We have entered a new era: the Anthropocene, an era characterized by humans as the dominant influence on climate and the environment. We are causing changes at such an unprecedented rate that it has been called ‘the Great Acceleration.’ We are well on our way to exceeding planetary boundaries, and while science has established some understanding of this, it is still rather abstract for us in our daily lives and in our business planning.
International Director of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Christopher Davis and his colleagues at The Body Shop investigated this and were grappling with that reality and how they could best respond as a company. “The thing that we learned was, even though our approach on CSR, sustainability was pretty good – we’ve got the world’s largest fair trade program in cosmetics, [for example],” Davis said during a morning plenary at SB’16 San Diego. “But, truthfully, it is not responding to the science. It is not responding to the things that we learned.”
They decided to change that, but were not exactly sure how. “I found that the scientists who we were working with knew what the problems were, but they didn’t know what the solutions were. They weren’t offering me a solution,” Davis continued. “If I look at sustainability frameworks, if I look at certifications, they’re not addressing what science needs us to address. There wasn’t a framework that I could use. So I was in a bit of a difficult situation.
“How was I going to create a new strategy for The Body Shop which allowed us to be a business that functions with Earth’s systems, that doesn’t make things a little less bad, but makes them good?”
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Enter Geoff Kendall, the founder of the Future-Fit Foundation. Based on his experience working with SustainAbility and The Natural Step, Kendall recognized the need for a new, more all-encompassing framework that outlined what companies would need to do to eliminate their negative environmental and social impacts, as a baseline from which they could begin making positive impacts. In other words, a science-based break-even point, as well as a way to progress toward it. Thus, Kendall’s team of 4 (including himself) created the Future-Fit Business Benchmark.
There are 21 Future-Fit Goals grouped according to the stakeholder for which they are most relevant: operational presence (e.g. farms, offices, factories); communities; customers; employees; physical resources; suppliers; and society as a whole. The goals have been designed to apply to every company, no matter what its size or sector, and to “become fit for the future,” every company must meet or surpass all 21. To help companies assess progress toward each goal, there are sets of ‘Key Fitness Indicators,’ or KFIs. The Benchmark is free for companies to use and does not require any external reporting; it is a tool for self-assessment and public disclosure is completely voluntary.
Application of the Benchmark led to The Body Shop's new Enrich Not Exploit™ commitment, through which the company aims to be the world’s most ethical and sustainable global business. The Future-Fit Foundation team worked ad hoc with a number of companies to ‘stress test’ the Benchmark, and Kendall announced that The Body Shop, labeling leader Avery Dennison and healthcare company Novo Nordisk are the founding member companies of the Future-Fit Business Benchmark's Development Council at the end of the plenary.
Davis and Kendall followed up on their morning plenary with an afternoon workshop, where they were joined by Martin Rich, also of the Future-Fit Foundation, as well as Helen Sahi of Avery Dennison and Stephanie Bertels of the Embedding Project.
Rich began by asking Davis to elaborate on how he got top-level buy-in, which Davis said was actually one of the easier parts of the process for him. At the same time, he acknowledged the challenge is making sustainability more tangible. “You’re talking about something that’s going to happen in 10, 15, 20 years; a lot of people are not interested - because they can’t get their heads around it,” he said. But with the Benchmark, you can instead say, “Over the next 4 years, here’s 15 things you can do, informed by the Benchmark, which [will] ensure that we take our first steps. […] That’s how we make it more tangible for people.”
Bertels noted that the Future-Fit Business Benchmark can help eliminate confusion around the number of frameworks – which now include a lengthy list, including The Natural Step, Net Positive, Planetary Boundaries, and Science-Based Targets, to name a few – by embodying many of the same ideas and targets, in one, comprehensive tool. Furthermore, it helps answer what the future might look like in a more actionable way than the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do, depending on the company, given that the SDGs are such high-level goals for society.
To actually begin implementing the Future-Fit Business Benchmark, you can find the relevant documents freely available online. As Kendall explained, there is a 75-page summary document on Future-Fit, a detailed 150-page document on the KFIs that can be used to measure progress, as well as a summary and a detailed version of the ‘subway map’ that provides an overview of the Benchmark and what needs to be done to realize the Future-Fit goals.
Following the brief panel, attendees were given half an hour to look through the goals with those at their tables. Generally, one person who was open to sharing about their company's work led the discussion by going through each one, noting whether their company is already working towards that goal in some way, could work on it within its current structure, or if it would take changes to the business model to pursue the goal.
Kendall noted that while some may not apply to your business, in which case you can essentially ignore it, often you just need to think about it in a different way to find how it is applicable. For others, you might say, “That’s going to be hard, that’s going to take us 10 years,” to which Kendall says, “That’s fine. It’s going to take 10 years [...] Obviously you’re going to need some investment, you’re going to have to forge new partnerships, and so on, but if you think you can get there through incremental improvement, there’s no excuse not to.”
Kendall continued, “Where people sort of stare blankly at the goals and say ‘Well, that’s not possible for us. It can’t be done,’ of course what they mean is, ‘it can’t be done within the context of our current business model.’ All of these can be done. Can they be done exactly the way that company produces things today, and exactly with how it sells their products and services today? Maybe not. Now of course, they’re the interesting ones.
“Some of the most useful feedback we’ve had on the Benchmark to date is when people have said, ‘These goals have allowed me to have elephant-in-the-room conversations with our executives, because on 15, 16 of them - no worries, we’re not there yet, but we can see how to get there. But on maybe 5, we haven’t got a clue.’ Even having those conversations is something they may not have been able to do [before using the Benchmark],” Kendall said.
Following the exercise, participants were invited to share feedback on the process and their observations. One attendee noted that they’re already working on most of the doable ones, but the harder ones had largely been ignored because they’re going to be so challenging for them as a multinational organization. Others found that given the subjectivity in the language (some of which is further explained in the documents), the company and stakeholders may have different interpretations of what constitutes harm, or what the unintended consequences will be. Overall, many seemed to feel that all or nearly all of the goals were possible, and it came down to how challenging they would be to achieve.
Sahi provided some insight on Avery Dennison’s journey in her closing remarks on the panel. For her team, it was a matter of bringing together the company’s guiding principles, KPIs, etc., being able to consider them on a component level, and then evolving them into the system level, so that the system Avery Dennison operates within and what is aiming for is more easily understood. This process presented challenges regarding what they can and should be measuring, which they are still working on. She noted that with the Future-Fit Business Benchmark, companies do not have to start measuring towards all 21 goals right away. Rather, Avery Dennison has found it easier to start breaking it up and measuring based on what fits within the Benchmark, The Natural Step (which they were already working with), and the company’s goals.