Thinking forward: 20 business leaders define the next 20 years of sustainability – Part two

EXCLUSIVE: In the second half of a two-part feature, edie brings you the voices of 20 sustainability professionals and political activists to discuss what will define the next two decades of corporate sustainability and business leadership.

In recognition of edie’s 20th anniversary, the past month has seen edie collate and deliver numerous blogs, features, infographics and features reflecting back on the past 20 years of sustainability.

Over the past two decades, entire industries have emerged and disappeared, struggling to remain profitable against a tide of economic pressures and ever-changing consumer demands.

The Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have elevated CSR from a nice-to-have to a critical lever of a successful business blueprint. But these global frameworks require new ways of thinking, unparalleled ambition and action and a new era of business leadership, if they are to be met.

With this in mind, edie has gathered the insight of 20 sustainability experts to give their views on the next 20 years of corporate sustainability across of range of key pressure points. From resource efficiency to green finance and from board diversity to consumer demands, the 20 viewpoints offer a glimpse of what key skills are needed to deliver a thriving business plan throughout the 2020s and 2030s.

You can read part one here.

11) Ramon Arratia, sustainability director, Ball Beverage Packaging Europe

In a preview of his upcoming appearance on the Sustainable Business Covered podcast, Arratia – formerly of Interface – outlines how the job specifications of a sustainability professional will change as the subject becomes much more aligned to core business values.

“Twenty years ago, sustainability people were the ‘losers’. We were doing charity stuff or the reporting. Now, we’re driving the world. Markets are being driven by sustainability and I feel that sustainability experts are running the show. Sustainability is shaping what is happening. We only have one planet and there are limits and constraints to this planet. This will only grow, and it needs to.

“There’s going to be more jobs on sustainability. But the jobs will focus on transformation, working with development and innovation and communicating at a strategic level. There will be niche jobs in packaging, human rights etc. Sustainability professionals will be more mainstream and market disruptors, but through teams that are involved in many different niches.”

12) Solitaire Townsend, co-founder, Futerra

There’s still no tried-and-tested method for communicating sustainability outside of the traditional CSR report – and even some people think its time to kill that off. Townsend notes that marketing sustainability credentials will likely become competitive, and incumbents may need more practice than others.

“We often overestimate what we should do in two years, but underestimate what we can do in twenty. With hard work, clear vision (and a little luck), over the next two decades, business can become the public’s best partner for positive change. But only if we find the collective courage to change a few things. Firstly, the idea of business ‘purpose’ will need to toughen up. Companies must realise their brand promise is a commitment to consumers, but their purpose is a contract with society.

“Marketing will become movement making. Sustainability advantage will be the competitive edge. Making much more, with much less, will make money. And if the large incumbent companies don’t make these changes, then a host of entrepreneurs are ready to jump in and make the sustainable alternative to stale products. The skills we need are simple: the passion to imagine better, and the sheer grit to make it happen.”  

13) Lord Deben, chair, the Committee on Climate Change

Business leadership can also be discussed through the lens of green policy. Corporates have huge lobbying power, but can also ignite new markets that, at times, force politicians to examine and introduce legislation. As Lord Deben summarised in a blog post for edie, the private sector needs to spur accelerated progress.

“The necessary ratcheting mechanism will not be easy to enforce, and the measurement of success will always be contested. Yet, overall, we can now say that humanity is on a journey to save ourselves and our planet from the disaster we had almost made inevitable.

“Climate change won’t wait at our convenience. The luke-warmers are as wrong as the deniers. There is no time to lose if we are going to succeed in the war to stop and ultimately reverse global warming. We are not going fast enough. We have to transform our car fleet, not in 2040 but closer to 2030; we have to raise our house building standards now and not, as Mrs May encouragingly proposed by 2030; we must institute a major effort on energy efficiency for our current housing stock.”

14) Leonie Schreve, global head of sustainable finance, ING

The finance sector is playing catch-up in the decarbonisation process. The risk-adverse nature of the sector means companies are only just outlining what constitutes as “green finance”. As Schreve explained in a recent interview, what is green today will be the new normal tomorrow, once the sector has established a few definitions.

“What is interesting when looking at the green bonds market is that investors determine what they deem to be ‘green’. We need to make sure there’s user quality in the market and that there are certain green definitions in place, so investors know what to back.

“What is sustainable today will be the new normal, so we’ll need something transformational and it’s something we’re probably not even thinking about today. But aspects like energy storage, electrification and products as a service in the circular economy will be key areas for us to focus on.”

15) Per Stoltz, sustainability developer, Ikea

Sustainability can still be viewed as a mitigation practice; a case of ‘do something, to make something less bad’. Stoltz is of the belief that sustainability professionals will become “changemakers” that inspire other areas of the business to drive change for the better.

“I think the sustainability role is going from being executing sustainability-related actions to be a driver of change. Driving the development through an integration of the sustainability agenda in the different functions of the company. Going from a doer to a change maker.

“Also, the advancing circular economy topic will influence the role of a sustainability professional bringing in the need for business knowledge to enable sustainable business development.”

16) Martin Gettings, head of sustainability, Canary Wharf Group

Canary Wharf Group’s new net-positive strategy is designed to make sustainability “real”. For Gettings, sustainability needs to create some tangible actions and stories as public expectations continue to grow to hold businesses to account.

“The next 20 years will see significant changes in the world of sustainability, both within organisations and within the world. Public expectations will continue to escalate to see social, environmental and economic injustices, properly addressed by those responsible. Better access to communication and technology will enable more people to have a more powerful voice to hold leaders to account.

“We will see a new kind of leadership, or ownership, as values shift significantly away from the current linear mindset, to a more circular way of thinking and living. If we don’t find a way – Mother Earth will resolve it for us in the future.”

17) Caroline Hill, head of sustainability and public affairs, Landsec

As sustainability becomes commonplace across all areas of the business, the ability to influence external stakeholders will require some fine-tuning. For Hill, the technicalities of sustainability will need to be matched by softer skills as aspects like wellbeing and social mobility become central to the CSR agenda.

“The next two decades for sustainability in real estate will be absolutely critical. The window of opportunity for preventing the worst effects of climate change is fast closing, and so meaningful action across all parts of the real estate value chain is essential. Within the next twenty years, sustainability needs to be truly embedded and embraced across the sector – becoming part of how business is run. Importantly, sustainability needs to be taken into account when the success of a business is measured by its stakeholders – including investors, customers and employees. 

“The definition of what sustainability means will further broaden out, with a stronger focus on how businesses are supporting and contributing to issues such as inequality and social mobility. Within the built environment, this will mean a greater focus on how building design and operation can impact productivity and wellbeing, and how we adapt to the changing needs of our customers. For sustainability professionals, this means that influencing and stakeholder management skills will increasingly be the key to success, in addition to technical and subject matter expertise.”

18) Peter Harris, director of sustainability, UPS

Internally, sustainability is changing everyday business interactions. But externally, it is having a profound impact on infrastructures, cities and transport. During his appearance on the Sustainable Business Covered podcast, Harris outlined the importance of creating relationships with new stakeholders, so that businesses are embedded into new smart city approaches.

“We are witnessing the design of the future city, it’s an urban design experiment and the future city will need to be cleaner and greener. At UPS we want to be at the leading transition and tech like EVs, power suppliers will be needed.

“But other things, some of which we don’t know about yet, will be needed. It’s important to be involved in the debate and collaborate to seek out the win-wins. Ultimately, we’re all involved in the same challenges and we need to find ways to work together to find solutions that benefit all.”

19) Anna Maria Rugarli, senior director of sustainability and responsibility, VF Corporation

The circular economy isn’t limited to products but is also having a transformative impact on business models. With consumer trust key to driving economic growth for corporates, Rugarli notes the importance of using closed-loop products to move from transactional to service-based consumer interactions.

“New expectations require brands to focus on new ways to engage with their consumers and build stronger relationships with them, such as offering circular business models like rental and re-commerce as well as design products for durability to support the transition from a linear to a circular economy.

“Sustainability is gaining momentum and is becoming part of a company’s core strategy and it is reflected in how they recruit and develop talent. We need sustainability professionals to be aware of these changes, adapt to the marketplace and consumer expectations to build relevant stories and experiences rather than transactional relationships with our consumers. This is for sure an exciting moment for our industry as we have the opportunity to serve our consumers in a more conscious way while unlocking new business value for our brands.”

20) Adam Hall, head of sustainability, Surfdome

The plastic phase-out has placed consumer-facing businesses in a precarious position. Doing too much in response to consumer demands can lead to unintended consequences further down the line. But as Hall explains, progress, technology and information are set to inspire a new wave of corporate action.

“I believe the future trends in sustainability will be based around technology – sustainability professionals will increasingly become regarded as far more practical individuals within a business, with increasing knowledge in packaging material makeup, its production and end of life, along with energy saving and generating technologies that are ever evolving. Both are vital elements as the fight against plastic pollution and climate change progresses.

“Sometimes you have objectors who come back with the argument that if you are not 100% perfect, you shouldn’t do it. That’s where we get stagnation and that’s where progress isn’t made. There’s a bigger threat from us not doing anything and, on that journey from not being 100% perfect, we will find 100% perfect.”

Matt Mace

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