Everywhere we turn, we hear people asking “how long can it go on?” Whether it is financial crisis in the West, environmental pollution in the East, or increasing prices and natural disasters everywhere, there’s a growing sense of dystopia, and of the need for more fundamental reform of our economic and political systems. Mass protests can remove leaders, but what creates a lasting positive shift in society? And what are YOU doing about it? Rather than ask “how long can it go on”, it’s time to ask “how can we move on with essential changes?”
As I read leading commentators on business responsibility and sustainability sharing their insights on trends for 2012, I saw a new boldness. People are recognising the need for ambitious goals that address root causes, including economic governance failures. At Lifeworth we have been seeking to contribute to a sustainable economic transformation and published a variety of works on that theme over the past ten years. In that time I’ve seen the more critical analyses initially ignored by leaders in favour of less challenging narratives. Yet this year I think we will see more opportunity for ‘radical’ suggestions for change to be discussed and trialled. In that sense, despite the fears, it’s the year we have been waiting for. But rather than adding to the many predictions, I’ll summarise Lifeworth’s efforts that could be of relevance if you seek to team up to strive for far greater positive change than you might have before.
The first area for transformative action in which we are engaged is policy innovations for scaling responsible enterprise and finance. Rightly or wrongly, government budgets cuts are happening in many countries. The implications for them to regulate businesses for social and environmental objectives are beginning to be felt. How then can we promote and reward better business practice, without increasing the costs to government? Leveraging private standards of social or environmental performance is one option. In work for the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), we looked at public policy innovations to scale the number of firms adhering to voluntary standards like the Forest Stewardship Council. This appeared in the World Investment Report, with the full academic study published elsewhere. The idea that these forms of ‘collaborative economic governance’ are a pragmatic response to the twin challenges of sustainable development and government efficiencies, was fed into the policy discussions leading to Rio+20, happening this June. The need now is to create systems for collecting innovative public policies for scaling responsible business, analysing which work well in what contents, and disseminating this to government officials worldwide. If you can help on this project, do get in touch.
Yet we must go further than coping mechanisms in a world of irresponsible enterprise and governance failures. The second area for transformative action, therefore, is redesigning financial systems for more fair and sustainable outcomes. Although commitments to responsible investment have existed for some years, the translation into investment practice and the realities of corporate leaders has far to go. The limitations of current environmental, social and governance (ESG) practice in empowering investors to act is one of the stumbling blocks which we analysed in 2011, sparking lively debate. Our interest in ESG is because of the potential for progressive investor influence, which is a historically novel situation. In 2012 I hope we see the emergence of a progressive voice from investors on matters of public concern. Aside from investor-business relations, the public voice of the progressive investor has been slow to emerge. The Carbon Disclosure Project has shown that on climate change investors can sound a new tune on public policy. In 2012 and beyond, we could see other forums, particularly the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI), providing opportunities for progressive investors to promote policy debates that better include social and environmental priorities. Whether they will be able to counter-balance the more regressive investor resistance to financial re-regulation will be interesting to watch.
In 2012 we will continue to participate in fora that discuss the need for transformation of economic systems for sustainable development, including the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, The Finance Innovation Lab in the UK, and the Griffith University conference on transition, in Australia. As I explained in an interview for Griffith, the key stumbling block to progress on tough issues is our limiting assumptions and oversights about the real causes of our crises. During the next months I’ll be asking world leaders what they think are the key activities to drive massive positive change that weren’t possible before now, and who they need to work with to make that happen. Identifying such pressure points for massive positive change will inform our philanthropy advisory during 2012, and beyond.
One area where I think there is currently a woefully lack of attention, funding and action is in “sustainable currencies”. Current monetary systems are incompatible with the goal of a fair and sustainable economy, and thus we need greater efforts at reform, as well as at developing secure, scalable and community-owned alternative currencies and barter systems. It is, no doubt, a difficult area for many to grasp; as I experienced myself. Yet in 2011 there were strides towards greater understanding by sustainable development professionals, through the work of New Economics foundation (nef), among others. My TEDx talk on the topic reached over 12,000 views in a couple of months. As austerity bites and unemployment persists, new ways of getting people working for each other without putting governments further into debt will inevitably rise up political agendas. In 2012 we will help through collaboration with Community Forge and The Finance Innovation Lab, amongst others, and promote the uptake of ‘sustainable currencies’ as an innovative social development mechanism, through fora such as the Geneva Forum on Social Change.
What does this renewed emphasis on systemic change mean for specific industry sectors? I think the main implication is to be more ambitious in attempting to mainstream change for sustainable development. That is a third area for seeking transformative action. That has been our approach in the work we do in the luxury and mining sectors. With the organisation Fair Jewelry Action we researched and published “Uplifting the Earth: the ethical performance of high jewellery brands.” In this report we mapped out a transformative agenda for responsible jewellery, where the industry can contribute to sustainable development. From this basis, we aided De Beers’ stakeholder consultations, and worked with the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) on their training for the jewellery industry, which will be rolled out from Antwerp this year. The Spanish version of the report was launched at the world’s first Sustainable Luxury Awards, in Buenos Aires, co-organised with CSSL and the Authentic Luxury Network. The aim of these awards is to encourage sustainable innovation in the luxury sector; this year’s awards are scheduled for November. The insights from our work on transformative corporate responsibility in the luxury sector were refined for the launch of the world’s first MBA module on ‘Sustainable Luxury and Design’, which I teach at IE Business School, in Madrid. Students learn how sustainability is the smartest and most elegant paradigm within which to design anything. At the other end of the value chain, in 2012 we are working with Channel Research and the German development agency Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to encourage disclosure on the social, environmental and economic impacts and contributions of mining companies in the Congo. There are few more challenging locations for mining to align better with the goals of peace, human rights and development.
A fourth area for transformative action in 2012 is enhancing the way UN agencies and civil society organisations engage companies. There are now many cross-sectoral partnerships, and the relationships they established hold the potential for greater changes. Largescale change goals need to be connected back to practical steps that can deliver benefits in the near term for various partner organisations. That’s the thinking behind a spate of new resources on more transformative partnering that were released in 2011, including reports from the UN Global Compact, and my own book, “Evolving Partnerships: engaging business for greater social change.” During 2011 we applied our approach to developing transformative alliances in our support for the International Labour Organisation’s fight against forced labour. In 2012 we aim to help the development of their Global Business Alliance against Forced Labour.
Despite the shocking persistence of slavery today, and the general dystopian tone we hear from thoughtful people in international fora, or indeed, because of such darkness, we need a bright vision for life on Earth. That is why we are helping the Future Perfect Festival in Sweden in August. It will celebrate the brilliance and fun of sustainable lifestyles, sustainable businesses and sustainable communities. It will shine rays of light on a better way of life, beyond the dark mountains of outmoded and destructive ways of thinking, working and living. Our ability to understand values, and articulate them in professional contexts, is important when working towards a positive vision. My colleague Ian Doyle has therefore been teaching ‘voicing your values’ class at Grenoble Graduate School of Business, and we will be integrating this into various lines of work in 2012. In our forthcoming book, Healing Capitalism, Ian and I will seek to integrate both the personal and systemic levels of analysis, to aid transformative action.
In summary, we hope our 2012 will involve the following arenas of transformative action:
1) Policy innovations for scaling responsible enterprise and finance;
2) Redesigning financial and monetary systems for more fair and sustainable outcomes;
3) Mainstreaming contributions to sustainable development within specific industry sectors (including luxury, mining etc);
4) More ambitious collaborations between UN agencies, civil society organisations and companies;
5) Visions of sustainable ways of living, pathways to achieve them, and values competence to walk that path.
To better develop our work, this year we become a Swiss non-profit association. We will remain a network of independent associates, and will continue to deliver in partnership with other service providers, for a limited number of clients who seek to create meaningful change. If you can help us have an impact in these areas, I’d love to hear from you.
Professor Jem Bendell
Founder and Director, Lifeworth.com and Lifeworth Consulting
Adjunct Professor, Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise, Griffith Business School
Distinguished Visiting Professor, IE Business School