For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.
“Civil society is being suppressed, governments are backsliding and the broad climate movement must now take action.” This was Anjali Appadurai of the youth-focused climate group Earth in Brackets after a number of environment and development NGOs, including Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam and 350.org, walked out of climate change talks in Warsaw in November. Disgruntlement with the scale and pace of government action on sustainability is nothing new—our 2013 Sustainability Leaders survey found that perceptions of national government leadership in advancing sustainable development were the lowest they’ve ever been (corporate leaders fared better, but not by much). But what the walk-out may symbolize is what we can expect to see more of between NGOs, governments and businesses between now and 2015, the proverbial ‘closing window’ to avert climate-induced disaster at the COP summit in Paris: battle lines being re-drawn among and within actors, even while there are more calls than ever for greater collaboration of all kinds.
For all the attention the “campaigning NGO” has received in 2013 due to high-profile stunts from Greenpeace (e.g. the London Shard ice climb and Arctic 30), the fossil fuel divestment movement across cities and universities has been the most significant, growing faster than any previous divestment campaign in history. A University of Oxford report argues convincingly that while the hook in this campaign may be divestment of fossil fuel assets, the real lever it trades in is stigmatization of fossil fuel companies and its vast energy value chain, including potential customers, suppliers, and employees that may increasingly be scared of the real (or perceived) association. Enter author Naomi Klein, who would add some major environmental NGOs into that value chain, both for their equity investments in fossil fuels and (more pointedly) their collaboration with the energy sector. While her critique was denounced by some in the environmental establishment, it helps demonstrate that alliances and attacks alike won’t follow clear lines, whether in or between business, NGO and government actors.
All this while among many in the business sustainability community and perhaps especially, corporate sustainability leaders, profess that some of our most intractable sustainable development challenges will only be addressed by game-changing collaboration, the likes of which we may not yet have seen. We’ve seen these aims co-exist before, but in the run-up to Paris, will the balance between the need for more effective campaigning and the urgency of system-level collaboration skew too far for business to navigate effectively?