Creating places to stand and the levers to move the world (2009)

What is possible, using responsibility as the place to stand? How was ‘corporate sustainability’ created as a new positioning? What levers of change do I use? What are the limits of this position? What might be next?

These were questions I raised, and answered, in a chapter for a book on Leadership for Sustainability, published early last year. I’ve uploaded the chapter to the blog (follow the link – note I can distribute for non-commercial purposes so don’t sell this to anyone, people!), and I’ve put the full intro below. If it interests you read the whole thing.

I’ve just re-read it, 3 years after actually doing the  writing  (it took over a year to be published and I’ve been slow uploading. Hey, shot me). A few reflections, especially on my conclusions:

  • I think the basic insight – responsibility shifting to sustainability – rings true. The debate and practice is shifting from focusing on the impacts of the business on world (which I called a responsibility mindset) to the  impacts of the world on the business (a sustainability mindset). Companies are seeing sustainability issues (or rather, our current unsustainable development) as materially harming long-term value creation, which therefore require a strategic response. I heard a Chief Financial Controller of a FTSE100 company say exactly this last week.
  • The need for action feels ever-more urgent. I wrote that Forum’s 2010 strategy review felt like our last chance to make a difference that made a difference. See New Scientist “Climate Change: its even worse than we thought”.
  • My conclusion was: “If business is going to play its part in creating a sustainable future, then change initiators like myself need to find the levers that then enable companies to initiate change themselves“. Through 2010 a number of companies told us that (though not necessarily using the same words), which was why the Forum strategy is now based on system innovation.
  • What I missed was the rise in social enterprise, social bonds and impact investing. Judged through my lens of “either responsibility mindset or sustainability mindset”, these attempts are neither fish nor fowl, and so likely to fail. Well, they’ve got an institutional credibility and momentum that they’ll be around for a while. I still worry that they have limited reach. (For instance with social enterprise if it needs a subsidy, who will subsidise forever? If it doesn’t need a subsidy, why won’t a for-profit company win eventually?) But I now think they have place in a growing family of responses to our unsustainable context.

Anyway, here’s the opening. Enjoy!

“I was involved in the intellectual masturbation on climate change. Then I heard other chief executives saying they were making money. So, I decided we needed to get a piece of that.”

Chief Executive of one of the largest consumer brands in the UK, 2008

 “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world”
Archimedes of Syracuse

Since 2003 I have worked at Forum for the Future, a leading sustainable development charity. Over that time, I have participated in a shift in business mindsets, illustrated by the Chief Executive’s words above. Using Archimedes’ metaphor, the places that Forum might stand, where we actually chose to stand, and the levers I subsequently used all changed.

In 2003 the debate was still about ‘responsibility’, meaning the impact of business on society. Now the key word is ‘sustainability’, and is more about the impact of particular issues – especially climate change – on business. Forum was part of creating that shift. Our activities evolved from, primarily, raising business leaders’ awareness of sustainable development issues to working with many more companies on the commercial opportunities of sustainability. In turn, I played a role in shifting Forum, and my work shifted, from working on Green Accounting to putting sustainability into business strategy, engaging in a fast-evolving field.

What was possible, using responsibility as the place to stand? How was ‘corporate sustainability’ created as a new positioning? What levers do I now use? What are the limits of this position? What might be next?What is my approach to leadership?

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One thought on “Creating places to stand and the levers to move the world (2009)

  1. Pingback: The surprising renaissance of sustainability accounting | business and sustainability – a work-in-progress

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