Sustainable Purpose

A meeting was recently convened by Ben Kellard, Director of Business Strategy at Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).  The meeting drew together a number of eminent thinkers from the field of business sustainability to discuss what they considered to be represented by the term “sustainable purpose”.

If you have read any of the other information on this website, you will know that I am not a business leader.   I work in environmental education but I have worked with employees from a diverse range of businesses.   I have also worked in businesses both large and small and for a number of years, I ran my own small company.  Although sometimes ambivalent about the role of business in society, I recognise that some form of trade between individuals is necessary, particularly in our complex and interrelated society.

I read the report of the meeting, which you can see here.

My underlying emotion on reaching the end of the video and the explanation behind it was one of disappointment.  I was disappointed that a meeting of such eminent people could not put forward a more radical set of goals.  In the introductory video Jonathon Porritt questions the viability of the underlying capitalist economic system on which the whole idea of a “sustainable business” is founded.  Like him, I find the idea of business purpose quite confusing when many, perhaps most, businesses that currently exist will be unable to continue in the world where we face rapid climate and ecological breakdown.

I am also confused as to why civil society would or should look to existing businesses for solutions when they have manifestly failed to deliver them up to now.  Are there any businesses that currently exist that are “part of the solution” as envisaged in the discussions?  Are there any companies who are looking at their business model with the honesty and integrity needed to meet the challenges we currently face?  Where is the business equivalent of the School Strike for Climate or Extinction Rebellion?

Greta Thunberg is currently being vilified by some elements of the media because she is asking some uncomfortable questions of government, business and society.  But any person who is or aspires to be the leader of a major company must, surely, be asking these same questions.  We need people with real vision and true leadership ability to head our businesses.  They need to talk with the honesty advocated by Greta Thunberg, by Extinction Rebellion and by Jonathan Porritt.   They need to tell the truth about what is happening and the contribution of their business to the problem.  Now is the time for these highly paid executives to earn their money and to lead their businesses into this uncertain future.

Tim Balcon, CEO of IEMA said in his editorial in the June edition of Transform that, “…business leadership is required – corporations must not just recognise that they have a role to play, but should look at what that role is and how it should play out.”

An issue for business leaders, though, is the number of existing business models that are obsolete in the context of climate and ecological breakdown.  Fossil fuel companies are the obvious example, but we could also look at chemical companies, mining organisations and, perhaps, some of our road transport businesses.  Civil engineers will have to move away from road building to other, more resilient forms of infrastructure.

The CISL discussion concluded, correctly, that incremental change and the goal of doing no harm is no longer enough.  Why do more business leaders not recognise this?  Why do they not see that climate and ecological breakdown will profoundly reshape the economy and society and take action?  Can business really take the proactive role in delivering the transformational change required?  Disruption to business models generally comes from outside rather than being generated by existing businesses.  How many chief executives will be brave enough to close down their business?  How many have the vision to reinvent their business to address these challenges?

The very definition of sustainability and whether this is achievable has been called into question, but even if we accept this as our objective, it has to permeate through all aspects of business decision making.  If a business decision has to be made, the impact of the decision on the climate, the environment and society must be the main priority and come ahead of making profit.  If a decision will lead to harm to the climate, environment or society, the new leaders have to be strong enough to decide against that course of action.  But do we have leaders of this calibre in business today?  In reality, how many businesses have a truly sustainable purpose as defined by the CISL?  Even the companies that perform the best are not truly sustainable and retain their focus on the profit motive even as they pursue peripheral sustainability goals.

I do not have the answers to these questions but I came across the report of Mr Kellard’s meeting at a time when similar questions had begun to settle in my mind and to lead me to question the role of business in our (arguably) broken society.  Perhaps by asking some of these questions, we may find some more acceptable and viable answers!

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay