Last week in New York, leaders from business, government, and civil society descended on New York City during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) for the whirlwind of meetings, briefings, and announcements that have become the sustainability world’s answer to Fashion Week.
What has been known as Climate Week for almost a decade is now also joined by a flurry of activity related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This creates a platform for new commitments; new announcements, including that of the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit; and new dialogues like those hosted by the World Economic Forum and Bloomberg Philanthropies (both looking to fill the space left unoccupied by the end of the Clinton Global Initiative).
This is all to the good. Yet at the same time, each year these events inspire the nagging sensation that the sustainable business community excels at engaging with the already-committed, while the “outside world” continues on without regard for the vision articulated by the SDGs.
The aftermath of the 2016 election in the U.S. only places that view into sharp relief, as the White House is held by people who deny climate science, disregard human rights, and close borders, not to mention aim to slash funding of the very efforts that are needed to achieve the SDGs. The question on our minds last week was this: How do we break through these barriers to ensure that business continues to exert leadership when Washington appears to have ceded its role?
One of the great stories of 2017 is that business leaders have reinforced their commitment to climate action; stated their opposition to the travel ban, and expressed revulsion at the apparent tolerance of hate groups. Just this past weekend, the National Football League became the latest enterprise to express its opposition to divisive speech from the White House.
These steps have had impact, and they have reinforced support for what we would like to believe are universal values. However, what is also needed is a positive agenda that will guide business in the U.S.—one that takes a proactive, comprehensive approach to defining what our future should look like. BSR is therefore pleased to release a Playbook for Sustainable Business in the United States as a contribution to shape and support the actions that will ensure that the vision of a just and sustainable world becomes a reality.
We developed this Playbook as the outcome of a dialogue we have led with 15 U.S.-headquartered companies, mainly in heavy manufacturing, over the past several months. This group came together to exchange views on how to navigate a new political environment while remaining committed to keeping sustainability front and center for their organizations.
The Playbook aims to provide direction for business in the U.S. (whether headquartered or with significant operations in the country) to devise effective strategies that respond to the current context while also staying focused on the longer haul. It is based on the premise that advocating for sustainability in clear business terms is much more likely to build effective, broad, and cross-party coalitions.
During these discussions, participants surfaced five key perspectives about the role of sustainable business in the U.S. today:
- Sustainability enhances competitiveness: The connections between sustainability, business success, and economic growth in the U.S. are strengthening. The short-, medium-, and long-term competitiveness of the U.S. economy requires investment in sustainable business models, technologies, and products.
- Business should stay the course: Sustainable business leaders for the most part are “staying the course” on sustainability, and can continue to do that by reinforcing commitments to meaningful business action on climate change, human rights, and the SDGs.
- Business should demonstrate relevance and benefits to the public: It is essential that sustainable business leaders become more effective at connecting sustainability challenges with priorities that resonate with the general public, through innovation, employment, and competitiveness.
- Sustainable business leaders can shape effective public policy frameworks: Sustainable business leaders have a unique opportunity to shape the public policy and regulatory frameworks that will support the long-term success of sustainable business and the U.S. economy. By directly connecting sustainability to business success, sustainable business leaders can help bridge the political divide with a shared vision for U.S. economic prosperity. The business voice needs to be heard in policy fora, not only in Washington, but also in the states and cities where problem-solving remains very much on the agenda.
- Coalition development advances progress: Systemic change requires deep collaboration, and this is even more true when policy frameworks grow more fragmented. The need for companies to build coalitions, along the lines of the “We Are Still In” effort that responded forcefully to the stated decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, is just one example of why and how this is important.
Today’s unique political landscape, while threatening to interfere with progress at the surface, presents a unique opportunity to redefine the future of sustainable business. We hope you find this Playbook useful, and we believe its elements not only respond to a particular moment in the U.S., but also provide a framework that can be applied in other contexts.
As we look forward to advancing the objectives of this effort in the coming months and years, we invite you to join us in collaborative efforts to shape an approach to sustainable business that is fit for purpose in turbulent times and charts a path that will serve companies and wider society well in the coming decades.