5 critical components to advance a sustainable economy

How can we transition to a sustainable economy? SustainAbility executive director Rob Cameron and director Lindsay Clinton lay out a “manifesto for change”.

shared electric cars grenoble
Shared electric cars parked in Grenoble, France. New business models such as the sharing economy, are essential on the path to sustainable development. EQRoy / Shutterstock.com

The UK election was fought largely on the issue of the economy. The Conservatives, with its surprise majority have promised to reduce the deficit by £30 billion. Fixing the economy and balancing the books is undoubtedly of great importance for the economy—as long as it is done sustainably.

It’s a simple fact: the economy is a sub-system of our ecosystem. And yet, it has become commonplace to believe that the opposite is true – that the economy is the dominant system.

The consequences of prioritising the economy and GDP above all else have become all-too visible: climate change, water scarcity, deforestation, soil depletion, resource shortages—but it is not only the environment that is paying a heavy price. The current economic model can be tied to rising workplace stress and illness, obesity, malnutrition, increasing inequality, and more.

How can we transition to a sustainable economy? What follows is our “manifesto for change,” where business leaders should work together within the corporate sector and with policy makers to address five critical components that independently drive change—and taken together, have the power to transform.

1. Recreate models. Much of sustainable innovation today focuses on advancing new products or new processes. What we really need are entirely new business models. Many current models only deliver value to themselves, and are based on the assumption that natural and social capital are in limitless supply, leaving society to pay a high price. As climate change and resource scarcity become more apparent, these models become less favorable.

In SustainAbility’s 2014 report, Model Behavior, we highlight the wave of new business models that are embedding or increasing social and environmental impact. From closed loop manufacturing to the alternative marketplace to consumer behavior change and shared resource models, these models are likely to be essential on the path to sustainable development.

In addition to our report, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Sustainia, and academics at the University of Cambridge and the University of St. Gallen, among others, have been exploring different and better business models. This wave of business model-centric thinking is necessary to create a sustainable future.

2. Reset policies. Most markets operate within a regulatory and legal framework that sends signals and drives business practice. The problem with this is twofold: first, many policy frameworks are designed for a time when resource scarcity wasn’t a concern and enterprise was encouraged at all costs.. Second, the political will to address policy change is stuck in a pattern that looks like a race to the bottom.

Recent policy plays may prod companies to do more. For example, the agreement last year between the US and China to curb emissions sent a powerful signal to companies in both countries that change is afoot. Meanwhile, in the US, B Corp legislation, which enables companies in 27 states to alter their articles of incorporation to meet the needs of all stakeholders, is a growing movement. New government regulations on sustainability reporting in countries as diverse as Brazil, France, South Africa, Denmark and Singapore could spur companies to develop and execute more ambitious sustainability strategies.

Many of us have been taught that the economy is an immutable law unto itself and that we have little power to change it. However, the economy is human made, and anything that is human made can be remade.

3. Recalibrate metrics. Business is driven by measuring performance and value through a very limited data set. Similarly, a government’s focus on GDP as a measure of progress is too narrow to truly understand the health of a people or a nation. Knowing that the future will likely be constrained by limited resources, it’s highly unlikely that we will measure performance and value in 2050 in the same way we do now.

Dialogue about accounting for externalities is in motion at conferences and in boardrooms around the world. Companies like AB InBev are starting to value the resources they most depend on—in their case, water. Google, The Walt Disney Company and nearly 150 other companies currently use an internal price on carbon to better understand their impacts and risks.

Initiatives such as the Natural Capital Coalition, an open source platform for developing methods to value natural and social capital in business, are encouraging new modes of gathering metrics. Alternative ways to measure the future value of a company have evolved through the work of Carbon Tracker, an organization that uses a new language and frameworks to emphasize the financial effects of climate change.

It’s likely there will be greater willingness to measure externalities in the future, as long as companies are permitted to account for positive impacts as well as negative.

4. Re-energize collaboration. Our most complex challenges will not be solved by individual actors, but through the coordination of key members within the system. This means that companies, including competitors, must join forces with advocacy organizations, governments, and communities to bring about change.

Several years ago, after pressure from Greenpeace about the presence of hazardous chemicals in their products, footwear and apparel brands with supply chain intersections like Nike, H&M, and adidas became part of the Roadmap to Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (RZDHC), with a goal to eliminate discharge from hazardous chemicals by 2020.

Because supply chains today can be comprised of dozens of tiers and thousands of suppliers, changing the way business is done—from removing chemicals to treating workers fairly—often requires many actors working together.

5. Refresh mindsets. Many of us have been taught that the economy is an immutable law unto itself and that we have little power to change it. However, the economy is human made, and anything that is human made can be remade. We urgently need to see the economy for what it is: a delivery system that enables us to satisfy our basic needs and meet our wants and desires. It is possible for us to create an economy that does this within ecosystem limits, precisely because we can imagine it is so.

Science-based forecasts tell us that the challenges are great and pressing. But fear will not drive change. We need refreshed mindsets that embrace the possibility that we can redesign our businesses and economies to live in prosperity and in harmony with our planet. With a new government in place, we should take the opportunity to push through progressive policies and demand greater focus on what it will take to have a truly sustainable economy.

Rob Cameron is executive director, SustainAbility, and Lindsay Clinton is director, SustainAbility. This post was republished from the SustainAbiilty blog.

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