Winner | Asian Digital Media Awards 2020

Companies must gear up for an ultra-transparent future: Sally Uren

Forum for the Future CEO Sally Uren predicts that businesses will be subject to more scrutiny than ever in the digital age and will need to look beyond sales and profits to connect with increasingly conscious consumers.

As the chief executive of UK-based non-profit Forum for the Future, Sally Uren is a firm believer that making good business decisions requires gazing far into the future to identify trends that will affect companies in the long run.

One such trend which she predicts will impact businesses worldwide is the growing demand for transparency. The spread of digital technology, combined with increasing consumer awareness about how products are made, will leave companies with nowhere to hide, says the Briton.

Businesses will soon have no choice but to evolve accountable and responsible processes, and communicate a deeper purpose beyond profit to their customers, notes Uren. Helping companies form strategies and policies to do just that is part of her organisation’s mission.

It works on sustainability projects with a network of over 130 global partners including shipping firm China Navigation Company, agribusiness Sime Darby, and retailers Marks and Spencer on improving major global systems such as in food, energy, shipping, and retail.

Examples of projects Uren has led include Consumer Futures 2020, a toolkit of possible future trends to help retailers and manufacturers plan ahead; and Tea 2030, a global coalition of tea growers, packers, and certifiers working on challenges such as water scarcity and the vulnerability of crop yields to climate change.

Uren joined Forum for the Future in 2002 and has worked her way up the ranks to helm  the organisation in July 2013. The non-profit, which was set up in 1996 to lead the public and private sectors down a sustainable path, has since grown into a prominent global sustainability organisation with regional offices in the United States, India, and Singapore.

As we look back on the year, what do you think were the biggest headlines that had a significant impact on business and sustainability?

This past year, I have seen multinationals and large corporations show greater willingness to commit to important targets around deforestation and to collaborate on sustainability solutions. For example, the New York Declaration on Forests, signed at September’s UN Climate Summit, saw companies such as Kellogg’s, Nestle, palm oil giant Cargill, and Asia Pulp and Paper sign a pledge to halve deforestation by 2020 and end it by 2030. A total of 35 corporate giants including Google, Coca-Cola, Facebook and McDonald’s have also come together to launch Collectively.org, a futures-based platform aimed at making sustainability desirable to millennials.

I think these shifts in corporate attitudes come out of a realisation that firstly, sustainability issues are so complicated that no one organisation can solve them alone; secondly, some companies, especially those that rely on commodities, are realising that deforestation and climate change will have material impact on their work, which motivates them to address these issues.

these issues. I have also seen faint glimmers of companies beginning to look at shareholder value as more than just profit. For example, when questioned last year by a shareholder on the return on investment (ROI) of Apple’s environmental policy, chief executive Tim Cook responded that “doing the right thing” was more important than ROI.   

To bring this concept into the mainstream, the financial services sector needs to look beyond the short-termism of quarterly reporting to long-term sustainability. While the benefits of sustainability such as cost savings are widely known, corporates also need to be rewarded for environmental sustainability by investors, who should allocate more capital to organisations that are sustainability leaders. The stock market currently rates companies according to financial performance alone, but environmental performance needs to be factored into these metrics too.

Businesses will need to be aware of a new, emerging era of ultra-transparency, where the ubiquity of social media and mobile technology allows consumers to constantly scrutinize how they operate. There is nowhere to hide.

Sally Uren, chief executive, Forum for the Future

What do you think are the key themes that will dominate the corporate agenda as we go into 2015?

Businesses will need to be aware of a new, emerging era of ultra-transparency, where the ubiquity of social media and mobile technology allows consumers to constantly scrutinize how they operate. There is nowhere to hide.

We will also see increased public awareness on issues like inequality and resource scarcity - consumers are becoming concerned citizens, who will put pressure on businesses to do more on environmental stewardship than before.

Consumer-facing brands, for example, will have to meet growing expectations on the environmental and social values behind their products, and be more authentic about communicating a corporate purpose beyond increasing sales.

What is your outlook on the progress of sustainable development specifically in Asia?

We will continue to see steady progress on this front, but it is not as certain if it will be transformational or rapid.

 In the run-up to the climate change conference in Paris (COP 21), I hope to see big businesses engage their huge customer bases to demand an agreement on climate change. Currently, brands such as Ben and Jerry’s are already educating people on causes such as responsible dairy farming. If companies such as Unilever, whose products reach millions daily, could galvanise its customers to support action on climate change, that could be a game-changer.

What are your hopes for the coming year as we approach the December deadline for a global agreement on climate change in Paris?

I wish to see a global agreement on curbing carbon emissions and a price on carbon. I would also like to see developed nations working with emerging economies to agree on a common framework for mitigating climate change. I worry that a failure to do so will undermine our ability to address it.

Businesses also want to see a global agreement reached, because it is difficult for them to go the extra mile on reducing emissions without a price on carbon and supportive government policy. The private sector and civil society both want a strong climate deal, but governments around the world seem unable to reach a common understanding.

What will you and your organisation be working on this year?

I am the most excited about the Futures Centre, which Forum for the Future will launch early next year. It is being built from the Singapore office. Asia, as a fast-paced dynamic region, was an attractive location for the centre.

It will combine our knowledge of the tools and techniques for futures analysis and editorial expertise to give current decision-makers the information they need to make better decisions for a sustainable future. I’m excited about how it will help inspire and enable others to create change.  

This interview is part of the “15 on 15” series by Eco-Business where we interview 15 global and Asian leaders on their thoughts on the year ahead. Read all the interviews in the latest issue of the Eco-Business magazine here.

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