400. 1,127. 354.
Those three numbers made news this spring. They point to the frustrations – and failures – of those of us inside and outside of corporate America who would like business to become more sustainable.
400: Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 passed the symbolic threshold of 400 parts per million. Big companies talk a good game on climate change, but global emissions keep rising. Climate remains the defining issue of our time; if business can’t find a way to bring down its emissions, and ours, we’re all in trouble.
1,127: The death toll in the collapse of the garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, making it the deadliest disaster in the industry’s history. Years of extensive and expensive supply-chain monitoring by the biggest US clothing brands, including Nike, Gap and Walmart, however well-intentioned, have brought only modest improvements to labour standards in the world’s poorest countries.
354: Last year, chief executives of the companies that make up the S&P500 Index received, on average $12.3m in total compensation, according to the AFL-CIO. By contrast, rank-and-file workers averaged $34,645. That means CEOs made 354 times more than their employees. This exacerbates inequality, undermines trust in business, and leads ordinary people across the political spectrum to believe that the system is tilted in favour of the rich and powerful, and against them. You know what? They’re right.
The sustainable business agenda has never been more relevant. And the opportunities for companies that take an expansive view of their role in the world have never been greater.
Smart companies recognise that these big issues – climate change, global poverty and income inequality in the US – cannot be left to governments or NGOs to solve. The US government is not merely grid-locked; it has shown itself to be incapable of effectively tackling tough, long-term problems. That needs to change, and soon.
By themselves, NGOs don’t have the power or the resources to drive systemic change. Consumers are, alas, mostly indifferent. Only business has the creativity, the power and the scale to make really big things happen. It also has the incentive: climate change, global poverty and income inequality are business problems as well as social problems. They create risks that threaten the stability that capitalism needs to thrive. More important, they present enormous opportunities to those businesses that find ways to help solve them.
As a journalist, author, speaker and blogger, I’ve participated in the conversation about the social and environmental impact of business for more than a decade. I’m excited now to bring my work to Guardian Sustainable Business US as editor-at-large. Guardian Sustainable Business and I share a common agenda: to cheer the leading businesses, to jeer at laggards, to tell compelling stories (because there’s nothing quite so interesting as the challenges facing business today), to deliver insight and, ultimately, to challenge corporate America to profitably address issues ranging from climate change and resource scarcity to poverty and biodiversity loss.
There’s good reason to believe that progress can be made. Much already has. Thanks largely to globalisation, more people have emerged from poverty in the last two decades than during any comparable period in human history. (In Bangladesh, where the garment industry generates $18bn in annual exports, life expectancy has grown from 56 to 69 during the last 20 years.)
Some of the biggest and most influential US companies – GE, IBM, Walmart and Google, among others – have embraced the rhetoric of sustainability and made more-or-less serious commitments to drive change. Consumers are beginning to align their purchases with their values. NGOs collaborate with big companies when their interests coincide. Perhaps most importantly, more and more workers, especially young people, demand meaning as well as money from their jobs; they want to work for companies that are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Those companies that attract and engage them will rise to the top.
Put simply, the sustainable business movement has accomplished a great deal but not nearly enough.
As Aron Cramer, the chief executive of Business for Social Responsibility, put it when reviewing the two decades since the Rio Summit and the founding of BSR: “It seems that everything has changed… and nothing has changed.”
So what’s ahead? Here are some of the stories, broadly defined, that we hope to cover at Guardian Sustainable Business US:
Getting beyond incrementalism
Making office buildings, factories and supply chains more efficient is necessary, but not sufficient. Energy efficiency is also kind of boring, truth be told; not many people want to read about HVAC. What’s interesting and important are bold new ideas, the most innovative “green” products and sustainability breakthroughs. Some small-scale examples: the solar lanterns for the poor made by d.light, the packaging from ocean waste made by Method and Coca-Cola’s ekocycle work. None are big enough to matter, yet, but they point us in the direction we need to go.