Companies: What Is Your Unique Contribution To A Sustainable Future?
One of my earliest memories is of the moon landing in 1969. Then, as now, you could make a case for it as representing one of the most impressive feats of collective human endeavour. Putting a man on the moon within a decade was a goal, set by President John F Kennedy, in 1961. When that goal was announced, no one knew how it was going to be achieved. It was a huge, visible target, literally hanging in the sky.
What Is Your Moon Boot?
Today, mankind faces a target of even greater complexity, dwarfing the moon landing in scale and significance. By 2050, there will be nine billion people living on earth. That’s nearly 30% more people in the next 37 years to feed and water, to clothe and to live together with what we hope will be a high degree of life satisfaction. At the same time, we know that we would need three planets’ worth of resources for the world’s population to live the lifestyle that those (above the poverty line) in the UK currently enjoy.
Our new moon landing is this: how do we provide high quality lifestyles for the future world population of nine billion, using the resources available to us? It’s almost too big a challenge to process, let alone solve. How can we ask businesses to help to deliver this future? Where do we even ask them to start? Sustainability is not about sacrificing quality of life, it’s about changing how we supply quality lives.
It took a huge, multi-skilled team of 170,000 people nine years to land two men on the moon, each focusing on a key aspect of the project. Within that large group, a team of 300 people made the moon boots. Without the moon boots, there would have been no moon landing. I use this analogy to characterise the role that we, at Business in the Community, are asking businesses to play. What is the significant, unique contribution their products and services can make to the overall goal of nine billion quality lifestyles by 2050? What is their moon boot?
From Business Case To Business Model
We have 37 years to unlock talent, think about new ways of working, test new business models and deliver solutions. There’s a lot of room for making existing supply chains more efficient, but we will get much further towards our goal by completely redesigning the product or delivering the service in a different way.
We need to move more quickly. Businesses always ask us: what is the business case for the change you’re asking us to make? There is an obvious business case for certain actions – more energy-efficient lighting saves money, for example. There is a less demonstrable business case for other asks, such as changing your business model to encourage people to buy less. B&Q has set up Street Club which suggests people share lawn mowers and drills with their neighbours, rather than each person purchasing their own.
Consideration of the short-term business case involves focusing on short-term results. This has value, but it won’t take us where we need to be. For businesses to drive real, long-term transformational change, they need to move beyond looking at the business case – they need to look at their business models.
This process must begin in the boardroom. At Business in the Community, we are in the early stages of working with our member companies on developing a new agenda for the boardroom – identifying key points for discussion at senior level that will help to embed consideration of sustainability deeply into an organisation.
Board members have a crucial role in examining and addressing sustainability challenges for their business in a changing world. They should regularly discuss issues such as the opportunities and risks posed to their company by rapid population growth, increasing resource constraints and shifts in consumer values.
They should also be discussing the legacy of the business, its contribution to society beyond financial returns for shareholders. Finding the right balance between decisions that serve the short-term needs of the business and those addressing much longer-term needs is key. And the customer should also be considered; board members should identify the specific asks they have of their customers to help their company to deliver more sustainable products or services.
There are great examples of companies which are testing new and potentially more sustainable business models. Marks & Spencer is aiming to change the business model for the clothing retail sector through its “shwopping” programme, encouraging customers to donate old clothes to Oxfam using in-store boxes before they buy new clothes. This initiative began after board members decided to do more than just deliver short-term financial results. Instead, they wanted to test new approaches to address the global trends affecting their business that stretch from now to 2050.
However, transformational change doesn’t end in the boardroom, or even the single company; it should extend along supply chains and right into the customer’s sitting room. Businesses cannot deliver a sustainable future by themselves, any more than governments can. They need citizens to play their part – and sometimes that might mean recognising that their current behaviour and lifestyles can be changed to create a better life for themselves and help increase the chances for others to enjoy a better life.
Through our Be the Start campaign, every day during May a different company or organisation will communicate what they are doing to make it easier for UK citizens, through the products or services they offer, to make a positive contribution to sustainability. There is no single version of a sustainable lifestyle, but collectively the impact can be huge.
This Responsible Business Week, Business in the Community will engage with 850 member companies, aiming to create a different narrative for corporate sustainability and sustainable development. We want each organisation to test new business models shaped not just by short-term economics and customers’ trends but by long-term environmental and social trends. We are asking for bolder, longer term thinking in boardrooms, more courageous tests of new business models and, when they prove successful, the delivery of that business model across that company’s entire reach – from their boardroom, across the business, up and down the supply chain and finally to all the consumers their products or services touch. And that will be their moon boot.
Alan Knight is marketplace sustainability director for Business in the Community.
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