Attended by a network of industry and academic experts, the round table discussions were an inspiring assortment of ideas and thoughts on the following topics:
- Give your consumers clear and trusted information to enable responsible choices
The issue: It might be easy to blame consumers for being lazy, fickle or hypocritical when it comes to making unsustainable choices, but many are rightly sceptical of some companies’ dubious ethical claims or are bamboozled by confusing or deliberately misleading labelling. Even for those most well-informed, there’s the risk of being paralysed by the Aristotlean paradox of ‘the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know’ when it comes to sustainability and the burden of realising no choice is entirely sustainable. There’s no point in companies spending all their energy and resources on more sustainable goods and services if consumers aren’t buying into them. A product that doesn’t sell is unsustainable by definition.
The potential solutions: Research has shown simple, clear labelling that’s easy to understand – such as traffic-light systems for all aspects of sustainability – are effective in influencing consumer choices. Third-party certification schemes and eco-labels, backed by governments and NGOs, are most trusted by consumers and also have a marked impact on responsible choices. But schemes like the RSPO and FSC labels for sustainable palm oil and forestry have had chequered records that damage consumer and business trust. And the number and complexity of certification schemes, eco-labels and sustainability info can confuse consumers and lead them to give up. Ultimately though, shouldn’t responsible choices be made by businesses higher up the value chain so that every consumer choice is a sustainable one?
- Use your privilege to enhance society and nature
The issue: Businesses of all sizes are powerful entities that can influence their communities and the environment in countless ways. From helping to consumers to make more responsible choices to upholding environmental standards in supply chains, businesses can make a positive impact with every interaction they have along their value chain. Unfortunately, many big businesses still use their clout to avoid their responsibilities, lobbying governments to change laws that limit their ability to exploit people and natural resources, employing hordes of lawyers and accountants to help them evade paying taxes, and spending enormous sums on advertising and PR to ‘greenwash’ their brand rather than substantively change the sustainability of their operations.
The potential solutions: Business needs to recognise it has a civic role to play in supporting and enhancing the community, whether through using their platform to promote important social issues – as Ben & Jerry’s did with Black Lives Matter and their ‘White Supremacy’ press release – or simply by paying their taxes and welcoming any new sustainability regulation. Companies should embrace their ‘purchase power’ and buycott suppliers with strong social and environmental standards, like UK stationary supplier and social enterprise Wildhearts, whose client base is made up of many global corporations all looking to support each other in realising their Global Goals targets. Making enhancing nature a key part of a business’ strategy is also key, with global carpet manufacturer Interface going as far as the biomimicry idea of ‘Forest as Factory’ and making sure the environmental services their factory provides (drainage, biodiversity, water and CO2 recycling etc) matches that of the local ecosystem.
- Respect planetary boundaries and seek collaborative, circular solutions
The issue: According to Global Footprint Network, our demand for the Earth’s resources exceeds what it can sustainably replenish by 60%. That means our current levels of consumption require 1.6 Earths to sustain and that’s set to increase 25% by 2030. The linear ‘take-make-waste’ approach in business is a disaster for our planet, and many businesses are blissfully unaware of the many environmental ‘tipping points’ that we are fast approaching that could precipitate catastrophic ecological and climate collapse – damaging the resilience of the very resources they are dependent upon.
The potential solutions: Business needs to embrace more regenerative, circular solutions, involving reuse and recycling of materials. For many companies that will mean working collaboratively with other companies to ‘close the loop’ and establish relationships where there is no ‘waste’ as such, just the beneficial exchange of resources. The Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Estate in Denmark is a model of this symbiotic business relationship, where an oil refinery, power plant, pharmaceutical company and other companies exchange waste materials, energy, water and information that saves them an estimated $15 million a year on new resources. It’s a challenge that the electric vehicle industry in the UK is looking to resolve if it is to sustainably reuse and recycle the tens of millions of used batteries that will be produced over the coming decades.
- Use performance metrics that accurately measure impact and align with the Global Goals and be fully transparent by using open-access reporting based on the Global Goals
The issue: The SMART measures business use are narrow, short-termist and fragmented, particularly in big business where targets are primarily concerned with financial imperatives to produce ever-increasing profits for quarterly reports and rising share prices. As a result, the same unsustainable traits and priorities are encouraged in employees and the wider business culture, where silo-thinking and chasing monthly sales targets for financial reward become the norm. But greater aspiration and broader motivation are needed to seriously tackle the Global Goals. Moreover, opaque, inadequate and selective reporting is hindering businesses from being properly accountable to their stakeholders on sustainability, too.
The potential solutions: Companies need to make sure performance metrics all link back to their Global Goals-based purpose, so that sustainability becomes a key factor throughout the value chain. The easiest to do this is to use one of the many Global Goals-based business reporting and monitoring tools, which help companies map their social purpose and activities against the 17 Global Goals and create KPIs and measures that directly contribute to them. Examples include the World Benchmarking Alliance, Future-Fit Business Benchmark and B Impact Assessment – all of which provide a full spectrum of sustainability measures and allow their thousands of users to compile handy benchmarks across countries and sectors. Ultimately, companies should aim to use open-access reporting platforms, like G17Eco by World Wide Generation, which allow for full transparency and external stakeholders to pull the information most material to them and their sustainability concerns.
- Choose whether to grow or not and minimise any damage of expansion
The issue: The Darwinian ‘grow or die’ mantra has become so pervasive and canonical in conventional business, few question whether all growth is good even when it evidently comes at the expense of society. Because while some firms expand through innovation or buying up their competitors, others do so by deliberately driving their competitors out of business or exploiting their suppliers. Such aggressive expansion strategies can not only have damaging impacts on wider society (i.e. unemployment and poverty wages), they can also harm the business by immiserating staff, stretching resources and eating away resilience (history is littered with companies bankrupted by their world-dominating ambitions). Moreover, ever-growing businesses consume more and more resources and produce more and more waste, destroying the planet’s life-supporting ecosystems. As the environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg put it to the United Nations’ climate change summit in 2020: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
The potential solutions: Can sustainable businesses really have their cake and eat it when it comes to growth? Certainly there are proponents of ‘green growth’ who are optimistic that technological advancements will allow for a less resource-heavy, cleaner economy in future – an idea which underpins green industrial policies like the Green New Deal. But followers of the ‘degrowth movement’ see the very premise of sustainable development as oxymoronic, arguing that encouraging capitalist growth and consumption in a finite and environmentally stressed world is inherently unsustainable. More recently, ‘zero-growth’ economists like Tim Jackson and Kate Raworth have sought to redefine the role of business in relation to human wellbeing and planetary boundaries, where a shared prosperity is possible with slow, low or no growth at all. Certainly there are companies, like the textile manufacturer Trigema in Germany, that choose not to grow or outsource their business, prioritising the wellbeing of the communities they are already based in rather than cutting costs and expanding market share to increase shareholder returns.