From GlobeScan to BSR and Forum for the Future, many of SustainAbility’s peers are celebrating – or have recently celebrated – important anniversaries. We have asked three of our fellow organizations to reflect on the journey to date, the key achievements and lessons learnt, and what it will take to remain relevant and impactful in the rapidly changing field.
The publication of the Brundlandt Report Our Common Future in 1987 marked a major milestone in the history of sustainable development. By defining the term for the first time, it put sustainable development on the agenda of major institutions, making a strong case for urgent action to address environmental, social and economic issues and preserve rapidly deteriorating ecosystems.
The launch of the report also spawned the establishment of a range of organizations with sustainability at the heart of their mission. GlobeScan was founded in the same year as SustainAbility. Five years later, BSR was established with a similar mission to enable transition to a sustainable economy, followed by the launch of Forum for the Future in 1996 and Corporate Citizenship in 1997.
For their relatively small size, this handful of organizations shares many firsts. BSR was part of an effort to create the first website on corporate social responsibility in partnership with Levi Strauss & Co. in 1997 and also led an effort to conduct the first independent monitoring by NGOs of labor conditions in export factories. GlobeScan conducted the first global annual poll on environmental issues, and Forum for the Future was the first UK-based NGO to establish a partnership with business to work on sustainability.
But most importantly, along many other like-minded companies and NGOs, these organizations played a crucial role mainstreaming the concept of sustainability and making it part of business day-to-day vernacular. This was achieved through relentless persistence and bold thought leadership, building partnerships and alliances along the way. Launching new collaborations and creating networks of like-minded individuals also played a key role.
The rapidly changing landscape will also require new thinking and solutions. As Aron Cramer of BSR notes, it is important to challenge the orthodoxies in the field and “not to get locked into the frameworks that have served us well for the last decades.” The movement has made great progress pushing sustainability into the business mainstream, but organisations such as ours need to continually question our own if we are going to continue to make an impact in an increasingly dynamic, volatile and unpredictable world.
On the key achievements…
Sustainability was not on the business agenda when our organisations got started, so simply put the likes of BSR, SustainAbility and others have helped to change the way people think about business. Climate, human rights, women’s empowerment – these issues would not have been so much part of the business agenda but for the efforts of some of our organisations.
Building support for collaborative solutions — twenty five years ago when we got started the examples of businesses and NGOs working collaboratively on human rights, climate issues, economic fairness were few and far between and now they are a very important and normal part of the landscape.
On the highlights of working in the field…
Working with companies, civil society and governments and seeing the absolute fantastic result at COP21 has to be a very significant moment for many of us and it certainly was for me. It was a spine tingling moment when the Paris Agreement was reached.
It was a spine tingling moment when the Paris Agreement was reached.Aron Cramer, BSR
I can recall being part of the team that put forward the first independent monitoring by NGOs in export factories in Central America. That was the first time any global company had brought NGOs in to look at what labor conditions were like, working with The Gap and the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. That was certainly a big highlight.
On the changing nature of our organizations…
One challenge for the entire sustainability community – and we are trying to take this on at BSR – is not to get locked into the frameworks that have served us well for the last 25 years. Just as the world is changing for business, the world is also changing for the likes of BSR, SustainAbility and other organisations. We are challenging some of the orthodoxies that have grown up in our field and modernising some of the activities that we are undertaking.
We all got started as change agents and if we are going to continue to be change agents, we should honour the work that has been done, but not become prisoners of it. If we don’t change as fast as the world is changing then our ability to have the impact we want to have will diminish over time.
On lessons learnt…
Have we been as successful as we should be or could be? Probably not. Has it taken longer than it should have? Probably yes. But now it feels like there is a critical mass. Is it a tipping point? I don’t know. But there is maturation in what matters and what it means to be successful.
On the issues side, we haven’t made it easy for people to understand and join in. Could we have better explained and simplified all of this from a linguistic perspective and focused on a smaller set of issues? I think we are there now but it took a long time.
On the highlights…
In 1997, we did our first environmental monitor, which was the first international environmental poll to be done an annual basis in the world. There was a second poll that was important for us and for the field – the Millennium Poll on Corporate Social Responsibility. It was 1999 and very few people talked about quantifying issues and what the expectations were. The poll results were used extensively in CSR teams and companies to make the case that these issues matter.
Playing that facilitative, catalytic role, being a spark for the way forward and demonstrating what good looks like and should look like is the most important thing.Chris Coulter, GlobeScan
Looking ahead to the future…
All our organizations are relatively small – that gives us nimbleness and we can adapt quickly. Almost all of us aren’t publicly traded, which gives us the luxury to step back and puts us in a place where we are able to continue to point to things that are meaningful and interesting – or provocative at least – and showcase them.
The other thing that we should all try to do is be sympathetic partners and support the change happening. Playing that facilitative, catalytic role, being a spark for the way forward and demonstrating what good looks like and should look like is the most important thing.
On the key achievements…
One of the main achievements for the movement has to be dragging corporate sustainability from the fringes of business into the mainstream. While the degree to which business embraces sustainability still varies, from a ‘we know we need to do this, but we’ll do the minimum’ to ‘sustainability is a critical value driver for our future success’, it’s now woven into the DNA of the corporate brain.
One of the main achievements for the movement has to be dragging corporate sustainability from the fringes of business into the mainstream.Sally Uren, Forum For The Future
From policy makers, to business leaders, to social entrepreneurs, there is an increasing tendency to view the sustainability issues as a set of issues, that can’t be stripped back to just environmental or just social.
On the ways to have impact in the future…
It is about acting as a catalyst for system change, whether that’s individual systems or the whole socio-economic system. With our Futures Centre we are honing our ability to pinpoint the areas with the most potential for change so we can make faster, more focused interventions – or highlight the opportunity for others to do so.
We plan to continue to innovate solutions to complex challenges, developing more global, systemic collaborations which start with an inspiring, shared vision of the future worth working towards together. There will be more projects such as Tea 2030, Cotton 2040, the Protein Challenge and the Net Positive Project. And at the other end of the spectrum, we will continue to scale the niche innovations such as the circular economy, building on the success of projects such as the Community Energy Coalition, where we helped take a nascent community movement in the UK and take it to the mainstream.