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Why Being Bold is Not Enough When it Comes to Sustainability

Raz Godelnik headshotWords by Raz Godelnik
Investment & Markets
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Four years ago I attended the 20th annual BSR conference in New York, which convened just before Hurricane Sandy. The conference theme was “Fast Forward,” reflecting the need to accelerate progress in business when it comes to sustainability. Back then I quoted Aron Cramer, BSR president and CEO, who wrote: “As we reflect on the past 20 years, it seems that everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”

Four years later, I attended the 24th BSR conference earlier this month in New York. This time the theme was “Be Bold,” and just like four years ago it was followed by a hurricane, only this time it was not Sandy, but Trump. This year Cramer included in his opening remarks the following comment:

“It is time for us to redefine what we mean when we talk about sustainable business. We have to redefine our approach to meet our moment and not just retrofit yesterday’s world, some of the things that are fading away.”

I couldn’t agree more with Cramer in both instances.

At the same time, both hurricanes (Sandy and Trump) bring a sense of urgency and the need for business to create, deliver and capture value in ways that are fundamentally different.

Therefore, while the sessions I attended and watched this year reflected progress and important, even bold, steps, I found the progress lacking. While companies seem to be moving forward, the challenges we face advance much faster in the other direction. Hence eventually we find ourselves actually moving backward, not forward.

Given that this trend is probably not likely to change, i.e. the impact of VUCA challenges will continue to outpace business ability to respond within the current framework, it is perhaps time to rethink the sustainable business framework, or even business fundamentals in general.

Let me be clear: It’s not that the urgency was not evident in BSR, but it wasn’t the type of systematic investigation, where “executives and employees at all levels need to challenge everything, from processes to the way we innovate (openly, not in private) to business models to capitalism itself,” as Andrew Winston suggests in his book “The Big Pivot.” It was also not the type of exploration of structural alternatives that I saw a week or so later at the Platform Cooperativism conference, which focused on a new economic paradigm that rejects “wealth inequality, gender inequity, environmental degradation, and systemic racial injustice.”

BSR obviously can’t be Platform Cooperativism, but it doesn’t mean it can’t challenge its members with an agenda focusing on heretical questions and experiments.

Looking for inspiration, I was definitely inspired by some personal stories shared at the BSR conference. Take for example Mina Guli, the founder of Thirst. She decided to bring attention to the estimate that by 2030 demand for water will be 40 percent greater than supply by running 40 marathons across seven deserts on seven continents in seven weeks this year. Next year she plans to do it in six continents in six weeks.

Guli is an inspiration first because she took on a difficult physical challenge (she is the first person to complete such a feat) to spread the word on the issue of water scarcity. When we talk about bold actions, is there anything bolder than that? If any of the companies attending the conference would take on their own version of Guli’s “Seven Deserts Run” challenge, I’m positive we would be in a far better position. But then again, this is far more than being bold – this is about adopting a new mindset and being fully committed to making a difference.

Guli is also an inspiration because while she is the one taking the challenge, she puts the people already suffering from the water crisis at the center of her campaign, sharing the stories of people in Spain, Jordan Australia and the other places where she runs. In addition, she is exercising materiality, focusing not on the water coming out of your tap, but on the invisible water:  “95 percent of the water we use every day is invisible. It is hidden inside the things we wear, eat, use and consume every day,” she says.

“if your fear define your future it defeats your dreams. ... Too often we’re confronted by fears that we set by ourselves or by society. We’re afraid of standing up. We’re afraid of people tell us things are not possible. But the reality we have to remember, I have to remember, [is] that when people say things like this, it is a reflection of them, not me,” Guli said, giving everyone I hope a sense of where this new mindset stems from.

Last but not least, I’d like to mention the space where the conference took place. In his opening remarks, Cramer made the case that “we need to redefine the our agenda." He continued: "There’s a word that is not a complicated word; it’s not sustainability jargon; and my bet it doesn’t appear in many GRI reports: It’s the word fairness. More attention needs to be given to basic economic fairness. This is the foundation on which social cohesion rests and it’s in somewhat short supply right now, so we should put it higher on our agenda.”

Again, I couldn’t agree more. There’s only a slight problem – I believe it’s a bit difficult to have a real conversation about a new agenda focusing on economic fairness at the Grand Hyatt New York, where the conference took place. It’s a very nice hotel, and I’m sure it has many advantages. But one advantage it lacks is that it does not represent an agenda of economic fairness and equality. If anything, it represents the opposite, given that BSR attendees were offered $443 per night hotel rooms (after a group discount).

If BSR really wants to pursue a more progressive agenda, it needs to send a clear message by choosing a space representing this agenda, like a community college or a civic center. Otherwise, not only the ability of the participants to empathize with the people actually struggling with economic fairness issues remains limited, but also the effectiveness of message coming from BSR.

It goes again to the need to reimagine the future of business in ways we haven’t seen before, taking into account that the rules of the game have changed -- and so should the response. As John Erenfeld put it bluntly more than a decade ago: “The real business case for sustainability requires more radical, fundamental and difficult change than most are ready to consider, but anything less ignores the real problem and may, in fact, contribute to it.”

It is time for business to stop thinking in (sustainable) business-as-usual terms and start getting real about the urgency of the challenges we face and the type of unprecedented shift they require. Hopefully the next BSR conference will reflect it.

Image credit: Vincent Breton/BSR

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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