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The Next Economy
The 3 Vital Perspectives Sustainability Leaders Need for the 2020s

As we look back on 25 years of the sustainability movement and focus on the critical decade ahead, we challenge business leaders to embrace three vital perspectives in order to drive deep transformation of the way we live and work in unsettled times.

“No great change happens when people just analyse information. It happens when people decide what they want, within the realm of the plausible, and then start taking concrete action to deal with it. If we just take the world as it is and assume that we have to adjust to it or adapt to it, then we end up with a very impoverished set of solutions.”Aaron Maniam

It is said that business leaders need to hold three time horizons in mind: immediate, medium and long term. But in the face of looming and momentous climate, biodiversity and social challenges, this traditional approach is now not enough. Today’s business leaders will need even greater mental agility to hold three vital perspectives.

The first is energising alarm at the need to do more — to set ambitious, visionary goals that meet the scale of these complex challenges. The second is to drive delivery pathways that avoid silos, and instead work with the synergy between different goals. The third need is a positive embrace of just how much we need to change — for the better — despite the turbulence it implies.

After 25 years of sustainability, we’re not where we need to be

In our latest Future of Sustainability campaign, Forum for the Future has been looking back at the last 25 years of sustainability to frame what we need to go forward. We’ve engaged long-standing members of the movement, but also newcomers challenging the status quo. Two months since engaging these wide-ranging voices and gathering unique insights, we’re sadly concluding that, so far, we have fallen short on all three of these needs.

For sure, many businesses are “stepping up.” But if we measure performance by what went before, or by comparison to peers, we generate a warm feeling but a burnt-out planet. As climate scientist Johan Rockstrom told us:

“The question is not whether we’ll be able to decarbonise the world economy, and come back within a safe operating space. The question is only will we do it in time? Will we be too late?”

The philosophy of science-based targets (SBTs) is a welcome shift to benchmark ‘what is needed’ rather than ‘what is better than before’; but it is not problem-free, as SBTs assume everyone else will adopt their ‘fair share.’ Given they won’t, we cannot keep warming under 1.5°C unless ‘leaders’ exceed their SBTs and move faster than the current SBTi approval process. Even meeting SBTs only gives us a percentage chance of staying within 1.5°C or even 2°C of warming.

At Forum, we have therefore set our sights well beyond SBTs: What we need to aim for is not the current system with less carbon, but a future that is just and regenerative — one that truly builds the capacity of living systems to thrive.

3 principles for transformative business leadership

1. Push your ambition and vision

It’s clear that getting an ‘A’ for effort is not enough. As bleak news of tipping points, extinctions and oppression continue, leaders need to retain their capacity to be truly shocked, but turn this alarm into energy, vision and mobilisation.

2. Avoid silos

Just in the past week, I’ve seen several lovely diagrams of sustainability strategies from leading companies. Climate on the left, human rights on the right, a bit of nature in the middle pillar. Pillars help with establishing targets and accountability, but they are dangerous for three reasons:

  • We are missing synergistic opportunities to solve for climate, people and nature at the same time. For example, once we recognise climate as a health crisis, multiple solutions open up that solve for both — around clean air, mobility, nutrition and mental health.

  • If we address the net-zero transition without addressing inequality, we will have wasted the greatest opportunity to reset our economy and will fail in the face of avoidable suffering and warranted opposition. In Demystifying the ‘just transition’, Forum's Associate Director for India, Anna Biswas, outlines how the rush for renewable energy in India is cutting corners on social standards. If the industry is to thrive as part of our sustainable future, it needs solid foundations from now.

  • Interconnections are reality. It’s time to stop thinking in linear causality and discovering ‘unexpected’ consequences. This is the route to ‘fixes that fail’ as Duncan Austin has so pungently illustrated.

Fortunately, there are some clear opportunities to drive integrated solutions.

Food is a great example. At 30 percent of GHG emissions (and rising), the way we produce, distribute and eat has to transform. It’s already clear that it can — but on our current trajectory might not — be done in ways that enable food producers to diversify livelihoods and best use their wisdom in managing their land, forests and coast. Regenerative agriculture is already proving a strategy for soil health as well as for farmer livelihoods from the United States to India. An urgent challenge is to explore how this food transition can be affordable for those who are facing malnutrition and food poverty. Nestlé is looking at how to manage development costs affecting affordability of alternative proteins, EIT Food involves low-income women in innovation, and Hubbub found that community fridges unlock a dynamic shift in food cooking, sharing and eating.

3. Embrace turbulence and huge change

Convention says that investors and businesses dislike risk and uncertainty. But the successful leader in sustainability has to embrace just how much change is coming and, to be frank, how much change we need to create a better future. John Elkington of Volans describes this eloquently as ‘decomposition’: "There is a sense that there is something deeply broken in the current system, and therefore it’s only a matter of time before it decomposes in front of our eyes."

I hope today’s leaders share John’s emotional reaction: "As the system starts to break up around us, we have to ask ‘now what’? What are we now trying to build? I find that both exciting and terrifying probably in equal measure."

Rockstom calls out what he sees:

“World leaders have understood that we have a problem; but at the same time still think that somehow we can muddle through along incremental, linear pathways that don’t in any way rock the boat of our current wealth-creation models.”

The current economic system is a creation, not a given. Alternative models tend to exist in the margins, but there are several today that challenge economic assumptions head-on; and my question is: Which of these will hit the mainstream?

Turbulence is scary, but our first two perspectives will actually help with this. Shocks are inevitable; but as we regenerate the capacity of systems to adapt and thrive, we build resilience. Forum’s Compass for Just and Regenerative Business looks at how to reset the guiding star and look for synergy by asking questions such as:

Within our grasp

To create a better future, we must first imagine it, and believe that it is possible. While 25 years of sustainability have not got us where we need to be, there has been undeniable progress that should give us all hope. Humans are capable of amazing innovation; and our goal must now be nothing short of a just and regenerative future. It’s within our grasp — and embracing these three vital perspectives will help us seize it.

Find out more about the Future of Sustainability: Looking Back to Go Forward.