Guest Post: 20-Year Reflection

In a post this summer talking about BT’s Environmental Heritage I mentioned our Corporate Sustainability Officer Chris Tuppen.  Chris has since left BT after a long and influential career in the company to pursue new pastures in sustainability. He kindly agreed to provide some personal reflections after a 20 year career in the field.

Reflecting back over twenty years of corporate sustainability and then attempting to summarise that into a 500 word blog is an almost impossible task.

Much has changed. Twenty years ago sustainability was more for the NGOs than the C-suite. Not today, when many companies have appointed Chief Sustainability Officers. Today we also see whole marketing campaigns and business units built on emerging customer demand for ethical and low carbon products.

Much though hasn’t changed. The basic premise that sat behind the 1987 Brundtland report and Limits to Growth (1972) is rapidly turning from prediction to reality. Natural systems are straining at the seams and whilst economic externalities are becoming expensive internalities in some areas, the true costs of doing business are rarely accounted for in full. Of course it’s good news when it does happen as it is precisely this that drives innovation and new business models. One area where we are definitely seeing this take hold is in the development of low carbon technology as carbon emissions increasing take on a bottom line cost.

Investing in business development that converts future risk into new and profitable revenue growth requires vision and a long term view of business success. Some companies and some investors see this, but many still live in a very short term world. I recall my first conversation with BT’s investor relations department back in the early nineties when I was told the company’s investors saw sustainability matters as little more than good housekeeping. Now we have a vibrant SRI community, but it’s still relatively small fry in the big scheme of finance flows, and mainstream investors generally need to see short term (generally less than one year) implications before taking sustainability seriously.

We are all aware of the problem. Market economies need to grow just to maintain good standards of well being, let alone improve living standards. But recent history shows us that growing economies put more and more strain on natural systems. Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth explains this in a very engaging way for those of us who are not trained economists. What the book doesn’t tell us is how to actually achieve its title: prosperity without growth.  Perhaps it is the wrong title? Alternatively couldn’t we achieve a sustainable outcome through growth that protects (or better still rebuilds) natural systems? In other words, still have growth, but a different kind of growth.

Over the past twenty there has definitely been a growing appreciation of ‘the problem’ in the business world. But the corporate world is no closer to the solution than the politicians. Businesses need to grow to survive. It should probably go without saying, but is still probably worth reminding ourselves, that businesses that ‘grow’ by cutting costs are unable to invest for the long term, and this is definitely bad news for sustainability.

So, until the economists provide us with a new model that delivers prosperity without growth, both at a business level and a country level, we need to find ways of growing sustainably.

Postscript 19 January 2011 – added a complementary perspective from Michelle Greene at NYSE Euronext; A Freshman Reflects.

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