Jonathon Porritt: Silence 'no longer an option' for business sustainability

EXCLUSIVE: With the challenge of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5C at hand, corporates wishing to become sustainability leaders must now get vocal about driving the "unprecedented" societal changes outlined in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) landmark report.

Porritt delivered a rousing opening address on the need to accelerate business action on climate change

Porritt delivered a rousing opening address on the need to accelerate business action on climate change

That is according to the founder and director of Forum for the Future, Jonathon Porritt, who delivered the opening address for Day One of edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum today (5 January).

Speaking to a packed auditorium at the Business Design Centre in London, Porritt called for a new era of corporate sustainability leadership, in which businesses view all environmental and social challenges as interconnected and use their scale to advocate for transformative change.

He noted that, despite being bombarded with streams of negative news surrounding social inequality, rising emissions and health and wellbeing epidemics, most businesses are failing to connect the underlying theme – that of a “climate emergency”.

“What we are not doing in the world of corporate sustainability is thinking intelligently about the linkages between all elements of our challenges – the human elements, the natural and physical elements and the economic story behind it – because we’re still stuck in old-world views of thinking about how prosperity will look, tomorrow,” Porritt said.

“We are living in an emergency but behaving as if nothing much is going on is that out of the ordinary, which is very bad, I think, for our phycological equilibrium and for future-proofing.”

In the face of such large-scale global challenges, Porritt explained, green groups and members of the general public are becoming increasingly vocal in their calls for change beyond the incremental and levels of action the IPCC has described as “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented”, covering all aspects of society.

He cited the example of 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, who has sparked a Europe wide “school strike for climate” campaign and challenged C-suite executives and global policy leaders at this year’s World Economic Forum to “act as if their house were on fire, because it is”, as an example of this.

Similarly, Porritt highlighted the growth of the Extinction Rebellion movement in the UK and abroad, as ever-larger groups begin to demand direct action from policymakers.

Brand activism and changing the corporate voice

In spite of positive growth in these climate-centric conversations among investors, campaigners and the public, Porritt argued that corporates have been slower to call for a societal sea-change.

“What we [often] hear are individual, micro-stories about how companies are doing good things within the envelope that they have been given to try and improve their own performance - but they have now got to step outside the comfort zone of their own envelopes and start talking about what is going on in the global economy today – that’s where it gets really difficult,” he explained.

“It doesn’t matter if you magnify the amount of good corporate micro-stories by 10, 100 or 1,000 – if there isn’t a challenge to the macro-economy, none of those good stories will make a peck of difference in addressing the emergency.”

Porritt was particularly incensed that no big-name corporates had publicly commented on the slow action of most oil and gas majors in driving a low-carbon energy economy.

“The end of life on earth as we know it today is being forecast,” he added, “so silence really is not an option any longer and ignorance as to these things is certainly no longer an available excuse.”

Porritt’s sentiments come at a time when brand activism is undergoing the early stages of a revival, with the likes of Nike and Procter & Gamble (P&G) now using their advertising to advocate for social equality.

Similarly, brands which have long positioned themselves as corporate activists in the transition to a resource-efficient and ethical society, such as Patagonia and The Body Shop, are beginning to reap the reputational and financial benefits of taking a strong stance.

Indeed, research has repeatedly shown that consumers – particularly those who are Millennial or Gen-Z – are now keen to buy from, and work for, companies with a strong purpose beyond profit.

However, Porritt noted that such messaging is rarely climate-focused and argued that much corporate action is still an act of “lip-service”.

“Ours is still a predominantly linear economy, pursuing growth at any cost and externalising as many of those costs as is possible and perusing a ‘shareholder-first’ mindset,” he concluded.

“Is that morally acceptable? And does the concept of leadership really mean much when you’ve got a systematised excuse factory?”

Sarah George


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