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Thought Thursdays
Still struggling with sustainability? Step up and re-wire

​​TT23 web.jpgWe live in a fundamentally changed world. The evidence is all around us: extreme weather driven by climate change; depletion of natural resources; mass migrations; demographic shifts. Our natural resources are under extreme pressure and with more people entering the middle class, wanting more of everything, pressure on resources will increase. This is not a futuristic scenario, but rather today's reality.

2015 was the hottest year on record globally and was over 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial average (14 of the 15 hottest years recorded have occurred since 2000). In the same year the majority of nations in the world came together in Paris to commit to keeping the world’s temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, according to Oxfam, in 2016 the combined wealth of the richest 1 per cent of people will overtake that of the other 99 per cent globally. The current global economic or social trajectory shows no sign of maintaining global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius, or of addressing key challenges like inequality and natural resource degradation. If business keeps on ‘doing business as usual’, it will fail to keep up with the future. 

Despite many business leaders recognising this and engaging in implementing sustainable practices, inequality is still rising, ecosystems continue to be degraded, and resources are steadily becoming depleted. These trends are detrimental to environments, communities and the long-term economic performance of businesses. 

Recent research, published by the Global Research Initiative (GRI) in 2016, found that measuring and reporting on sustainability impacts have not, as yet, been used effectively as a tool to promote change on the scale that is needed. The movement is not yet powerful enough to influence decision-making processes.

Collectively we need to fight the short-term mindset. It is time for our strategic approach to change. Business needs to recognise and act on the best scientific data. The goals of companies need to be based on information about natural resources and their limitations. We would do well to take a lesson from Albert Einstein, who said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

All the businesses to whom I consult are grappling with what constitutes real sustainability in relation to their location, industry sector and business model. In addition, they are grappling with their role in society, and how to meet the needs of shareholders and stakeholders. A new model is only now beginning to emerge. The outlines of this model are already clear: a longer-term time horizon, incorporating scientific information on natural resources; more holistic performance measurement and reporting; more active corporate governance; and greater engagement with shareholders and other stakeholders. 

Achieving sustainability often requires deep fundamental change. Innovation in processes, products, and business models is a critical element. In the absence of innovation, managers are forced to make trade-offs, while through innovation companies have a mechanism to adapt and extend their frontiers.

Leaders have an immense impact on individuals, families, communities, and society. Leaders have the power to influence the decision-making processes that underpin the transition of governance structures, business models, and resource consumption patterns to a sustainable level.

When coaching CEOs and other leaders, I often see that the starting point of this change is an epiphany, a solid leadership stand, a vow that they and their businesses will do things differently. This highlights the importance of a shift in the hearts, minds, and decision making of executive leaders on environmental and sustainability issues.

To ensure the sustainability of our environment, social fabric and global economy, business leaders need to lead very differently. We are looking to our extensive and diverse network of leaders to take action and share their insights into the challenges and opportunities they encounter along the way.

Those businesses that lead the sustainability agenda will define ambitious goals, develop new technology and redefine the cost/risk equation. There will be a much wider value proposition than financial results, namely the tangible and intangible assets.

We invite you to look at your own organisation and to consider what it would take for you and your peers to be part of the fundamental shift. Above all, we are looking to you to take action: to step up and re-wire.  We are committed to supporting you through this journey.

Cristy Leask.jpg

Cristy Leask is a faculty member of USB Executive Development and a business consultant focusing on sustainability and leadership development. Her field of expertise is organisational change and executive leadership    

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