Twenty years after the Earth Summit in Rio, and in this BSR’s 20th anniversary year, we are both looking back and looking ahead. And as we reflect on the past 20 years, it seems that everything has changed…and nothing has changed. There are reasons to celebrate great achievements, but even more reasons to redouble efforts to achieve the tangible successes that are necessary to put the world on a genuinely sustainable path. Just recently there has been an unprecedented turnout by business and civil society at Rio+20, while at the same time the American Meteorological Society reports that freak heat waves in the US and fatal floods in Russia were likely caused by climate change.
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Most businesses, and many other institutions, now recognize that we have in our hands the ability to create an economy that delivers dignified lives of comfort and opportunity for the 9 billion people we expect in 2050; an energy system that enables economic growth without irreversible climate change; and access to food, energy, water, and technology. Whether or not we turn this vision into reality is not just of interest to sustainability professionals, it is nothing less than the central challenge of the 21st century.
Where We Need To Go
If we are to build on the successes of the last twenty years, we need to change course. The task ahead is no longer about defining the challenge; it is about meeting the challenge. We don’t need more roadmaps; we need to move faster towards the destination.
The path forward is fundamentally different than the one we have traveled over the past two decades. In the first decade after the original Earth Summit, the time when BSR was founded, the primary challenge was to raise awareness in the business community about why sustainability was a crucial and legitimate topic for the private sector. In the subsequent decade, energies were directed less to awareness raising, and more to the integration of social and environmental strategies into business strategy and operations. For the decade ahead, integration remains crucial. Companies have made great progress in the past two decades, and we have been proud to play a role in that. There is considerable room to go further, and we write about that elsewhere in this article.
But a new decade brings a new approach. More substantial progress, however, depends on change not only inside individual companies, but also within entire systems. The era of the hermetically sealed, vertically integrated company is long gone.
Every business, in every part of the world, operates within a web of systems: economic, cultural, political, and natural. Every business in every part of the world relies on networks of suppliers, customers, and investors.
Even the most innovative companies won’t capture the potential of their efforts if these systems disregard sustainability. And as much as we value best practices, we also know from the past two decades that even the most creative experiments and demonstration projects are not going to meet the scale of the challenge.
So the solutions we need to achieve our goals must also be systemic. A genuinely sustainable economy depends on four inter-related elements: (1) the operational systems in which companies act; (2) the markets that shape the way investments are made and value is defined; (3) the stakeholder world that holds great promise, and (4) the world of ever more empowered individuals and connected communities.
Discover the development of these four points on the original article.