Contribution to GTI Roundtable "True Corporate Sustainability"
Bob Willard´s paper proposes a relevant path for action to advance sustainability.
Before I comment on his proposal, it is worth highlighting three underlying concepts—since they are equally relevant to understanding corporate sustainability more clearly.
a) An accurate assessment
The field of sustainability and CSR has been characterized in the past five years by a soul-searching mood, a period of assessing its success and relevance. While in general there has been some compromise (a sort of sweet-and-sour assessment), Bob Willard is uncompromising in his evaluation of the past record of corporate sustainability. Incrementalism is not enough, he says: “Instead of the deep changes needed, we have seen only incremental improvements.”
b) An emerging new materiality.
Willard confronts corporate sustainability with an emerging global situation that will eventually jeopardize the long term growth of business. “If we bankrupt nature´s ability to support human systems, then economic and, eventually, company bankruptcy will inevitably follow. Risks that companies long viewed as immaterial to their bottom-line planning are emerging as critical to their long-term business prospects.” Thus, Willard points to a new emerging materiality, a new reference point against which we should assess corporate sustainability performance.
c) From corporate sustainability to global sustainability.
This emerging materiality has to do with a systems view of sustainability: “Sustainability has to be defined as an attribute of the system-as-a-whole; the collective impact of thousands of companies, all making incremental progress, cannot guarantee that the private sector meet its collective responsibilities for remaining within global ecological and social thresholds.” He points to a new horizon of sustainability: global sustainability. Companies will be sustainable only if they address in an effective way the problems of global sustainability. This seems to me a very relevant and disruptive perspective: companies cannot talk of being sustainable, no matter how responsible they are vis-à-vis their stakeholders and how inspiring their integrated sustainability reports may be, unless they have a positive and quantifiable impact on global sustainability, in accordance with their size and influence.
On the basis of these three powerful ideas, Willard suggest the need to establish “clear, quantifiable benchmarks that take full account of the broader, nested interdependencies,” a path that will lead to attain global sustainability through corporate action.
Within this conceptual framework, he suggests a three-step process for assessing sustainability performance: a) define the “systems conditions for a resilient human society,” b) determine the “design constraints” ensuring that business performance meets the systems conditions, and c) identify key performance indicators. The development he proposes, from a definition of the systems conditions down to key performance indicators at the firm level, is “a formidable task that must draw from the latest scientific understanding…to guide target-setting at the firm level.”
In my view, out of the three-step process that Willard proposes, the most crucial is the definition of “the systems conditions for a resilient human society,” a society where we and the generations to come live on one only planet and where social inclusiveness wins the battle. Concerning this first crucial step, he suggests “the classic definition of sustainable development…[to] provide guidelines for setting systems conditions.” But this is not enough. Rather, what is needed is a shared public understanding, a universal agreement on those conditions, with the widest possible acceptance by governments, companies, and civil society.
The good news is that those conditions for global sustainability are being defined right now in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of sustainability goals, encompassing environmental, social, and governance quantified targets, relevant for all developing and developed nations in the world, to be achieved by 2030. The challenge that we will face after their launch at the UN General Assembly in 2015 is how to ensure that sustainable companies around the world effectively commit themselves to achieve those goals in a 15 year timespan. The UN Global Compact, the Global Reporting Initiative, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development are aware of the challenge. According to them, the SDGs will require the following (1) a new and so far unexplored scale for action not only at the global but also at the national level, (2) an unprecedented level of co-investment and collaboration of all stakeholders (multilateral institutions, public authorities, companies, civil society organizations, academia, and committed citizens), and (3) engagement mechanisms, including transparent reporting and due recognition of progress.
Will these measures (public-private partnerships on a massive scale, reporting on performance, etc.) be enough to ensure that the SDGs become an effective agenda for global sustainability? I think not. Besides those critical requirements, the goals should be further defined at regional/national/sectoral/company levels, using “best available science” and a great deal of applied research, and, as Willard points out, “methodological innovation, experimentation, and refinement.” This requisite, the need to transform the future global SDGs into feasible benchmarks for companies' target-setting, makes Willard’s ideas both timely and very relevant for the future of global sustainability. And they reaffirm the “formidable task” ahead for both thought sustainability leaders and sustainable companies.