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Future forwards

By Peter Gilheany

21 July 2020

Now is not the time for half measures. Even before the pandemic knocked the world sideways, we were already waking up to the climate emergency and seeing the impact of yawning inequality on society. Carrying on with business as usual while trying to mitigate the worst excesses of that model isn’t and never has been sustainable.

We need to redraw the lines of how we organise our society and the interplay between business, state and civil society so they are all striving for the same thing and pulling in the same direction to achieve it – the creation of a more just and sustainable world. Fundamental changes like that require a lot of factors to be in place, but one of the most important is bravery.

When we first partnered with CAF to examine the role and need for brave leadership in sustainability, none of us envisioned a pandemic coming along. It has both heightened the urgency of taking more radical action but also increased the stakes involved. We need to get this right – time is not on our side and while more people than ever are convinced of the need to act, not enough are prepared for the implications of doing so. There will, inevitably, be added pressure as the pandemic eases for economic growth to be prioritised over sustainability and equality, and possibly for current environmental standards to be watered down.

One of the criticisms of sustainability is that it is a luxury, the preserve of businesses that are doing well financially or in sectors and industries that are highly regulated or insulated from the ups and downs of economic activity. So when hardship bites, it is one of the first things that gets shed along with costs and jobs.

This is being put to the test right now as businesses tackle the current and future impact of the Covid crisis, as job losses mount up, consumer spending is railed in and economic growth is stunted or even sent into reverse.

But what is really being tested and being found wanting is a business model built only on maximising financial returns, where sustainability is viewed as an overhead, a PR angle, a recruitment and retention incentive or simply a tactic to maintain the licence to operate. Businesses who have put sustainability at the heart of how they operate have the opportunity to demonstrate that such an approach is fundamental to them surviving and thriving and delivering positive change.

And that is where brave leadership comes in. It’s why we believe our new report is so timely, identifying as it does the characteristics and conditions needed for brave leadership in this area to shine. If nothing else, we hope it acts as a rally call for those businesses who have recognised that there is no return to the previous status quo, that the future for business is as a driver of positive social and environmental change and of economic prosperity and a recognition that the two things are completely interdependent.