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Tina Casey headshot

Sir Richard Branson's Plan B For Sustainable Business

Visionary business leaders Sir Richard Branson and Jochen Zeitz have joined together to launch a new global not-for-profit organization called The B Team. The idea is to put some real hard-core corporate muscle behind the "people, planet, profit" mission that nonprofits have been striving to push forward, while unifying like-minded companies around a common global agenda.

As for that agenda, The B Team mission pivots around a ten-point plan they're calling Plan B. The choice of name is an interesting coincidence here in the U.S. given the media attention surrounding the over-the-counter emergency contraceptive Plan B, which has been the subject of a fierce court battle as the Obama Administration sought to limit younger teens from obtaining it without a prescription. The coincidence is more than just superficial, though, as the two Plan B's share a strong message of personal empowerment and the right to direct and improve one's life.

Beyond Branson and Zeitz: The B Team

The B Team venture launched last Thursday, with Branson and Zeitz being joined by a select group including Shari Arison (Arison Group), Kathy Calvin (United Nations Foundation), Arianna Huffington (The Huffington Post Media Group), Mo Ibrahim (Celtel), Guilherme Leal (Natura), Strive Masiyiwa (Econet Wireless), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Government of Nigeria), François-Henri Pinault (Kering), Paul Polman (Unilever), Ratan Tata (Tata Group), Zhang Yue (Broad Group), Professor Muhammad Yunus (Yunus Centre), Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland (The Elders), and Mary Robinson (The Elders, Mary Robinson Foundation).

The group aims to focus on tackling three interlocking challenges that, according to Branson and Zeitz, are too overwhelming to be addressed by a consortium of nonprofit organizations.

The "Future of Leadership" Challenge will focus on establishing a moral compass for business leadership characterized by inclusion, creativity and fairness. The "Future Bottom Line" Challenge seeks to shift corporate accountability from next-quarter results to long term economic, environmental and social improvements, and the "Future of Incentives" Challenge will explore corporate and employee compensation practices that support the first two challenges.

In that context, of particular interest to TriplePundit is the leadership role adopted by Unilever. Unilever is the only major global manufacturing corporation represented in the B Team's kickoff circle, and earlier this month, we took note that Unilever USA has stepped up to lead a major public-private food waste/greenhouse gas management initiative in support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

We've also noted that despite a weak global economy, Unilever has achieved zero waste goals at its factories while seeing sales improve, and the company's Sustainable Living Plan has received its third number one score in a row from the Globescan Sustainability Leaders survey.

The Team B agenda: Plan B

With that in mind, let's take a look at the B Team agenda, the aforementioned Plan B. The launch statement for participants explains that members of Team B will:
...work alongside a global community of partners, advisors and supporters to deliver a new way of doing business that prioritizes people and our planet alongside profit - a 'Plan B' for businesses the world over.

More specifically, the B Team seeks to accelerate sustainable business leadership by serving as a community platform for stakeholders and the general public, with the ultimate goal of developing "a new charter that aims to redefine the purpose of business."

The Plan B agenda itself is fairly straightforward. Branson and Zeitz have organized it around ten key areas that need to be addressed in order to translate good intentions into action, which overlap to varying degrees with the three challenges they have identified.

Though necessarily vague on the details, the list starts with "The Right Aspirations," underscoring the need for a global platform that recognizes, celebrates and incentivizes businesses that do the right thing.

Other items on the agenda include establishing an openness to new business forms, which brings to mind the kind of public-private partnership that Unilever has engaged in, and promoting accounting systems that favor transparency and factor in externalities rather than treating them as, well, externalities.

Also included are redefining profitability in terms of environmental and social well being, and integrating that model into business education curricula.

The last two items are basically an appeal for businesses to operate with the "planetary boundaries" in mind, recognizing that resources are finite and that business goals must be oriented toward long-term, sustainable boundaries.

What about Plan A?

Although Branson and Zeitz have assembled a powerful, influential kickoff team, it's still tempting to say, "Yeah, good luck with that," when you snap back to the reality of a Plan A world, which is basically a room inhabited by an 800-pound gorilla that Plan B does not forcefully address, namely, climate change.

Until more business leaders step up and confront companies like TransCanada and ExxonMobil directly and aggressively, the real push for environmental sustainability will continue to come from nonprofit organizations and citizen action.

In addition, although The B Team recognizes population growth, income inequality and unemployment as being among the key challenges facing business, Branson and Zeitz do not directly address the role of female empowerment (or lack thereof) in these issues, particularly relating to family planning and reproductive rights, with religious identification piling on an additional layer of complexity.

It will be interesting to see how these issues come into play as more stakeholders contribute to The B Team and the Plan B agenda.

[Image: Plan B graffiti (cropped) by Remko van Dokkum]

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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