The Economist’s third annual Sustainability Summit was convened in London on March 22nd, 2018. I attended as a representative of G&A Institute.
The discussions focused on how to shift from “responsibility to leadership”: how to lead and encourage co-operation on the path to progress.
I was impressed that significant players from a diverse range of sectors attended the conference, including representatives of Government, NGOs, Business and Academia. Panelists ranged from the CEO of Sainsbury’s, to Google’s Lead for Sustainability, to the Chair of the Board of Directors for Greenpeace and to a Deputy Mayor of London.
Each provided their own views and experiences of sustainability leadership and how to really see actions, instead of ‘just talk and promises’.
The key themes from the day centered around the need for collaboration, communication, shared responsibility, disruptive innovation, combatting short-termism and internalizing sustainability into core strategy and business models.
One of the most poignant messages for me was the need for understanding the urgency of the issues we are facing today, particularly in relation to climate change – “we are behaving as though the delta is zero and the delta is clearly not zero” (Jay Koh, The Lightsmith Group).
An attendee told a story of new LEED Platinum Certified buildings in Seattle that everyone is of course proud of — but in 30 years these super energy-efficient buildings will be underwater because we’re too busy focusing on small wins and continual growth, failing to act fast enough or understand the urgency when it comes to climate change and sea-level rise.
As quoted from Baroness Bryony Worthington of the Environmental Defense Fund – “…winning slowly with climate change is the same as losing!”
The conference was incredibly insightful, with such a breadth of timely and interesting topics, which highlighted different areas of debate and offered up potential solutions. Four of the panel discussions I feel are particularly worth highlighting:
1) ‘A TALE OF THREE CITIES’
Discussion led by Mark Watts, Director of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and featuring three city government representatives: Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor of London (Environment and Energy); Solly Tshepiso, Mayor of Tshwane, South Africa; and, Karsten Biering Nielsen, Deputy Director of Technical and Environmental Administration for the City of Copenhagen.
The lack of adequate and strategic government action is failing so far in preventing climate change and also in reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs).
Mayor Solly discussed as example how slow progress on Paris Agreement targets were partly due to the lack of communication from top Government-level down to the city-level in South Africa. City-to-city communication and partnerships were touted as solutions to these kind of problems, as well as being vital in reaching the SDGs.
The C40 Cities Group facilitates this kind of partnership and network through the sharing of best-practice and successful innovation among their 92 affiliated cities around the world.
2) ‘PIECES OF THE PUZZLE’
Discussion led by Christopher Davis, International Director of Corporate Responsibility and Campaigns from The Body Shop International.
This panel discussion focused around how to “do good and do well,”; Chris suggested that we need to be gearing business to be truly sustainable based on what the planet needs – not the economy or the shareholders – and creating benchmarks against planetary and societal needs.
Essential consideration for creating a sustainable business: when sustainability is not an add-on function but embedded in the strategy and business model and thus integral to all activities. The Body Shop International management will know that they have been successful in their sustainability mission when sustainability is ingrained in everything the company is doing and they no longer have a need for a separate sustainability team.
3) ‘CHANGING MINDS’
Discussion led Dr. Simone Schnall from the University of Cambridge and Prerana Issar from the UN World Food Programme.
This discussion revolved around the relevance of ‘nudging’ in changing behaviour (a behavioral economics approach) to push progress in sustainability. Dr. Simone discussed the concept of ‘nudging’ – creating a choice architecture, which is set up so that people are more inclined to go for the ‘beneficial’ option, gently pushing people to do the right thing.
An example of this might be in putting the recycled paper products at eye-level, with the products made from less sustainable materials at a more awkward height to see and reach.
Essentially, using nudging, we bypass the attempt at changing minds but still change the behaviour.
This can help to reduce problems such as ‘moral licensing’, where people feel licensed to do something ‘bad’ if they have just done something morally good (and vice versa). For example, when using energy efficient products, some people then feel they are able to use them more often because they are doing a ‘good’, which actually negates the positive efficiency benefit.
Nudging may be more and more necessary as actions towards sustainability become more urgent, as we can’t generally rely on society to make the best and informed decisions all the time. Though as nudging still relies on choice, is this enough to make us change? In reality, society may need more guidance and regulation and here, there’s a role for stricter governance and policy.
4) ‘PIECES OF THE PUZZLE’
Discussion led by Marie-Claire Daveu, Chief Sustainability Officer for Kering.
Touching on the themes of innovation, partnerships and collaboration, Marie-Claire discussed a tool that Kering developed and are using: their Environmental Profit and Loss (“E P&L”).
Many people around the world and across sectors acknowledge that over-exploitation and degradation of the environment and our resources are partially due to the fact that these resources, our ‘natural capital’, have not been accounted for in economic decision-making and cost-benefit analyses.
Because of this, we are failing to internalize the negative externalities, which is crucial if we are to properly be accountable and responsible for our actions in society today, thus failing to understand the true environmental consequences of our actions.
Many businesses would fail to acknowledge the environment as a stakeholder unless it explicitly showed up on their profit and loss accounting.
Kering, a first-mover in their field, created and proposed an E P&L accounting tool as a way to do this and it can be applied throughout the entire value chain. This tool allows identification of impact areas and thus increases ability to reduce it.
Kering also provide their E P&L methodology open-source, to encourage other companies to follow and increase their accountability. This hones in on the knowledge-sharing and sharing of best-practice theme.
During the final session of the day, editors from The Economist newspaper came up with their main takeaways, the “four Ps”:
- Pragmatic – that is, moving from debating who is responsible and asking, ‘is it really happening?’ to understanding that the situation “is what it is” — and we need to just get on with it. For this, collaborations at all levels will be key.
- Persistent – sustainability needs to be talked about and implemented persistently, in order to become deeply embedded – not something that has the ‘fickleness of fashion’ – being ‘in’ the one day and passé the next. Persistence can help to bring a necessary sense of depth to the issues and challenges we are facing, in order to trigger action.
- Problem – understanding reality and assessing our achievements: if we add up all of our efforts today, is it anywhere near enough? I’m sure you’ll all agree that the answer is most definitely not. How do we scale up these efforts effectively? We need to be mindful of the scale of the threats the planet and society face – increasing measurement and transparency can help to uncover this.
- Prioritization – at present, we can’t robustly value different externalities, which is necessary for internalizing them and dealing in the most efficient and effective way. We must remember to be aware that each trade-off has consequences and consider alternative actions.
Coming away from this wonderful conference, it was clear to me that the main takeaway was of the potential of collaboration – within companies, within industries, between industries, and across sectors. This was picked up on in nearly every talk.
We need a whole ‘ecosystem’ featuring collaboration (involving business, NGOs, government, academia and citizens) in order to win with the current challenges we’re facing; to really progress in sustainability and work towards meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The conference was undoubtedly a timely and powerful call for action.