How we got here on sustainability, and why it matters
Bladonmore’s Director of Sustainability, David Willans, walks us through sustainability’s enlightening back story.
Sustainability isn’t a buzzword that’s arrived out of nowhere. Its evolution has spanned decades, with some major defining moments along the way. There’ve been astronauts no less; Martin Luther King has made an appearance; an ex-PM of Norway has played a starring role and there are more acronyms than you could shake a stick at.
As businesses today plan their next steps and continue in their transition from bolt-on policies to built-in sustainability, they could do a lot worse than take a moment to look in the rear-view mirror.
Like Maya Angelou said – “You can’t know where you are going until you know where you have been”.
At the beginning there was an image
1968. Earth rising.
One of THE most famous photos. Coming in a decade where, for the first time, homes had TVs broadcasting news about civil rights and anti-apartheid protests, this picture made the masses realise we all share a single, finite planet. The Earth rising photo was an event and a symbol that gave people the impetus, courage, and conviction to act. This shift in perspective sparked a wave of environmentalism. A year later Friends of the Earth was founded, and two years later came Greenpeace.
Don’t forget the sixties also saw people pulling their money from companies doing business with the apartheid regime and selling tobacco. At the time this was called socially responsible investing (SRI).
Looking forward, remember that potent symbols emerge in troubled times.
Next came a definition
In the following decades, mass media’s reach grew, making people more aware of social and environmental issues. Floods, droughts, famine, and pollution.
1987 brought two big events.
The first was the signing of the Montreal Protocol to ban CFCs to tackle the hole in the ozone layer; the first global treaty to address an environmental issue, proving people could work together to solve a common challenge.
The second was when Gro Harlem Brundtland, an ex-PM of Norway, defined sustainable development with her UN report, Our Common Future; calling it “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
‘Sustainability’ for short.
Traditionally, economic development often came at the cost of society and the environment, because impacts on both weren’t priced in. Sustainability, on the other hand, endeavoured to address all three of these areas together from the beginning – economic, social, and environmental.
Looking forward, remember that it’s all interconnected.
Shareholder primacy proves itself inadequate
Back to the 1980s.
This is where business really comes into the story.
In the 1980s the doctrine of shareholder primacy took hold. Milton Friedman’s famous doctrine said business’ primary responsibility was to shareholders and no one else. Social and environmental concerns belonged to governments, not businesses.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill blew a gaping hole in this argument, costing Exxon half a billion dollars in fines. Hundreds of thousands of birds and fish were destroyed, as was one of the most pristine places on the planet. Some good came from it though, in the form of Ceres, an organisation founded to drive investors and other influencers to get business action on the world’s most pressing sustainability issues.
Looking forward, remember that big business will eventually get held to account.
The ’90s brought the action
The 90s was the decade where old skool sustainability pioneers started breaking through, inspiring new ones too. Uniting the likes of Yves Chouinard, John Elkington, Paul Hawkin, Sara Parkin, Anita Roddick, and Jonathan Porritt was the idea that responsibility and accountability are not burdens, but opportunities to find new and better ways forward.
In 1996, Nike’s sweatshop scandal broke and then a year later the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) was founded – Ceres played a leading part. The GRI is a big deal: one of the first frameworks for businesses to use to report on its social and environmental impacts.
A raft of other standards were launched in the decades that followed, but before we get to them, the new millennium saw the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) emerge. Looking back, it’s clear to see much was ‘bolt-on, not built-in’, albeit well meant. The 90s saw the growth of pioneering convening organisations pick up pace considerably. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), Business in the Community (BITC), Forum for the Future, and more. The networks these organisations represent were where most sustainability professionals, even though it wasn’t a profession then, met. Through them, huge advances in awareness, understanding, expertise, and action happened, and cross-industry collaboration on the issue took hold.
Looking forward, remember that international standards and collaboration across industries, together, move the wheel.
From accountability into opportunity
As the new millennia moved on, the 90s pioneers’ mindset of turning accountability into opportunity started to spread, accelerated by a more vocal society and far-sighted investor bodies.
In 2006, ESG was first mentioned when the United Nation’s Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) were launched. The term gives more clarity by breaking down the broad concept of sustainability into three, still big, buckets. Suddenly, investors were getting a clearer sight on how businesses were managing their risks. Since then, ESG has taken off as a set of standards. As knowledge and expertise advances on issues, more bodies emerge to hold business to account: CDSB (Climate Disclosure Standards Board), CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project), IIRC (International Integrated Reporting Council), SASB (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board), in commodities – FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), BCI (Better Cotton Initiative), MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) and many more.
Looking forward, remember that ESG came from investment risk management, sustainability came from impact.
The target bandwagon
M&S launched its ground-breaking Plan A in 2007, setting out 100 commitments over five years. They reaped huge reputational return on the serious money they put into the launch and set a new trend of announcing sustainability targets. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 had an even bigger impact and if all the commitments made in the years that followed had been met, we’d probably have saved the world a few times over by now. Instead, we’ve got the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), which certifies carbon reduction targets to make sure they’re based on science and are not just a big statement lacking substance for the next CEO to have to deal with.
In 2011, PUMA announced the world’s first environmental P&L, which sought to internalise environmental externalities. It got kudos and press but alas, it didn’t catch on. But internal carbon pricing has since and is used by the more mature sustainability organisations.
In 2015, the UN SDGs were launched – a really big deal: the coming together of civil society, business, and government to say what’s important for us, as a species, to achieve.
2016 saw Kingfisher (B&Q and Castorama, not beer) launch Net Positive, a strategy to get the business to a place where it has a net positive impact economically, socially and environmentally. It put them in the leading pack of sustainable businesses. Although the original front runner, Interface, (founded by the late, great, original sustainable business leader Ray Andersen) raised the bar shortly after by announcing how close they were to achieving their 1994 goal of Mission Zero, and their new plans to be a restorative business, there was not a net in sight.
Few leapt to join Interface. Probably because they were starting to realise just how hard sustainability commitments are to keep.
Looking forward, remember that targets sound great, but action’s what matters.
No history of sustainability in business is complete without a note on greenwash. Even though it messes with my timeline. A phrase first coined in the 80s, there has been a steady stream of greenwash scandals ever since.
Greenwash is lying; making false claims; giving false hope. Whether intentional or by mistake, it blocks action against critical issues such as climate change, because people think change is happening, when really it isn’t. The climate clock is ticking, and we have less than ten years left to avert catastrophic consequences. Greenwashing is a very serious issue.
Avoiding it means being technically correct and engaging with your communications, which is not easy to do, especially with so many such complicated issues.
Thankfully, new legislation in the US and Europe is making greenwashing harder to get away with. In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority’s Green Claims Code sets out six key points to check your environmental claims are genuinely green. Globally, investor claims are getting the most scrutiny through ESG legislation. Together, both areas are moving forward fast.
Looking forward, remember that greenwash can happen by accident and will get you into hot water.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It is fair to say that for many companies, especially those with under-resourced teams, the reporting burden has become painful. While the requirements continue to grow, the value of reporting to companies and the coordination of so many standards show signs of easing.
Until 2015, reporting was backward-looking, a record of what’s happened. Then the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) was launched, with a focus on assessing and understanding the risks from climate change a business is likely to face in the future. Things like how exposed its buildings are to extreme weather and rising seas, what this could cost in impact and to mitigate.
COP26 led to a big advance in the convergence of standards. The International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) was established in 2021 to bring together standards and make reporting both easier and more effective.
In 2022, TCFD disclosures became mandatory for all UK companies with premium listings. That’s all the FTSE 350. The SEC in the States is also exploring mandatory climate risk disclosure. In 2021, the TNFD (N for nature) launched, building on the great work of people like the Natural Capital Coalition, recognising businesses that are dependent on nature and setting a framework for how these risks should be considered and managed. The pace keeps quickening.
Looking forward, remember that reporting is a big task, one that’s increasingly becoming a legislative requirement.
So there you have it. A rapid gambol through 55 years of history to see where today’s critical work around sustainability originated – and how it has been evolving and bedding-in ever since.
I hope it has also helped you think about what this means for you, your work, and your business, so you can play your part, and better navigate the world as it changes around you.
If you’d like to know more as to how Bladonmore could help you with your sustainability communications programme then please get in touch.