Jonathon Porritt looks at indisputable leadership in sustainability

Sensemaking / Jonathon Porritt looks at indisputable leadership in sustainability

21 Feb 2011

Is chronic political procrastination hampering the most progressive business leaders, asks Jonathon Porritt

I've got to the point where I can't bear listening to or reading any coverage about international climate change negotiations. I gave up halfway through the proceedings in Copenhagen in 2009, and blanked out proceedings in Cancún from start to finish. It's hard enough keeping one's spirits up at the best of times, without gratuitously hurling oneself into this particular pit of despair.

The truth, of course, is that our politicians' hands are tied. The mid-term elections in the US left President Obama encircled by a Republican-dominated House of Representatives, with a sharply reduced Democratic majority in the Senate. That means there will be no movement on climate for at least two more years.

European leaders are mired so deep in economic and fiscal difficulties that real leadership on climate change has become an extremely rare commodity. And China and India are now so adept in the game of 'After you, Uncle Sam' that progress seems permanently blocked. They've got their own economic priorities as well.

That's democracy for you. It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and the wheels on the world economy today certainly need plenty of grease. So it cuts little ice pointing out to politicians that pretty soon – if we don't get a handle on accelerating climate change – the wheels are going to fall off completely.

"Chronic political procrastination is the worst possible backdrop for sustainable business plans"

And that's what scares the life out of business leaders today. When it comes to developing their own sustainability action plans, a combination of chronic political procrastination and the confusion and indifference of the public – not to mention worsening climate impacts – constitutes just about the worst possible backdrop.

The contrast of the corporate with the political world couldn't be greater. As chance would have it, I was present at three high-level events at the end of 2010, involving the Chief Executives of Unilever, GE, and The Co-operative Group. And cracking good events they were too.

First up was Paul Polman launching Unilever's new Sustainable Living Plan. As an advisor to Unilever for more than 15 years, I have to declare a rather obvious interest here, but for me this is undoubtedly the best integrated sustainability plan (covering hygiene, nutrition and education, as well as resource management) amongst companies of a similar size.

Whilst doubling the size of the business over the next ten years, Unilever aims to halve the environmental impacts of its products, source 100% of agricultural raw materials from sustainable suppliers, and help over 1 billion people in developing countries improve their health through better hygiene and clean water. As Paul Polman said: "This is about long-term value creation. In fact, it's the only way to do business long-term".

In a different setting, I listened to Jeff Immelt, Chief Executive of GE, deliver the Annual Lecture for the Prince of Wales's Business and Sustainability Programme. He immediately endeared himself to his audience of senior business people by declaring that "climate change is happening, and it's happening because of our emissions".

In contrast to Paul Polman, he focused almost exclusively on the technology end of corporate sustainability, pointing to the astonishing success of Ecomagination (GE's cleantech powerhouse) in raising revenues from $5 billion in 2005 to $22 billion today. GE invests $2 billion a year on R&D in cleantech, and will increase that commitment to $10 billion a year over the next decade – providing a pretty good picture as to the sheer scale of the revenues they must be anticipating.

And finally, Peter Marks, Chief Executive of The Co-operative Group, launched its new report, Tackling Global Poverty for a Fairer World. By any standards, this is an inspiring story, with some of its most pioneering initiatives (on Fairtrade, ethical finance and environmental sustainability, for instance) going back nearly 20 years. And the campaigning passion The Co-op brings to bear on all these challenges still distinguishes it from every other major company in the UK.

Three speeches. Three indisputable leadership positions. Three good reasons to feel better about the future.

And before you accuse me of failing to address the countless corporate horror stories on the other side of the balance sheet, and the fundamental contradictions of so-called 'sustainable consumption', rest assured that such reflections are never far from the work that the Forum does with our Corporate Partners. Nor do we forget the work of countless NGOs around the world that influence and enable many of the most creative initiatives in the business world today.

Taking all that into account, it is still instructive to compare the mulling mediocrities of Cancún with the drive of today's most progressive business leaders. Draw your optimism where you may, is my advice, and do so gladly.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.

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