Sustainability/CSR – Why are we acting like we have all the time in the world?

What’s the hurry?  Climate change, resource scarcity, declining ecosystem services, burgeoning populations are now household terms.  We are beginning to see the “normalization” of sustainability/CSR.

Yet it seems that the urgency of the situation has escaped us.

Last week at Canadian Business for Social Responsibility’s Summit, Joel Makeower, GreenBiz top gun and author of Strategies for the Green Economy: Opportunities and Challenges in the New World of Business reminded us that we only have 5000 days to redesign everything and turn things around.  The only problem is – Joel offered this same number in 2009 when he launched the book.  By my calculation, we only have 3905 days (about 10 years) left.  If you are in business and you have decided you want to grow your business by 40% in 10 years, I bet you’d have a pretty aggressive plan to do that.  Yet, we need a plan to reduce our Greenhouse Gases by 25 to 40 % (based on 1990 levels) and we have no plan.  We all need a plan, households, business, and public policy makers.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel

Like may people in the sustainability field.  I am an optimist.  For the sake of my children; I cannot let myself believe that we, humankind, will really screw this up.  So, I felt good about what I heard last week at CBSR’s annual summit.  I heard something that I don’t believe I have heard before.  It was the sound of large businesses demanding that federal and provincial policymakers join them in the sustainability/CSR challenge.  Maybe this isn’t new to you, but for me, there was something different in the tone.  A frustration, a developing resolve, a sense of urgency.

I think that large business has clearly seen the business case for sustainability – the reduced input costs, the increased risk mitigation, the improved employee attraction and retention.   Corporate leaders are now seeing sustainability/CSR as a source of competitive advantage.  But government is standing in the way of the big wins.

“If government would put a price on carbon,” noted one company, “our investment in innovative sequestration technology could be brought to market.”  After spending a million dollars a year for several years on development, the project was cancelled.

“If only waste management across the country were standardized,” said another, “we would be able to advance our movement to zero waste.”

It seems that we are at the fork in the road where business as usual meets sustainability innovation and ingenuity.  The lack of government leadership and vision is driving companies to take the low road of high energy intensity transportation, infrastructure, fuel efficiency standards, and technologies.  Business is getting frustrated.

Business Wants to do its Part

Despite this, I didn’t hear business leaders say that it was all up to government.  There was plenty of discussion about how companies were getting on with making the sustainability transformation.  In fact, an October 2012 BSR Globscan survey of 556 professionals from business, NGOs, government, and academia around the world indicated that the integration of sustainability into core business functions and across the supply chain is the most important leadership challenge they face.  This study noted:

•Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of respondents selected sustainability integration as the most significant challenge they faced (unchanged from 2011).

•Sustainability reporting is the area in which business is expected to be able to make the most progress.

•Water is one of the issues that respondents believe business has made the least progress on over the past 20 years, but expect to make the most progress on the next 20.

Public policy and sustainable consumption are areas that appear to be the greatest challenges for future progress.

State of Sustainable Business Poll 2012 (October 2012)

Urgently Hope Filled

I am urgently hope filled that we are starting to see a movement where business will authentically push government to create a playing field that will be good for sustainability/CSR.  It will take a lot of work.  There wasn’t a single public policy maker at the CBSR Summit.  Not a one.  This speaks volumes.

I am looking forward to seeing Canadian Business for Social Responsibility take on its new role as a leading voice for change.  We need a plan.  This is urgent.

See other articles on this topic:

James Hansen recently gave a good TED talk about the urgency of addressing climate change – http://bit.ly/A9zAYe

The big challenge, as Bill McKibben points out in his Rolling Stone article (http://bit.ly/XhLVzo), is how to bring about energy policy change with the influence of massive underground oil wealth at stake.

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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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