At the start of last year, we were still riding the highs of 2015, which saw important progress on sustainable business. The year just past, 2016, for multiple reasons, was less positive. How will 2017 break the tie?
Let’s start by looking back to where we were a year ago. Here’s the good news: The twin successes of 2015—the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement—set a powerful long-term agenda for decades of progress. But as the year unfolded, this sense of progress dwindled as we witnessed the Brexit vote, refugee crisis, and terrorist attacks in Europe; the Trump election in the United States; and declining support for civil society around the globe.
And yet, serious though they were, the events of this past year need not represent the new normal. Looking ahead to a new year with new conditions, here is our suggested playbook for how business can lead in this new environment.
Stay true to the values underlying sustainable business: As I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. election in November, it is essential during times of change to stay true to enduring values and principles. Sustainable business is premised on respect for people and communities, basic fairness in the economy, and preservation of natural resources and the environment to ensure prosperity for future generations. These values continue to guide us at BSR and underpin all our work with member companies and other partners. Indeed, the 2016 U.K. and U.S. election results in many ways reinforce, rather than contradict, the importance of economic fairness, even though the results may not deliver the outcomes many of us want. Our values will continue to serve as a north star throughout 2017.
Increase the commitment to economic fairness: Just as we remain steadfast in our values, we cannot be blind to the anger and resentment expressed by many during the past year. We need to acknowledge the views of many that our economies do not enable all to participate fully. The sustainable business agenda therefore needs to prioritize economic fairness more fully. This means attention to multiple issues, including inclusive economic growth, preserving quality jobs in the age of automation, gender equity, and executive pay. In 2017, BSR will be expanding our efforts in inclusive economy issues, along with new ways of looking at the connection between environmental sustainability and jobs.
Accelerate irreversible changes to the energy system: While the apparent hostility to climate action from the new American administration is highly problematic (and unwise), progress on climate will continue for a number of reasons. First, the cost of renewables is plummeting, and new technologies are improving on a similar pace, creating an unassailable economic argument for continuing the transition to low-carbon models. Second, new business models (such as distributed energy systems) and new products (such as longer range electric vehicles) are coming into the mainstream. Third, many of the highest growth markets—think China—remain steadfast in their commitment to a shift to cleaner energy. Finally, states and regions have no intention of making a U-turn on their shift to low-carbon models, regardless of Washington’s policies or Europe’s dysfunction. For these reasons and more, the vision of the Paris Agreement remains not only intact, but vibrantly alive. BSR will continue to aid companies on their own climate strategies, as well as to work through partnerships like the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance and We Mean Business to ensure that progress continues.
Promote innovation: The nostalgia for past grandeur that is driving politics in many parts of the world misses the point. New business models, new technologies, and new ways to access products, services, and experiences are changing fast. The pace of change may be distressing for many, but the essential nature of change is on balance positive, and is essential to truly inclusive growth that the past never achieved. As BSR looks to redefine sustainable business in the year ahead, we will explore how to build on new models (such as the inclusive sharing economy), new products and services (such as access to renewable energy), and new partnerships (such as the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition) to advance new solutions to ongoing sustainability challenges.
Raise the voice of business: Finally, in our new political environment, the voice of business needs to remain strong and clear about the importance of sustainability. Business is global, and despite market pressures, smart companies make decisions intended to last well beyond the next election. As we have noted since the success of the Paris climate negotiations in late 2015, the private sector can do itself and wider society a favor by reminding policymakers of the importance of the sustainability agenda. BSR will work with our member companies in the year ahead on climate advocacy, the protection of human rights, and the development of reporting and market frameworks that advance long-term value creation.
All in all, despite the multiple shocks of 2016, we see many reasons for optimism. And yet, optimism unmatched by commitment is an empty wish. With that in mind, let us redouble commitment to building a just and sustainable world, based on core principles, and with strategies that are adapted for changing realities and that address the very human aspirations underlying the turbulence of 2016. In doing so, we will see ongoing progress and reason for renewed optimism at the end of this pivotal year.