To kick off a Q&A series with our experts on the past, present, and future of sustainable business, we sat down with our Sustainability Management lead Alison Taylor to discuss innovations, opportunities, and challenges in the field.
Elisabeth Best: What has been the single most important innovation in sustainability management in the last 25 years?
Alison Taylor: The last 25 years have really seen the emergence, traction, and now maturing of corporate sustainability as a whole, and this has been a transformational process. Conceptually, this has meant a shift in companies moving from addressing risk as a way to reduce their ‘negative externalities’ to the idea of sustainability as a driver of innovation, growth, competitive advantage, public trust, and (ultimately) long-term survival.
The most visible and concrete innovation over 25 years is that large companies now have a corporate responsibility or sustainability function. This has been accompanied by clear commitments to international norms and efforts to measure and report on their efforts. For disclosure specifically, 25 years ago, we were making it up as we went along; today, standards exist. However, it will take another 25 years for those standards to mature to the point where they are as robust as financial disclosures.
Sustainability is increasing in importance for CEOs: In the 2017 BSR/Globescan survey on the state of sustainable business, 52 percent of companies cite sustainability as a top-five CEO priority, up from 37 percent just two years ago.
Best: What does sustainable business, specifically as it relates to sustainability management, look like in 2030?
Taylor: By 2030, I’d simply hope that sustainable business is synonymous with good business. Does this mean that the sustainability function will disappear? Not necessarily. But I would hope that we are spending less energy trying to demonstrate the relevance and benefits of our efforts and can instead direct that energy toward driving innovation and organizational change to meet society’s biggest challenges.
Best: What’s the biggest challenge or opportunity you see looking forward?
Taylor: Sustainable business is fundamentally about managing organizations to survive and thrive over the long term, which considers that business value and societal value are ultimately aligned. But these concepts are very difficult to translate into how companies behave and operate today. Human beings have limited memory and attention, are highly social, and tend to focus on short-term, concrete goals over long-term, conceptual ambitions. Successful companies will need to address the challenges presented by these behaviors and incentives in a very deliberate way. Many will not succeed, which means huge opportunity for those that do.
Best: What are leading companies doing today to make a sustainable future a reality?
Taylor: Examples of future-oriented sustainability efforts are everywhere. I’m fascinated by how companies are working to bring external perspectives into their strategies, innovations, and social impact efforts. Our increasingly hyper-transparent world can seem threatening, and many companies are struggling to manage the reputational challenges that this presents. But others are taking advantage of the new opportunities to work more closely with their stakeholders to tackle systemic challenges. A sustainable future means anticipating emerging societal and environmental needs—and that requires much broader and more inclusive engagement.
That said, I think even the organizations held up as poster children for sustainability would acknowledge that this is a journey, and we all have much to learn from each other.
Best: What aspect of this year’s BSR Conference are you most excited about?
Taylor: I always have a brilliant time at Conference catching up with colleagues and friends from BSR and our member companies. To have a phenomenal speaker line-up and California beach setting as well? What an incredible way to spend the working week.
Interested in participating in more conversations like this? Register today to join us at the BSR Conference 2017: How Business Leads in Huntington Beach, California, on October 24-26.