As we embark on the start of a fresh year of work at Fit For Purpose, armed with our usual vigour and enthusiasm for pursuing our mission to help businesses accelerate their positive social and environmental impacts, I am also filled with an ever growing sense of urgency and impatience in pursuing this goal.
When reflecting on 2020, in spite of the obvious ‘unprecedented’ drawbacks and challenges it presented, there is clearly still much to celebrate.
After all, 2020 was the year of Net Zero commitments; the year of bold zero tolerance policies on racial and gender inequality; the year of exponential growth in businesses declaring they are a ‘force for good’. B Lab UK, the non-profit organisation that certifies B Corps, celebrated the most accelerated growth in its history, adding more than 100 new B Corps to the global tally and making the UK market the fastest growing B Corp community in the world. According to the UNFCCC, the number of companies and local governments committing to Net Zero by 2050 doubled in 2020, representing a carbon footprint greater than that of the whole of the US.
In a year when most observers of typical business behaviour could reasonably have predicted the dual challenges of pandemic and Brexit to have resulted in the business community retreating into survival mode, focusing only on staying afloat and keeping shareholders at bay, the opposite has happened. When faced with the stark reality of one catastrophe, the bigger, deeper, less temporary crisis was thrown into sharp relief. Remarkably, the response from business seems to have largely been to resolve not to let it worsen.
2020 was the year when the Climate Crisis became embedded in the lexicon of the mainstream markets. It’s position as a central tenet of economic, not just societal strategy for the future was cemented for me at the end of the year, when the former Governor of the Bank of England delivered the esteemed Reith Lectures in homage to this very point. As a firm sceptic of traditional economic theory, these lectures were a revelation to me, as to hear a bastion of the establishment such as Mark Carney argue so passionately in favour of ‘values over value’ in the markets, was a truly uplifting experience. Although it’s clear from Carney’s status as UN Envoy for Climate Action on Finance that his new mission has diverted him a long way from his old job, hearing him state so unequivocally that “it’s critical to realise that NetZero isn’t a slogan, it’s an imperative of climate physics” gave me hope that the climate emergency status is here to stay.
So – as a climate and sustainability activist, much to celebrate in 2020. However, there are still some things which still trouble me about the where we find ourselves as we enter our brave new year.
Firstly, as Carney’s lectures evidenced, the vast majority of the proposed solutions to the Climate Emergency rely heavily on technological and engineering innovation. He spoke of the “fifty shades of green” needed “to catalyse investment towards the transition to Net Zero”. But a pointed question from a leader of Extinction Rebellion as to whether – given the catalogue of abuses of power by the financial sector he had outlined during his lectures – Carney seriously believes the very same people and system, namely capitalism, could be trusted to determine our future strategy in relation to what is best for the planet? Was it not time that other people – ordinary citizens perhaps – were given more say over these decisions? In other words, is it not system change, rather than regime change, which would truly build our resilience, and catalyse the change we need in the timeframe available?
What constitutes ‘system change’ and the future of capitalism are issues dominating discussions amongst sustainability professionals right now. Certainly, I see businesses that are taking a more multi-stakeholder led approach to their business strategy instead of the traditional slavish pursuit of delivering shareholder profits winning success in today’s market. And I also see the power of Citizen influence growing all around us. It is what prompted so many businesses to change their behaviours and start offering more sustainable products and services, and what has encouraged governments to set more ambitious climate goals.
But I don’t believe we can rely only on the existence of green technologies such as electric cars, refillable commodities and renewable energy to propel us towards a Net Zero future. And I don’t believe it is fair to expect citizens to force the hands of businesses who provide those products and services towards as fairer more sustainable set of offerings. We also need to radically change what businesses make and how they make it. For the companies we advise, this starts with asking them to be braver and bolder. To stop clinging to the mantra of ‘offering consumers choice’, and instead to help direct their customers towards ‘making better choices’.
Secondly there is the issue of urgency. In 2020, Fit for Purpose was fortunate enough to work with a number of organisations who, after working with us to take soundings from their stakeholders, have begun to set much more ambitious goals and put in place programmes of change to reach them in the coming months and years. But is it enough that thousands of businesses have declared a Climate Emergency and set goals for 30 or more years into the future to curb their addiction to fossil fuels and change the make up of their board to be more equal?
Having spent a decade or more trying to persuade businesses accustomed to following a traditional 12 month financial planning cycle to think longer term, I now find myself beginning to question if whether in fact what is needed is a much more urgent focus on the short term. How much more valuable would it be for big businesses to make smaller but more significant changes today, than to commit to bigger changes the future that may allow them to put off the start of the most difficult, serious work? To reach a science-based target by 2030, you must switch to 100% renewable energy for your operations today. To boast a fully representative board by 2040, you have to start unconscious bias recruitment training now. To even begin to offer a fully sustainable product in the future, it is imperative to start auditing and editing your tier one supply chain immediately. Long term commitments are important and necessary, but bringing these to life with shorter term milestones is where progress lies.
So for us, 2021 offers both fresh hope of a clearly changed business mindset, open to the prospect of equating doing good with doing well, but also a fresh resolve to encourage our clients with a renewed sense of boldness and haste. After all, if there is one thing 2020 has taught us it is that we have no more time to waste.