Five Corporate Sustainability Challenges That Remain Unmet
Article by Wayne Visser
There is no doubt that business is doing far more than ever before to tackle the sustainability challenge, for example by recognising its social responsibilities, reducing its environmental impacts, guarding against ethical compromises, making its governance more transparent and being more accountable to its stakeholders. Evidence appears in plain sight: a plethora of voluntary codes, management systems by the truckload, volumes of sustainability reports, socially responsible indices and funds, and an increasingly conscious business press.
All well and good, but – and this is a “but” that could prove to be a showstopper – all of this activity has failed to turn the tide on some of the most crucial inhibitors to sustainable development: ecological decline, poverty, greed, trust, and hope. Without significant progress on these five issues, the corporate sustainability crusade is doomed. In this article, I present evidence of these gaps that still exist and propose the shifts that are needed to address them.
The Eco Gap
According to the World Resources Institute’s latest report, World Resources 2002-2004: Decisions for the Earth – Balance Voice and Power, one billion people depend on fish for protein, yet 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are over fished or fished at the biological limit. Some 350 million people are directly dependent on forests for their livelihoods, yet global forest cover has declined by 50 percent since pre-agricultural times. More than 40 percent of the world population live in water-stressed basins and 65 percent of global agricultural lands show soil degradation. This is not about saving cute fluffy animals or pretty flowers; this is the stuff of survival, which is the true meaning of sustainability.
The link back to business is obvious. It is our consumptive lifestyle, which companies are spending more than $446 billion annually to stimulate with advertising, a nine fold increase since 1950. And we aren’t showing any signs of slowing down; just the opposite in fact. Private consumption expenditure topped $20 trillion in 2000, a fourfold increase since 1960. Approximately 60 percent of this consumption is by only 12 percent of the world’s population, namely those living in North America and Western Europe. If we are seeing rapid environmental decline now, what is going to happen when 10 billion more people convert to the Western consumptive lifestyle? Something’s got to give.
The point is that, despite all the efforts of companies in shifting towards sustainable strategies, the numbers are all still headed in the wrong direction. And partly, we permit this to happen by allowing business to skate away with mere cosmetic makeovers when wholesale transformation is needed. For example, how many corporate sustainability reports disclose cumulative emissions? None. They report on annual emissions, which often lure the reader (and management) into a false sense of security. The figures may be declining from year to year, but if you fill a glass with polluted water at a slightly slower rate, ultimately it is still going to overflow.
If we are going to avoid hitting the wall of ecological thresholds, beyond which our life support …
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Cite this article
Visser, W. (2004) Five Corporate Sustainability Challenges That Remain Unmet. Ethical Corporation, Issue 31, July.