WATCH: Dame Polly Courtice’s inspiring Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech

Dame Polly Courtice delivered a galvanising call to action for future business leaders as part of her Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech at edie's Sustainability Leaders Awards 2021 Wednesday afternoon (3 February), claiming "this is the generation that still has time to change everything for the better".

The director of the University of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership (CISL) was the official Guest of Honour and Lifetime Achievement Award-winner at edie’s virtual Sustainability Leaders Awards on Wednesday.

Delivering her opening address to edie’s first-ever virtual awards audience, Dame Courtice’s speech noted the severity of the climate and ecological crisis that humanity is faced with, but reaffirmed that “this is the generation that still has time to change everything for the better”.

“I’m lucky enough to have had a long career in sustainability and see it emerge from a rather abstract concept into a recognised professional field that the corporate sector is really trying to get to grips with,” Dame Courtice said.

‘Big trouble’

“The business community has stepped up, the agenda has changed, the scientific evidence and our understanding of it has grown dramatically and the options and solutions available to us have grown many times over. This didn’t just happen by chance, it is the result of tens of thousands of people building the evidence, making the business case and holding companies to account and coming up with alternative ways of doing things.

“We are still in big trouble. Our current economic model, despite all the benefits it has bestowed, still results in the erosion of human and natural capital and fails to create the long-term social and environmental value that we want. Right now, we can have little confidence that we can do what it takes to avert catastrophic climate change.”

Dame Courtice Founded CISL in 1989, with the aim of helping businesses, academics, financial institutions and policymakers collaborate to deliver positive outcomes for society and the environment.

The body has grown steadily over the years and now works with more than 250 organisations including corporates, global banks and national governments. It employs more than 100 staff in three countries and has an international network of more than 16,000 people. This work earned Dame Courtice her OBE in 2016, for services to Sustainability Leadership, following a nomination from the University of Cambridge.

Last year, Dame Courtice announced that she would be stepping down as director of CISL. She has selected Clare Shine as her successor, who steps into the role this Spring.

‘Unique moment’

During her speech, Dame Courtice noted that efforts to embrace sustainability had changed from the “why to the how”, but that people and companies had to feel the importance of climate action “viscerally” and “work out what they can and want to do”.

“If there’s anything positive to take from this current crisis, it is the sense that we’re having a unique moment in history together,” Dame Courtice said. “7.8 billion us, facing a collective challenge and reminding us of just how fragile our social, political and economic systems are, especially in the face of nature.

“This experience has the potential to create an unprecedented bond between us and might just cause us to do things differently, to recognise that we are not simply victims of the future, trapped in an unchangeable system. Each and every one of us can play a part in shaping the future we want, especially those of us who have disproportionate access to power and influence.

“This is the generation that still has time to change everything for the better, to lead the change we need with courage and determination. I hope that you find being part of the sustainability movement is a wonderful, unstoppable force in your lives, as it has been in mine.”

Dame Courtice is the third recipient of edie’s Lifetime Achievement Award, following Forum for the Future’s founder-director Jonathon Porritt in 2020 and ex-Unilever chief executive Paul Polman in 2019.

The very best of sustainable business connected from the comfort of their homes for edie’s 2021 Sustainability Leaders Awards, which celebrated the individuals and organisations that are making sustainability and climate action ‘Mission Possible’, despite grappling with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

edie staff

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