For me, and I daresay for many working in the sustainability space, Earth Day has become an opportunity to reflect on the progress we’ve made over the past year, and to think about where we need to focus our efforts going forward.
This year I find myself gravitating toward three actions:
- Rethink the language of sustainability. I have always found the Brundtland definition of sustainable development – to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – to be elegant in its simplicity. It has served us well for many years, but does it convey the sense of urgency we badly need to instil if we are to overcome the challenges we now face? Take one example: greenhouse gas emissions. At current rates, how many more Earth Days will pass before we have spewed enough CO2 into the atmosphere to virtually guarantee that we exceed the all-important 2°C temperature rise that 159 countries have agreed we must not breach? Fewer than twenty. This is no longer about future generations; it’s about us. And it is incumbent upon everyone working in the sustainability space to make the world see this.
- Change the dialogue with investors. As long as CEOs have a duty to put shareholder interests above all else, and as long as those same shareholders think it’s ok to behave more like speculators than investors, there is a very real limit to the leadership we can expect to see from the business community. We need to shift our economic system away from short-termism, which in turn demands that we change the dialogue with investors. Over the past year the rise of the B Corporation, the emergence of the so-called Shareholder Spring, and the launch of initiatives such as Breakthrough Capitalism have given me hope that we can do this.
- Help business leaders join the dots between what’s good for society in the long term, and what’s essential for their companies today. Take greenhouse gases again: most CEOs understand that reducing CO2 emissions is a ‘good thing to do’ in some abstract sense, but many still haven’t grasped how swift action could immediately help their business. The price of fossil fuels is likely to fluctuate ever more widely and unpredictably in the next few years as a result of many factors, from constrained supply and geopolitical tensions to reactive (and regionally inconsistent) changes in legislation. Question: Which CEOs can say with hand on heart that their operations would be immune to a rapid doubling in the cost of oil, gas or coal? Answer: Only those who have eliminated the need for such fuels. Irrespective of the moral case, insulating a business from unforeseen fluctuations in the price of a commodity is just good sense.
These three actions are of course deeply interconnected, and all are grounded in communication. That gives me cause for optimism: the notion that we in the sustainability space can catalyse real progress just by changing what we talk about, how we talk about it, and who we talk to is, I believe, incredibly uplifting. So let’s start today, and perhaps the next time Earth Day rolls around we will have something to truly celebrate.