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Challenging business

Jonathon Porritt asks: is today’s corporate sustainability a busted flush?
A rear view of people with placards and posters on global strike for climate change

This article first appeared in our Earth Day 2023 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 22 April 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

It’s been 30 years since I threw in my lot with the emerging idea of ‘corporate sustainability’ as a ‘force for good’ in the world.

As a co-founder of both Forum for the Future and the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme, our intent was clear: to help progressive companies to move much further – and much faster – in addressing critical environmental and social challenges.

Both organisations continue to support and challenge multinational companies around the world, and huge progress has been made since then.

However, the jury is still out as to the cumulative impact of this strategy, acknowledging as we must that another 30 years of the same sort of engagement with business could never (ever) get us to the place where we need to be in addressing today’s climate and biodiversity emergencies.

That may sound a bit curmudgeonly. After all, there’s a tonne of stuff going on today in the corporate space: much more ambitious climate targets; impactful supply chain collaborations, on both environmental and social issues; a burgeoning awareness about ‘nature positive’ priorities; rising enthusiasm about ‘green growth’ and a proliferation of new initiatives to drive transparency and to come down much harder on greenwashing.

A different kind of capitalism

All of this is enough to get the ‘anti-woke brigade’ all fired up to fight back against what they interpret as this ‘assault on capitalism’, particularly in the USA.

To see Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, being sued by various right-wing headbangers for devious tree-hugging tendencies would be highly amusing if it weren’t such a profoundly unhelpful distraction.

Most committed business leaders look on in near despair at such ideological inanities – but still have to be mindful of the threat of investor backlash.

They also know, deep in their hearts, that the prevailing articulation of corporate sustainability is a busted flush – unless they start challenging today’s neoliberal market fundamentalism – in all its deregulatory, profit maximising, science-denying, climate-trashing manifestations.

Most of them recognise that much of the declared profitability of their companies is based predominantly on being able to go on externalising many of their costs – for emissions of greenhouse gases, for plastic and chemical pollution, for ecosystem degradation, for perpetuating poverty through their supply chains and so on.

If those costs were to be properly represented on their P&L, rather than imposed on society, the environment and future generations, then we’d already be discussing a very different kind of capitalism.

Are we complicit?

I’ve worked with a lot of CEOs over the last 30 years – all hugely well paid, highly influential and even powerful people.

What’s constantly amazed me is the fact that so many of them still feel trapped, unable to use their entitled positions to accelerate real change in today’s dominant economic paradigm – even though they’re increasingly aware that time is running out to make those changes.

Does that make them complicit in what UN secretary-general António Guterres has described as our ‘mutual suicide pact’? It does.

It also makes those of us who work with their companies equally complicit – unless we unambiguously spell out what it would really mean for them to act as a ‘force for good’ in today’s troubled world.

Given how useless most governments are in narrowing the gap between what the science tells us we should be doing and what we’re actually doing, it’s all the more important for business leaders to add their voices to leading scientists and civil society campaigners to get that gap narrowed.

10% for the Planet

There’s a great organisation called 1% for the Planet, which enables companies to give 1% of their revenues (not their profit!) to support environmental organisations and campaigns.

I’m also a great believer in personal tithing (where individuals undertake to give a percentage of their personal income, every year, to charitable causes), and dreamed the other day of a new initiative called ‘10% for the Planet’.

This would make it possible for morally stricken business leaders to pay in (anonymously, if they so wished) to a global clearing house which would then channel those funds into radical campaigning groups – Just Stop Oil, outspoken scientists, XR, young people’s climate campaigns and so on.

Unrealistic, of course. But we all know that things are not going to change fast enough without those scientists and more radical activists continuing to expose the shameful, deeply immoral inertia of most governments today.

That’s not to belittle the work of organisations like Forum for the Future and the Business and Sustainability Programme, but it is to suggest that our challenge to individual business leaders must take on an extra dimension.

Jonathon Porritt is an author, campaigner, founder-director of Forum for the Future and former chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission (2000-2009).

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