A UN Global Compact survey reported that 81% of CEOS believe sustainability issues have become part of their company’s strategy and operations.
Most people would see the survey as a positive sign for sustainable business. Volans’ Executive Chairman, John Elkington does not.
A few short weeks ago, John shared these survey findings to a crowd of Canadian business leaders and posed the question: if CEOs are ‘accounting’ for sustainability issues in their core business, why are we experiencing escalating pressures on our environmental, economic, political and social systems?
The Volans team believes that part of the answer rests on the shoulders of executive level corporate leadership. Around one thousand companies control half the value of all the world’s publicly listed organizations. The power of some of the largest corporations and their leaders has become colossal in magnitude.
In response to the expanding dominance of business, Volans catalyzed a movement called Breakthrough Capitalism. Breakthrough Capitalism is a global call to action for corporate leaders to “reboot” capitalism through radically re-envisioning their business models. Volans has hosted Breakthrough forums in Berlin, London, Singapore and most recently Toronto.
In early November, Canada’s Breakthrough Capitalism forum challenged Canadian business leaders to rethink the way they do business in context to increasing global complexity. In his opening address, John Elkington acknowledged the increasing linkages between systems such as the food-energy-water-finance nexus, where one system cannot be fully understood without considering the others.
Toronto’s event brought together leaders from a cross-section of industries including financial services, energy, consumer goods, food, health, media and retail. The day was heavy on interaction and light on speeches. It opened the space for candid dialogue, questioning and brainstorming. Participants were asked to understand their business in relation to projecting three future world scenarios: Breakdown, Change-as-usual, and Breakthrough as depicted in the video below.
Following a fairly morbid discussion, participants recognized that the Breakdown and Change-as-usual scenarios are one and the same. Both will result in over-consumption, resource depletion, widespread poverty, and failed governance. The only distinction is that Breakdown will reach systems collapse sooner. Consequently, managers were quick to agree that the only viable way forward is the Breakthrough scenario.
What does Breakthrough mean to Canadian Business Leaders?
1) Executive Leadership
All participants agreed that buy-in from the top is critical. One only has to look at the likes of Paul Polman at Unilever or Jochen Zeitz at Puma to understand that executive level leadership holds immense power over corporate strategy.
2) Aligning Language
From shared value to corporate social responsibility, conscious capitalism to constructive capitalism, corporate social innovation to sustainability, the field is a cacophony of competing language. It’s painfully ironic that each movement is attempting to achieve the same goal of making the world a better place. Participants accept that language needs to converge in order to shift the movement from the periphery to the mainstream.
3) Creating Opportunities to Act
During the afternoon, the forum broke out into four groups prepared to hack the assumptions and models driving their respective industries. These breakout groups gave attendees permission to dig deep into the heart of their business and posit potential solutions.
Generating a storm of new ideas and next steps, the accountants led the way for actionable solutions. Real time performance indicators, responsible resource stewardship, long-term thinking, and embedded sustainability education represented a handful of the accountant’s proposed objectives.
II. Consumer Behaviour
Marketers wrestled with their dependence on ever-increasing consumption in order to meet their sales growth objectives. Group participants agreed that enabling consumers to align their social and environmental values with their purchases is the future of responsible consumer behavior.
III. & IV. Food
Solutions that bubbled up from the food systems group included creating a “sin food” tax, mitigating food waste, educating consumers, investing in local food, and collaborating along supply chains.
4) Personal Transformation
Although much needs to be done at the office, change must also start at home. Too often we ask the world to act differently and forget our own role in embracing the change we seek. It was widely recognized that we should be mindful of our own values and beliefs, and channel that energy beyond our workplace to permeate all aspects in our lives. Sandra Odendahl of RBC captured this spirit in her closing remarks: “We are more than consumers, more than tax payers. We are citizens.” As citizens, it is our duty and privilege to care for one another and support a healthy environment.
It’s up to us – business leaders, civil society and government – to push one another forward. As the CEO of MaRS Discovery District, Ilse Treurnicht, declared, “It feels like the world expects more of us than we expect for ourselves.” Let’s cut loose from the status quo and rise to meet the demands of wicked problems. We are ready. It’s time for a breakthrough.