“Sometimes the bad times in our life put us on a direct path to the very best times of our life.”—Wisdom Quotes – anonymous
In his novel, A city of Two Tales, Charles Dickens said: “These are the best of times and the worst of times”. But what is it these days for the majority of us? First, these are the best times for some of us and, indeed, for some businesses like Amazon and Netflix. But equally so for others and perhaps, a majority of companies globally, these are the worst of times. The economic impacts of the pandemic, plus recent international conflicts, have given organisations and individuals a knockout punch. As a result, individuals, countries and companies are reeling against the ropes, with a potential recession looming.
The reality is that organisations’ interests distinctly overlap with that of their communities and the world. That is why addressing issues like green energy and promoting cleaner fuels makes sense and can save huge amounts of money for consumers and companies. If truth be told, organisations are perfectly positioned to find real solutions to our thorniest problems. Corporations have a lot of influence within countries and beyond their borders. These organisations affect many people’s lives and have tremendous financial power that can be used in creating sustainable services, products, processes and policies.
Solving global problems in turbulent times also creates new market opportunities. Case in point, look at the speed with which medical science produced a vaccine for SARS-CoV2 – it has no precedent in history. Before China knew or opened up to the world that COVID had hit Wuhan, professors in Shanghai had successfully sequenced the virus’s genetic code. Within the year, several vaccines against the virus were available. However, not a significant number of people, particularly in the Global South, have received the allotted vaccines that are needed. However, the downside of this is that supply chain bottlenecks and the intellectual property concerns of pharmaceutical companies have slowed the global rollout. And indeed, the greed of wealthy nations has placed many poorer populations at risk.
Cutting through the noise
So how do we cut through the proverbial noise to ensure that these are the best times for all of us? How do we facilitate sustainability as a thread that weaves through every fibre of our existence? Mainly, how we do business? Some corporations have already started. Coca-Cola, for example, has been cooperating with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) since 2007 to make fresh water accessible worldwide. At the beginning of their collaboration, Coca-Cola and WWF discovered that every litre of cola required 200 litres of water, primarily due to sugar production. By improving the sustainability of sugar production, however, WWF and Coca-Cola can now save more water and, in turn, be gentler to the environment.
On top of this, how we measure a business’ success is in dire need of an update. For example, return on investment (ROI) is an essential metric that defines success as getting the most out of what you’ve put in. But this can’t account for several other vital aspects of a successful business, such as the happiness of employees and consumers and, of course, the business’ environmental impact.
But what about good old corporate social responsibility (CSR)? Indeed, this term implies that businesses consider their role in society. But unfortunately, the reality is that CSR isn’t implemented effectively enough to create real change. Why is this?
CSR expert Steve Lydenberg says businesses use social initiatives for short-term financial gain rather than long-term social and environmental responsibility strategies. This obsession with immediate gratification, unfortunately, poses a significant threat to the economy, as well as to society and the environment.
But not all businesses use CSR to boost their revenue and polish their reputation. However, some organisations take it seriously and are daring enough to reshape their whole strategies in the process. Take the Deutsche Post DHL Group, for example. They have implemented CSR in a big way – by distributing medicine to developing countries free of charge and donating to educational initiatives in developing countries. As part of their Sustainability Roadmap, they aim to reduce emissions to 29 million tonnes by 2030, and invest €7billion in green technology until 2030. Furthermore, they are fully committed to the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi).
The world, as it is, is a convoluted mess of global actors, each driven by their self-interest and hidden agenda. As a result, conflict, post-pandemic effects, high inflation and food insecurity are rampant. Something isn’t working. After all, we are not short of advocates of change. As we have seen, businesses promote ethical trade, green technology and sustainable investing. Global conferences are held on climate change and action. How do we empower and mobilise the citizenry to take action? In what way do organisations provide resources to communities to help them resolve their issues? To what extent do we forge better public-private partnerships? As such, collaborations are crucial to sustainable economic growth.
Protecting the environment and promoting social justice go hand in hand with a robust economy, and the future is one of unity between humans and nature. That’s because environmentally sustainable products are more economical. By thinking creatively and ecologically, businesses, communities and governments can build an advanced world that nourishes, instead of depletes, the natural world.
As long as the war in Ukraine grinds on, the poor and vulnerable countries will continue to suffer. The world is suffering economic distress. A looming food crisis in the Global South is causing massive food insecurities. The Earth and Climate Change are in dire straits, and severe action needs to be taken. And remember, the COVID pandemic is still not a thing of the past! So could this be the ‘perfect storm’ brewing? What it calls calls for is a Manhattan-style project that brings private and public sectors, government to government cooperations, civil society mobilisation, and academia and top thinkers together to address these urgent questions of sustainability. The good news is that the original definition of sustainability in 1978 by the United Nations Brundtland Commission has not changed in any way. It is still about ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.
Businesses should pay at all costs and make unstoppable moves to ensure this is fully achieved in all areas of operations, even in these times of international pandemonium resulting from the conflict. And with over 140 nations seeking to meet their development needs, businesses are at the forefront of this crusade. They should proactively act to mitigate the threat of climate change and its negative effect on the planet for future generations as encapsulated in the definition.
Lastly, we live in times where conflicts and geo-political wars are started by autocratic leaders and fought by the weaponry and armies that they amassed but most tragically suffered by the ordinary people. So, where does sustainability fit into all these variables?
Giridharadas, Anand (2018), Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Alfred A. Knopf.
Khanna, Parag (2011), How to Run the World: Charting the Course to the Next Renaissance. Random House.
About the writers:
Romein is a (self-confessed) Pan-Africanist by heart, a multi-disciplinary professional with experience in various sectors. Contact him via ([email protected])
Ebenezer is a Development Communication Specialist, a Sustainability Enthusiast, a Finance & Investment Analyst, and a WriterPreneur. He’s Country Director of PIRON Global Development GmbH (www.piron.global) and Branch Manager of People Investor AG (www.people-investor.com)