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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Dear SB Vanguard:
Is Competition in Business Inherently Destructive?

This is the latest in a series of posts in which we will poll our global community of business leaders and practitioners — the “SB Vanguard” — on a variety of issues pertinent to the evolving sustainable business landscape.

This is the latest in a series of posts in which we will poll our global community of business leaders and practitioners — the “SB Vanguard” — on a variety of issues pertinent to the evolving sustainable business landscape.

The Pope’s encyclical has incited praise, ire and debate from all sectors with his call to prioritize care of the earth and condemnation of many aspects of business as usual. How do you feel about his indictment of competition in business as inherently destructive?

“The Pope’s encyclical isn’t just about climate — in my opinion it’s quite radical, but also about the way we look at the world and our beliefs in how to solve the problems we create. I refer to the part: ‘Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.'

“Something that really got my attention is when he says: ‘They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behaviour shows that for them, maximizing profits is enough.’ “So here is how we at PRé want to contribute: give society the data and tools to assess what they are doing, provide a compass that leads companies to a path where they have real positive impacts.”

Mark Goedkoop

“The Pope’s support for better stewardship of our planet feels like a logical extension of Catholic church values around love, peace and respect for human dignity. The Pope has linked the destruction of the environment with the exploitation of the poor. In doing so, he is acknowledging that sustainability issues such as climate change and human rights are interconnected with one another — and recognising that treating issues in silos risks missing the root causes of problems and failure to fully remedy them.

“We need fresh approaches to human rights and environmental issues — not just recognising the interconnectivities within a business, industry, community or supply chain, but using these to our advantage. Competition within, and amongst businesses, can exacerbate sustainability problems (e.g. by accelerating depletion of scarce resources, or creating pressures to reduce costs with associated negative impacts on labour standards). However, competition can also drive efficiency, innovation, creativity and collaboration in business. Competition needn’t be inherently destructive, but we do need to refocus it and harness its power to drive positive change in the corporate world.” — Mark Robertson
Head of Marketing & Communications, Sedex

“When I read the Pope’s comments, he is not prioritising care of the earth above people’s needs, he has a holonomic vision whereby both people and planet matter, and this includes a systemic appreciation of reality which does not separate problems into discrete issues.

“In order to arrive at his comments, the Pope consulted a number of different scientists. In his position, he has been able to raise our global awareness of the systemic nature of problems relating to pollution, climate change, access to water in the context of the logical of our current ‘technocratic paradigm. The Pope is reminding us that we all share the same home, and that we can no longer afford to think about problems which we only see as affecting others and not ourselves.

“If you read the entire script, you will see the Pope’s emphasis on the need for dialogue on a range of political, social and ecological issues. For me a reaction of outrage is not what the Pope would have wished for. I believe he had hoped that his comments would cause people to pause and reflect on the impacts and effects of their actions. The Pope is not saying that business is inherently destructive — what is causing the destruction of natural resources and our ecology (our home) is our thirst for profit above all other concerns and purposes. Business can be a force for good if we change our paradigm and behaviours.

“Ultimately, the transformation we need to make is internal, as is reflected in these words: ‘Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life.’” — Simon Robinson
Co-author, Holonomics @srerobinson

“At DSM, we believe in the power of a ‘race to the top’ (sustainability as competitive advantage) rather than a ‘race to the bottom’ (the destructive effect the Pope describes). Strong public-private collaboration is essential to accelerate this race to the top, where governments can set frameworks in which new rules for business can be set, creating the right incentives.

“We are working together with peers on an ongoing basis to ‘raise the bar’ ourselves, precisely for the reason of correcting the fact that most environmental and social externalities are not yet valued/priced in the current economic system. At DSM, we like to compete with our peers on multiple dimensions. At product level, we continuously benchmark our products’ environmental and social performance against competing alternatives.

“To signal that we are in favor of climate action, and the necessary political leadership to stimulate businesses to be part of that, we work together with a variety of coalitions. Together with groups such as the WEF and World Bankwe call on governments to put in place the right incentives for business — ranging from carbon pricing, to more investment in renewable energy, to more requirements on transparency/disclosure in the financial sector. We should not forget the power of consumers and voters; focus on communication and inclusion are essential.” — Fokko Wientjes
Director Sustainability & Program Director, WFP partnership, DSM