The limits of sustainability within an unsustainable system

Kathleen Enright
27 November, 23

The sustainable development goals are the most meaningful benchmark for a just and thriving future. And yet, even the most sustainable businesses are making slow progress against the SDGs because, ultimately, they are trying to operate in an unsustainable and unstable system. Coming to terms with this reality will be uncomfortable and likely encounter resistance – but doing so will enable us to course correct.

Most businesses tend to approach their sustainability strategy and business strategy in conflicting silos; one pushing for more with the other pushing for less. It highlights the disconnect between short term business growth and long-term business resilience – between a business strategy and a sustainable business strategy that should operate harmoniously, allowing business to have sustainability goals that deliver against business goals.

Acknowledging that we cannot change the entire system, and that we must drive progress towards long-term business resilience using the fundamentals of the current short term economic model – cost, profit and ROI – poses incredibly complex challenges.

Sustainability and business as usual isn’t working – it’s time to get radical

One thing is certainly clear. Our current ‘business as usual’ approach to sustainability isn’t working. In many cases it results in little more than tinkering around the edges, making incremental improvements to current ways of working whilst creating a self-induced delusion of progress – and a risk-loaded one at that. Because this ‘progress’ is rarely framed within the necessary planetary boundaries by which the business needs to operate or against the only real benchmark that matters – the future.

If we are to make genuine progress, then the business, and sustainability, mindset needs a radical overhaul. Business leaders need to embrace more anarchistic ways of thinking to move them from ‘this is how it’s always been done’ to a reimagining of what their businesses could, and should, be in the next two, three, seven decades. Sustainability then doesn’t become a matter of maintaining the status quo, but reframing it. Is it time to rip up the sustainability/business playbook and start again?

Indigenous thinking

But how can companies change their mindset when they are trapped by short-term demands on profit and dividends?

Consider the family-owned and founder-led businesses as offering an alternative approach. They often have a unique (and self-interested) focus on future generations that drives long-term thinking and investment. There’s also a key point to be made here on business accountability – I will never forget the CEO who said to me ‘it’s got to be better, it’s got my family name on the box”.

It’s an inherently ‘Indigenous’ way of thinking – protecting their legacy for the generations to come and leaving the business (and by association the world) in a better place than they left it. It’s a counterbalance to the short-term financial pressures imposed by the quarterly reporting cycle. Consider the  Seventh Generation Principle, an Indigenous concept that asks people to think of the seventh generation coming after you in your words, work and actions, and to remember the seventh generation who came before you. This takes us back to the true and more pertinent definition of what it is to be a sustainable business.

Adopting this long-term view and shifting how the decisions that are being made today about energy, water and natural resources will affect many future generations is something all businesses need to do.

Theft from our own futures

Indigenous thinking reflects the importance of nature to business, fuelling a shift in thinking from conservation to restoration, from not just taking less but putting back.

However, according to the World Benchmarking Alliance, which released its Nature benchmark last year, nature remains a significant blind-spot for businesses. 97% of companies in the Benchmark are yet to commit to a nature-positive trajectory by 2030 and less than 1% of companies know how much their operations depend on nature. 

A report by Trucost revealed that none of the world’s top industries would be profitable if they paid for theUS$7.3 trillion of natural capital they burn through each year. In other words, our global industrial system is built on theft from our own futures.

Future generations have the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable world which includes healthy, biodiverse ecosystems, necessary resources, a safe and stable climate, and a non-toxic environment. Not only are we depleting nature’s resources but we are also depriving future generations access to a healthy and clean environment by the choices we make, or don’t make, today. Failing to consider the rights of future generations echoes the short-termism that’s at the heart of ‘business as usual’ thinking.

There needs to be a fundamental shift and a recognition that businesses, and society as a whole, cannot survive in the long-term if the ecosystems that sustain them are at risk of collapsing. We need to challenge those deep-rooted views that humanity is separate from nature – indeed, that we hold dominion over it and that nature is at the service of business. 

Overhauling business as usual

Ultimately, sustainability as usual isn’t working because business as usual isn’t working. We need to adopt a new mindset, throw off the shackles of what has always been and build a new business framework focused on creating long term resilience over short-term growth – because the short-term view will inevitably lead to long term risk. 

By considering the lessons of family-owned and founder-led businesses to adopt indigenous thinking, businesses need to focus on the importance of nature to business. It is this kind of radical shift that I hope we are going to see in the run-up to 2030 and beyond, in what constitutes a sustainable business.

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