Sustainability's Success

The financial meltdown has proven how badly things need to change. In July the world was focused on faltering trade negotiations, managing high energy and food costs, climate change and ecosystem degradation. Today, the recent financial collapse has led to a large-scale evaporation of trust in markets.

The irony is that leading companies have long been trying to convince the financial markets to value sustainable development, the companies that pursue it, and the long-term view.

The WBCSD has long been calling for bold governance to manage climate change and for governments to recognize business as a solution provider for that and other sustainable development challenges, in terms of investment, innovation, technology and job creation.

This idea is finally catching on, especially with the "proof" that sustainability is not a synonym of liability. "The companies that sit atop Fortune's 2008 Accountability Rating don't see sustainability as optional," says a 24 November article in Fortune Magazine. "It is core to our long-term success as a business to behave in a responsible way," says Chris Burgess, director of corporate responsibility at Vodafone, the mobile-phone operator.

At the top of the list Vodafone "wins points for its announcement this year that it will halve its carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, an initiative that will be monitored over time. But it also gets credit for offering low-cost phones and a mobile-banking service in rural Kenya, with measurable results: Vodafone says it now has more than four million customers there."

Fortune notes, however, that several of its top-ranked companies with exposure to the banking crisis are struggling, including number 2 General Electric. "But that doesn't mean corporations should abandon responsible practices in tough times. Accountability calls for, among other things, transparency and engagement with stakeholders. Now that taxpayers are bailing out banks and insurers, those firms surely will end up being more accountable, whether they want to or not," it says.

A second report, this one by the Economist's Intelligence Unit, concurs with this assessment. Its report finds that almost three-quarters of businesses with corporate social responsibility programs in place are seeing financial benefits as a result of achieving environmental goals.

"Although the report was conducted in September -- before the worst of the financial crisis sunk in -- the results show that even in the face of a worrisome downward trend in global markets, companies that have taken serious steps toward improving their social and environmental performance are seeing gains from those programs," says an article by Matthew Wheeland on GreenBiz.com.

"In the survey, which included 566 U.S.-based executives, as well as in-depth interviews with 16 executives at companies and organizations leading the charge on CSR performance, found that 74 percent of respondents believed or had witnessed that corporate citizenship programs can help increase profits at their companies."

The best news of 2008 so far is that the financial crisis has not pushed businesses or governments to abandon sustainable development. In fact, many in business and government, most notably US President-elect Barack Obama, have suggested that a "green solution" can be found to both economic and ecological challenges, creating new jobs and markets by investing in new forms of energy, retrofitting buildings and equipment and managing forests and other ecosystems.

We are talking about a new world, but are its leaders — those in business, government and civil society alike — courageous enough to run it well? To do so will require a new balance between governments and markets, the ability to live and prosper in a carbon-constrained world, and the capacity to innovate responsibly while encouraging the development of emerging economies.

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