No Time for Incrementalism
Although corporations are not solely responsible for the unfolding environmental and social quagmire, they are among the most impactful actors on Earth. Numerous civil society and governmental efforts over the last quarter century have sought to make corporations more responsible and sustainable. But the movement to transform business practice has fallen far short of what is necessary to avoid dangerous tipping points in climate instability, biodiversity loss, and other threats to ecological and social systems.
Instead of the deep changes needed, we have seen only incremental improvements that lull companies and their stakeholders into a mindset of complacency and denial. Absent is the sense of urgency needed to undergird a shift in strategy and practices commensurate with meeting the needs of nine billion people by mid-century for a healthy and prosperous future on a finite planet.
Sustainability experts are good at describing how a company would perform if it were more sustainable – that is, achieving incremental progress across a spectrum of environmental and social indicators. However, twenty-five years of incrementalism have fallen seriously short of transforming business in ways that align with twenty-first century planetary imperatives.
We need to increase the sense of urgency in the business community so that corporations use their innovation and resources to close the gap between where they are and where they need to be if they aspire to be fit for an uncertain future.
To circumvent the flawed incrementalism that dominates current corporate sustainability discourse, companies need quantifiable, science-based benchmarks for key environmental, social, and governance indicators to illuminate their performance gaps. Without such benchmarks, we will remain stuck in the trap of focusing solely on how to make companies less unsustainable, rather than truly fit for the future.
It’s Time to Reframe Corporate Sustainability
Investors, customers, employees, directors, and communities want to know if a company is ready to deal with a looming storm of global environmental and social megaforces such as the ones shown at the top of the adjacent dot-connecting figure from KPMG’s excellent “Expect the Unexpected” 2012 report. Stakeholders want to know if the business is prepared to mitigate the risks from the impacts of sustainability megaforces and to capture associated opportunities.
It’s time that companies had a benchmark that tells them when they have achieved that level of performance. They need a rigorous, science-based, and measurable description of a truly sustainable business that has the possibility of thriving both in the near term and in a resource constrained, less unpredictable future.
It’s Time for a Future-Fit Business Benchmark
We’re working on it.
For several years, we have been researching and developing a Future-Fit Business Benchmark, initially known as the Gold-standard Benchmark for a Truly Sustainable Business. We changed the name to reinforce that the benchmark is not another sustainability standard. It is a benchmark, which can be integrated into the 150+ sustainability reporting and rating standards that are currently in use. It does not provide explicit guidance on how to achieve that level of performance; it defines what level of performance is necessary, based on best-available science. It describes the goal line.
The Future-Fit Business Benchmark collaborative initiative is co-led by the Natural Step (TNS) Canada and the 3D Investment Foundation (3DIF). I am one of the partners working on it. Work began in mid-2012 and we will release Version 1.0 as a free, open-source resource in mid-2015. Shortly, we will engage with experts and potential users (companies, investors, raters, consultants) to refine our draft.
Stay tuned …
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