Sustainability is having a moment. Greta Thunberg’s brave and straight-talking approach has inspired global climate strikes. The war on plastic continues to rage, thanks in part to the David Attenborough effect. And we’re seeing a rise in more conscious consumer choices, spurring increasingly innovative business models, such as Urban Outfitters’ clothes renting services and Pret a Manger’s veggie restaurants. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report paints a bleak and worrying picture, investor pressure has finally accumulated enough to spur the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD), which helps companies establish better climate-related financial disclosures. What’s more, governments around the world are gradually rallying; the UK has recently established a new commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 and Australia has created its own Modern Slavery Act.

There’s cause for optimism when it comes to business’ relationship with sustainability, too. As we hurtle towards 2020 at alarming speed, there’s a huge opportunity to define the next era for sustainability.

Business must transcend incremental change, and instead set meaningful, science and context-based business targets that will reverse our trajectory towards a >2°C rise in temperature. And we must find a way for business to shift towards net positive social equity, in other words from less bad, to more good. This is no small feat, requiring a mindset shift. Dell, for example, pledged in 2013 to give back ten times what it took, sustainability-wise, by 2020.

So why do I feel so restless?

Rather than embracing these – admittedly challenging – opportunities, business seems to be holding back. Yes, we’ve seen an increase in the number of companies pledging science and context-based targets (it’s about time). But many more are targeting minimal improvements, measured against the same KPIs from their previous strategies. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) present a radical vision for a sustainable global society, in just ten years’ time from now. Nevertheless, far too many companies are treating the SDGs as “yet another reporting framework” – another hoop to jump through when it comes to publishing an annual report. They’re using the SDGs as a way to validate their business’ status quo, rather than to chart a new direction into becoming truly sustainable.  

In June, I talked at amfori’s Unleash Opportunity conference in Brussels. In his plenary speech, John Elkington hit the nail on the head when he observed that our challenges – zero hunger and zero poverty by 2030 – are growing exponentially, but our brains don’t think in that way and this is reflected in the approaches we take. Nadia Zhexembayeva from ‘We Exist’ further clarified Ellington’s sentiments: "Business would rather commit suicide than jump into a new future”.

What’s holding things back?

Sustainability is hard. Sustainability teams in business, tasked with tackling everything from child labour in the supply chain to emissions reduction and diversity and inclusion, tend to be over-stretched and under-resourced. They also have the added pressure of needing to secure board-level buy-in, as well as engaging employees business-wide and keeping customers happy.

Meanwhile, they’re juggling the demands of myriad ratings and indices, keeping abreast of new regulation, reporting on progress and collaborating with industry groups, all while finding time to establish and monitor the actual programmes designed to improve performance in the first place. 

With so many plates to spin, it’s little wonder business’ appetite for meaningful change can appear limited. But I implore business not to wait for the impending crisis to unfold before reinventing its approach.

Momentum for change 

The countdown has begun. Monday 12th August marked 100 working days until 2020, the end date for many companies’ current sustainability strategies. Here at RY, we’re embracing this opportunity by launching a series of ideas, tools and resources to help inspire the new trajectory for business. Join us over the next few months, as we channel our inner Greta, with disruptive techniques to engage your toughest critics, ask the difficult questions, and set bold, ambitious targets to drive transformational change.


By Louise Ayling

Louise is the Stakeholder Engagement Director, and works in the sweet spot between technical sustainability and communications, helping companies to define their strategy and then tell their  story with purpose, intrigue and credibility.

She has a particular interest in human rights, which has seen her develop and deliver training sessions to multinational clients, as well as determining companies’ salient human rights issues and communicating their performance.


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