What was clear from the outset of Unilever’s ambitious Sustainable Living Plan was that it could not be delivered by one organisation in isolation. It requires collaboration among a wide range of stakeholders on a whole range of issues. But one type of collaboration less well understood is the relationship between progressive business and governments who are trying to rewrite the rules of the game to align both the short and long term business interests with the creation of a low carbon world and promotion of sustainable living.
For too long we have seen our political leaders struggle to make progress on reshaping the rules that govern our economy. In theory it ought to be simple – create rules that reward the economic behaviours of which you want to see more, and penalise those of which you want to see less. The practice is more difficult, given that the economy is a living organism, not a static structure. It’s as if you were trying to change the tyres on a car while it’s moving at 70mph along the motorway. The challenge is not so much in envisioning the end state of affairs, but in managing the transition.
An economy in motion creates its own inertia in respect of policy frameworks; political pressure not to change things lest they upset the apple cart to a degree that the economy itself is destabilised or damaged unnecessarily. This isn’t just about playing with numbers, it’s about people. A sudden drop in GDP is a proxy for stresses on businesses, people, families and the government’s tax take. This is, after all, what the politicians fear might happen if they get it wrong. So no one should rush into any kind of economic transition lightly. But even once underway, and even when it is done carefully and while protecting GDP growth, this type of major transition takes time, and in respect to the climate change challenge it is time that we simply don’t have.
The need for bold action
Governments who try to change the rules will find all those who stand to lose out banging on their door, spelling out just how bad the consequences of that change will be for them, their supply chains, employees and the economy as a whole. The voices demanding the changes are not always so loud, especially where the industries that will benefit may not exist yet, as is the case with many of the new low carbon technology ventures that would reasonably be expected to prosper in a true low carbon economy. The real beneficiaries are the future generations whose lives will be protected from the catastrophic effects of climate change for which, without further bold action, we are all on course to experience.
This isn’t a new problem. Niccolò Machiavelli observed the same phenomenon back in the 16th century. In his landmark text The Prince he wrote:
“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”
The role of a sustainable business is therefore two-fold. Firstly to create the conditions by which, in the words of Machiavelli, “mankind can have actual experience” of a sustainable business being more successful than an unsustainable one. A small (too small) group of leading businesses are making good progress in demonstrating how sustainability can be at the heart of a business growth agenda. But this alone is not enough.
We also have a responsibility to provide a counterpoint to all those who argue for the status quo, for delay and inaction. John Ashton, special representative on climate change at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office put it succinctly last year when he said that the world had reached a consensus on climate action that could be summarised as: “Yes, but not now. Yes, but not us.”
Stepping up to the challenge
Through Unilever’s engagement with leadership groups from the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change in the EU to Business for Clean Energy in Australia, we are trying to send a message to policymakers that could be summarised as “Yes, and now, and yes and everyone.” But this voice is still too modest, too quiet and largely drowned out by the weight of the incumbent old industry giants who have much to lose from an accelerated transition to a sustainable economy.
Recognising that this is a battle that we have to win, we are stepping up our engagement. We are refocusing our global communications capability around a single aim of demonstrating our belief in the need for sustainable growth, which means both communicating what we as a business are doing as well as what we need and expect from others. The latter part of this is perhaps the most novel. We have borrowed the term “advocacy” from the campaigning NGOs to describe the capability we hope to build. In short, we aim to persuade others, including government, to take action on issues which we believe are critical to the delivery of our sustainable living plan. Climate policy, public health policy, recycling and waste policy are the three areas where we have already begun to try to do this. Our hope is that we can leverage Unilever’s global scale, networks, and visibility to raise the profile of some of these issues and the public policy needed to drive the right solutions, not just for our business, but for everyone. It is no small task.
But there are reasons for optimism. Many changes and challenges have looked impossible at the outset. They have followed a model of early pioneers making the case for a new way of doing things. It has often taken time but the general public, whose intelligence we underestimate at our peril, has come to see the reasons why the old ways have to end and the new ways must prevail. And in that way popular and political support builds. It is an oversimplification, but any number of social changes can be identified as having followed this pattern; the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage in general elections, recycling domestic waste and the abolition of CFC gases that were destroying the ozone layer.
Business must take the lead
The challenge of establishing the right policy frameworks for a sustainable economy is a more complex task and with less immediate direct benefits for individuals. The benefits will accrue to citizens in time, but they are not sufficiently clear that they are likely to be demanded, even if they are supported and accepted when introduced.
That is why business must lead this revolution, making the case for a change in the rules of the game to ensure that the right thing is also the profitable thing. Among other things this means proper pricing of externalities such as carbon and water and an end to perverse subsidies that incentivise fossil fuel production and consumption. Such a revolutionary thought is however no longer even that revolutionary. Even the World Economic Forum’s recent report More With Less, based on the views of the participating member companies argued that “governments must act to shape demand for sustainable products and services directly through public procurement, and indirectly shape behaviours and attitudes through policy”, a view more traditionally held by the environmental lobby.
The progressive business movement is growing, but not fast enough. It is often said that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. The same is true of this transition. Every good business that chooses not to engage proactively in the effort to secure the ambitious policy frameworks we need is unwittingly choosing to vote for a future in which none of us can prosper. Silence on the issue of climate change and sustainability is not an abstention from the debate, it’s an abdication of responsibility for which no amount of other corporate good deeds can compensate.
The request we make of other businesses both large and small is simple. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Make a choice. Get involved. And join us.
This article was first published as “Progressive business must speak out and collaborate for a sustainable future” in Guardian Sustainable Business on 14 May 2012. Click here to see the original and the discussion it prompted.