, and no software can erase the company’s apparent duplicity, which undermines trust in every single company, pledge, and sustainability report. Less worrying, we heard many aspirational statements that were short on detail. It also remains the case that in these kinds of global confabs, northern European business leaders predominate, with their counterparts from the U.S., China, Brazil, and India punching below their weight. And regardless of geography, most of the business leaders were, predictably, men.
But what nagged at me most was a sense that this might be mostly talk, and talk amongst those who are already committed. I have little doubt that some of what was presented either reflected prior commitments repackaged for new press releases, or commitments that may remain at the fringes of what companies are focused on every day.
Rather than feeling deflated by this challenge, however, we should embrace it. In BSR’s history, we have always focused on building sustainability into the mainstream of business, promoting innovation that delivers value without exhausting natural resources, and enabling business to be an engine of inclusive growth. With climate effects touching millions of lives daily, and the promise of expanding prosperity to those who need it most banging up against rising income inequality, the need has never been so urgent, and the opportunity for progress has never been so close at hand.
We have the world’s attention right now. All of us, in business or elsewhere, should be intensely focused on meeting this moment with ambition and impact.