Opinion

The Great Debate

The next generation demands sustainable, innovative business

Christina Marule owns a spaza shop — the equivalent of a corner store — in rural South Africa. Five years ago she was forced to keep her young son out of school while she traveled to the nearest market, a half day’s trip away, to purchase products to sell in her store. Today, she manages inventory via text message from a mobile device. Her son is back in the classroom.

Her story is one of personal determination, but also of real progress.

Fueled by innovation and the determined ambition of a whole new generation, stories like this are transforming business models and entire value chains. To the world’s future leaders, sustainable behavior is as much about educating Christina’s son as it is about protecting the world’s supply of drinkable water. It’s up to today’s leaders to connect those dots.

In a recent survey 84 percent of Millennials (the generation born between 1980 and 1993) said they care more about making a positive difference than workplace recognition. These young professionals are the very same consumers who care more about purpose than packaging or price. They are concerned, creative and impatient for opportunities to make a difference. Their terms are crystal clear: innovate business models around making the world run better and improving people’s lives — or be left behind by those that do.

During the recent annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, I joined some distinguished panelists to talk about the world’s resource crisis. Many statistics are simply beyond dispute.

Today, the United Nations reports that 870 million people worldwide are undernourished. More than 10 percent of the world’s population can’t access a safe water supply and more than 2 billion people lack adequate sanitation. While we discuss these challenges, the world’s population is on course to grow from today’s 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050. Despite these and other compelling figures, many organizations still believe that sustainability is little more than an appendix in the annual report.

Why “sustainability” should be more than a meaningless buzzword

The term “sustainability” crept into the business lexicon slowly, by way of the environmental movement. It no longer means covering operating costs with profits, the definition I learned at Harvard Business School six years ago. Instead, it’s morphed into a blurry term that fits into whatever suitcase you want it to — a catchall for everything “socially good,” whatever that means.

The term has been used by various groups — with various meanings — for three decades. The Sierra Club first introduced it in the 1970s, during the dawn of the environmental movement. At the time, activists were speaking out against mining, water pollution, and other environmental threats. They defined “sustainability” as an approach to preserving natural resources by creating national parks and enacting legislation that would penalize polluters. In the 1980s, companies like The Body Shop used sustainability to describe their commitment to environmental and human rights, and a corporate focus that expanded beyond profits. For the next 20 years, the term was used by a small group of companies, like Ben and Jerry’s and Eileen Fisher, whose founders tried to incorporate their social values into their business models.

Over the past five years, sustainability has become even more popular, as multinational corporations open new sustainability divisions and chief executive officers at the World Economic Forum wax poetic about its importance. The term has been co-opted, perhaps because Americans, especially Millennials, not only want to buy products that do the job, but also align with their values (like soap that can clean a car without harming the environment). Today 2,500 multinational corporations from 58 sectors participate in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which assesses each corporation’s sustainability using variables such as labor and environmental practices. This index is one of over 25 sustainability indices worldwide, each one with a unique set of criteria — measuring governments’, multilateral organizations’ and non-governmental organizations’ level of sustainability, or their so-called social good.

Ray LaHood was, surprisingly, the right man for the job

Urbanists were excited by President Obama’s election in 2008, as it heralded the first time in a century that a president would come from a major city. And Obama was not just a resident of Chicago, he had worked as a community organizer. On the campaign trail he promised groups such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors that – after years of neglect under Republicans – his tenure would feature federal cooperation with, and attention to, cities.

So they were dismayed when Obama picked Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman from Peoria, Illinois, for Secretary of Transportation. It appeared that Obama had subjugated urban interests to his desire to appear bipartisan.

That was especially worrisome because federal transportation policy was overdue for a change. Democrats, and a handful of Northern Republicans, are becoming concerned about the nation’s massive infrastructure deficit, and are calling for a transportation policy envisioning bolder solutions. As the price of gasoline rises, climate change wreaks more havoc, and the millennial generation returns to the cities that their parents forsook, there is an increasing demand for alternatives to new highways, such as bicycle lanes, sidewalks, trains and buses. Urban policy wonks feared that LaHood ‑ who announced his retirement earlier this month ‑ would not promote these views.

Yes, there are things the Rio summit can accomplish

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was marked by optimism and hope, but much of the buzz about the upcoming Rio+20 meeting is skeptical and cynical. Critics say the Rio process has been unduly bureaucratic and hasn’t lived up to its goals. They are branding Rio+20 as a failure before it has even begun. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron are sitting it out. Some even say that in the radically decentralized Internet Age, the days when government leaders or U.N. bodies can set global agendas by fiat are long gone.

True, the Rio process itself has sensibly evolved away from government decree and turned toward the private sector to build a green economy that can implement sustainability on a global scale. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important things governments can do to make Rio’s goals a reality.

Many global businesses now recognize sustainability and equity as the only acceptable model of growth, and have adopted sustainable management of global supply chains as the “new normal.” In the years since the first Earth Summit, businesses and NGOs like ours have been working to scale up sustainable resource use and engage producers and communities worldwide. Unilever and hundreds of other global businesses are committed to sourcing 100 percent of the commodities they use from farms or forests independently certified by organizations like the Rainforest Alliance, the Forest Stewardship Council and commodity roundtables. Certified producers conserve resources and forests, protect habitats and biodiversity, and put livelihoods and communities on a sustainable, equitable footing.

Can the social network of Davos deliver?

– Aron Cramer is the president and CEO of BSR , a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. He is also coauthor of the forthcoming book Sustainable Excellence (Rodale 2010). The views expressed are his own. –

The 40th World Economic Forum at Davos gets underway this week in a world still groping for direction and solutions to structural changes and economic weakness that plague the global economy. Is it realistic to expect that the 2,500 people at Davos will deliver a truly sustainable economic recovery?

The disappointing outcome at Copenhagen was a powerful example of how risky it is to expect grand, global gatherings to save the world. Does that mean it’s best to keep expectations of Davos in check? Maybe not.

Davos is a place where influential government, business, and civil society leaders gather to create new solutions to vexing problems. It is, in its own elite way, more representative of the 21st century world than the summits that rely on formal treaties. You could say that Davos, with its informal opportunities for connections, is a social networking site in the snow, while Copenhagen, with its formal communiqués, is more like the Congress of Vienna.

Davos debate: What happens to development and sustainability amid crisis?

davos-delegatesDavos leaders have traditionally looked to the long term and have largely been keen on helping all nations of the world to benefit from economic development. But with politicians and businesses tied up with short term concerns about the economic crisis there’s a risk at least that efforts to spread development and to ward against the threat of climate change may go on hold, at least for a time. Reuters News asked delegates at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting to share their thoughts on whether we should be concerned about development and sustainability slipping down the global agenda.

  •