Why Big Business Can Save The World

Written by David Grayson, Chris Coulter and Mark Lee

Strong Signals

We are running out of time to create the world that people want. Negative populism is degrading sensible and progressive policies across many countries, demeaning individual liberties and turning back the clock. Economic inequality is a colossal injustice that no one knows how to tackle at the scale and pace required to rebuild trust in our economic system. Science tells us that we are facing a climate crisis and that biodiversity loss is accelerating dangerously.

The biggest stakeholder of them all, the planet, is telling us loud and clear that things need to change. Mother Nature isn’t offering subtleties here — we are talking about the hottest years on record, wildfires, floods, draughts, glacier melting, all with a wrapper of mass extinction.

From protesters on the street to thuggish authoritarians occupying political office to scientists studying our ecosystem, the signs are clear that we are seriously off track for a world where 9–10 billion humans can live at least reasonably well, within the constraints of One Planet by mid-Century.

However, we have a remarkable road map laid out for us in the Sustainable Development Goals, which shows what is possible by 2030, a mere decade away. And this timeline is critical — the best science tells us that this is the amount of time we have left to get our house in order before cataclysmic climate change and accelerated biodiversity loss gets locked in, not to mention the human costs of ongoing poverty and insufficient access to education and health for hundreds of millions around the world.

Leadership Calling

Ideally, we would have responsive governments that create intelligent policies and regulations — e.g., a price on carbon, basic incomes that allow everyone to live in dignity, etc — and we innovate our way to a new economy that allows not only the 7.5 billion people already living on the planet and the trillions of other living creatures we rely on to live a good life, but also protects the biosphere for future generations to come.

The reality is that we don’t have time for this thoughtful and considered approach. While civil society is raising awareness and engaging society on these issues — see Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement and Greta Thunberg to name a few — not enough governments are ready to exert the type of leadership required.

There is one institution that is global enough, responsive and innovative enough to give us a chance to drive change in our economy at enough pace and scale to give us the chance to achieve our 2030 ambitions: multinational companies. The largest companies on the planet rival the GDP of many countries[1] and employ hundreds of thousands of people, have tens of thousands of suppliers and have millions if not billions of customers.

The irony is not lost on us that in order to save the world, we need even more from the private sector, the institution that has arguably done more to damage our biosphere than any other. It should be that a more democratic approach with engaged and caring governments, together with civil society, leads us to a brighter future. Yet here we are, stuck and running out of time. Thankfully we do have a way forward if we can cajole big business into the right decisions and have them leverage all their assets. Leadership from big businesses can help nudge a race to the top from governments and demonstrate the way forward for millions of companies of all sizes across the world.

Going All In

In our book “All In: The Future of Business Leadership,” we have studied over 20 years of recognized corporate leadership and have come to the conclusion that companies — with the right pressures from consumers, civil society, government regulators and long-term investors — can demonstrate extraordinary leadership.

There are compelling and inspirational examples that give us courage. Unilever, the global consumer goods giant, has nearly completed a decade long commitment to cut its environmental impacts in half. Interface, the largest commercial carpet company in the world, is close to a closed-loop approach to manufacturing and is now working to reverse global warming. IKEA has committed to enable one billion consumers live better lives within the limits of the planet by 2030. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has committed to taking a giga tonne of carbon out of its supply chain. Similarly, Volkswagen has committed to engage its 40,000 suppliers to remove more carbon from its supply chain. Anglo American, the global mining company, is focused on delivering the SDGs in health, education and ensure a net positive impact in biodiversity across its footprint. The list goes on and should give us courage that many more global companies can be successful in the long-term by delivering similar levels of ambitious impact on the world.

Many challenges remain though for big business. Trust in business is low and it doesn’t have the license to drive mass systemic change. Short-term pressures from investors isn’t helpful in encouraging long-term decision making. Ethical lapses of corporate executives frequently undermine our thesis. Yet we remain optimistic that global companies are a possible way out of our current predicament. Harnessing all of their power in the right way buys us time and will deliver positive outcomes.

Written by three leading thinkers in the field of sustainability — David Grayson, Professor Emeritus, Cranfield University, Mark Lee, Executive Director, SustainAbility and Chris Coulter, CEO, GlobeScan, All In identifies the essential attributes of high-impact corporate sustainability leadership and describes how companies can combine and apply those characteristics for future success.