ES Global
for a just & sustainable world

The Sustainability Century

Every century is known for something big. In the 17th century it was the Renaissance; in the 18th and 19th the Industrial Revolution; in the 20th it was Technology. The 21st will be known as the Sustainability Century, or will be, if we manage to survive it.

Without a doubt you have all heard the dire predictions: food, energy and water shortages, impossible pressures on vital and ever shrinking ecologies, leading to resource conflicts, food insecurity, health risks, etc. See Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth if you are not already truly scared about life on this planet forty years from now.

The Sustainability Century

  • World is going to hell in a hand basket as living standards improve (how is that for irony?)
  • Capitalism has flaws – efficiently working for the common good being a big one — but it’s what we got to confront the looming ecological crisis.
  • Capitalism is innovative and that’s good if companies are to hear and respond to growing sustainability market signals.
  • Sustainability or values market signals exist – some are louder than others and companies don’t always hear them well.
  • Production systems and Consumer habits must change to respond to the sustainability needs of the planet.
  • Governments need to be sharp and take actions to strengthen sustainability market signals, not reinforce unsustainable market habits.
  • Governments need to vigorously support freedom of speech and reporting transparency is key to hearing sustainability signals the world round.

And as the living standards of emerging markets improve, as they rightly should, some might say things will only get worse and many see no hope for our world driven, as it seems, by “the one who dies with the most toys wins” capitalism.

But capitalism is what we have got to work with because there is simply not enough time on the ecological clock to discover and develop a functioning alternative before the global ecological meltdown occurs.

Unfortunately, capitalism has, over history, proven much better at making profit than serving the “collective good”, or as I call it, the “values” markets – - 250 years of purposeful disconnect between the values we hold dear and how we produce and sell goods and services has seen to that.

By contrast and fortunately, a hallmark of capitalism is innovation. The capitalist system is so innovative, in fact, it spits out over 700 new products daily – a bit of information that is at once heartening and depressing. It’s depressing because very few of these products respond to a new market need and most simply contribute to more unnecessary consumption. It is hearting because it demonstrates the fantastic innovative potential of the system.

So for better or for worse, we must place the fate of humanity in a system which imperfectly response to the needs of humanity (writ the market) and hope that in time, it will innovate production systems and consumption habits that deliver us from ecological disaster.

Equally important are supportive political systems. Government policy and programs that connect markets to values are crucial; they must be sensible, far seeing, explicitly serve the needs of sustainability and critically, not try to replace market signals.

Political systems must also support freedom of expression, for in addition to being a fundamental human right, without freedom of expression how can stakeholders and consumers send values signals to the market?

Finally governments need to vigorously support the legacy of Queen Anne I who commissioned the first financial audit in 1559, by encouraging, and if that doesn’t work, regulating the enforcement of annual audited sustainability accounts. The GRI has got us half way there, so this is a no brainer.

Probing common societal values and reacting to their signals is certainly the skill companies and governments alike will have to sharpen if they want to be successful if this indeed is to be the Sustainable Century.