Bold, fearless and collaborative? Or not ambitious enough? Business leaders share their insights on making change happen
"We still have very little understanding of how human activities impact on natural systems or how reliant society is on functioning ecosystems", says Climate Change Capital's Vice Chairman James Cameron. Such a fundamental knowledge gap may seem implausible given the current rate of information generated: as much every two days, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, as from the dawn of civilization to 2003. But however little we know about our impacts, adds Cameron, what's worse is the fact that our absolute dependence on ecosystems is rarely even acknowledged in political or business life.
The comment was made on the occasion of WWF's 50th anniversary, an opportunity we have taken to reflect on just how far we've come and – in the build up to the next Earth Summit, Rio+20 – what still needs to be done. The big question is whether society, business and our economy are moving closer to, or further away from a future where humans prosper within our ecological limits. Cameron was one of 50 business chiefs and thought leaders whose views we captured on film.
A recurring theme highlighted by many is that we are still only scratching the surface of what's required. We're not being ambitious enough about change, warns veteran commentator John Elkington. He refers to the 2010 Accenture study, 'A New Era of Sustainability', in which the great majority of the business CEOs interviewed said they are embedding sustainability in their organisations. What they actually mean, Elkington suspects, is that they are running light touch corporate social responsibility programmes. But what we need, he argues, is "disruptive transformative change throughout our markets, our supply chains, our economies and our corporations".
So how can we generate that scale of change? Steve Holliday, CEO of National Grid, thinks it has to be personal. He doesn't deny that the principal aim for his management team is to run a business and deliver investor returns. But, he says, the challenges ahead "have pricked our conscience". The desire to be able to tell your grandchildren that your business took a lead on addressing global threats is a big driving force, he says – and much of the reason why environmental issues and climate change are taken very seriously within the company.
But our grandchildren won't just sit on our knee and take our word for it. They'll be on the web, browsing fascinating infographics and piecing the past together for themselves. For Louise Roper, Managing Director of cleaning products provider, Method, winning firms will be those that are both fearless in embracing environmentally sound practices, and bold enough to be honest about their imperfections. "Consumers will understand," she says.
With much greater transparency on the cards – whether companies like it or not – Roper believes that it will be increasingly difficult to get consumers to accept irresponsible products. Niall Dunne, formerly at Saatchi & Saatchi S, also thinks transparency could be the force behind a significant shift. For Dunne, it will break down the dividing lines between business, society and the environment.
The vision that many of the leaders we interviewed share is of a dematerialised world economy: one that puts health and wellbeing before material production.
Brands are a big part of that picture, according to Guy Hayward, Chief Executive of marketing communications agency JWT. "Smart brands will better understand consumers' feelings and will fuse their relationship with them around sustainability." He cites Nike as now providing not just sports shoes but also a "sports experience", through the delivery of popular events.
Finally, the continued role of WWF and other NGOs comes through loud and clear from the likes of Kingfisher's CEO, Ian Cheshire. "NGOs have been hugely helpful when they've got off the soapbox and collaborated with businesses to push them to raise their game." Steve Holliday said he welcomes WWF's support in helping National Grid grapple with the issues of today, "testing, pushing and advising the company to think very differently".
So what can WWF draw from all of these insights? We are all too aware of the daunting challenges ahead but, as business leaders grapple with the issues and accept that transformative change is a real necessity, it feels like we have reached a real turning point. WWF will be building on this momentum in the run up to Rio+20 so that this new thinking leads to transformative actions.
Dax Lovegrove is Head of Business and Industry at WWF-UK. For more thought leadership from this collection, click here.
Image credits: sartori / istock