Making Progress? The questions we should be asking about corporate sustainability

Do our many collaborations, frameworks, and programs ensure that we are doing enough, and fast enough, to save ourselves?

The world has big problems at the intersection of society, environment, and the economy – economic inequality, climate change, the destruction of ecosystems on which we rely for fresh water, food, and even clean air. The immediate plight of millions is evident, and the long-term prosperity of all is at risk.

The world’s largest corporations, as well as many smaller ones, generally seem to grasp the situation. Their voluntary efforts, strides toward stakeholder engagement and transparency, and support of policy all paint a mixed portrait of enlightened self-interest, strategic engagement, and downright desperation.

And yet the question remains: Are we doing enough? Specifically, are we doing it fast enough? Bill McKibben has noted pointedly that, at least in the case of the political fight for climate action,winning slowly is the same as losing, and the science backs that up. This observation is true in for many cases, notably when “winning slowly” translates into insufficient action to avoid local and regional tipping points. Many scientists fear that our collective impact will trigger a dramatic state shift in the biosphere– the passing of a point of no return – with devastating consequences for human wellbeing. And at the very least, when “winning slowly” lasts for much of or more than a human lifetime, we know it comes too late for some of us.

So what is the metric of this progress? There are, at once, too few and too many. The corporate world is awash in performance frameworks, reporting frameworks, and big-think conceptualizations of The Problem. Some start from the corporate world and work out toward social and environmental impacts (such as GRI). Others start from desired societal outcomes and try to work back toward corporate behavior (such as the SDGs). Others seek to characterize the brokenness of the system as a whole (such as the circular economy). Some focus on individual major impacts and probe corporate performance and governance therein (such as CDP’s carbon, water, and forest disclosures). A few organize collaboration in large, moderately homogeneous sectors with well-understood and long-standing social and environmental problems (such as the Bonsucro effort for sugar, and the Better Cotton Initiative).

Each of these examples represents an attempt to strike a balance among competing functions and goals. Those goals are all legitimate – goal-setting, transparency, collaboration, systemic understanding of the challenge, etc. The pursuit of these multiple goals is hard work, and it’s important work, bringing granular bits of usefulness – tools, insights, and ideas for action – to thousands of companies representing much of the global economy.

Unfortunately, in this legitimate quest for utility and appeal, the question of genuine progress – is it enough? and fast enough? – is generally lost.

There are several efforts that look like exceptions, notably RE100 (a series of companies working toward 100% renewable energy, though not all at the same pace) and Science Based Targets (a group of companies setting targets that are ostensibly in line with the goal of limiting warming to two degrees over pre-industrial levels). But those efforts mainly serve to underscore how difficult it is to set up a rigorous metric of sufficient progress, much less to enable a tidy and timely march in that direction. The devil is in the details, and those details, upon scrutiny, turn out to be much less conclusive than the simple messages encapsulating each project.

Unsurprisingly, the clearest work in this area relates most explicitly to policy governing a well-defined impact: a price on carbon. CDP’s Carbon Pricing Pathways describes . Yet even CDP – itself an NGO crucible of bold corporate collaboration on climate change and more – finds itself caught between its aspiration of facilitating ambitious voluntary action and the blunt need for policy. We simply aren’t going to end up on the right  “carbon pricing pathway” without new laws. Ultimately, CDP soft-pedals this message.

So where do we go? Perhaps this question of adequacy can become a complement, rather than a hindrance, to the good work that so many are doing. One suspects that a productive periodic “progress check” would contain a few ingredients:

  • Both long-term goals that target a clear destination and intermediate milestones that map out a path, however uncomfortable or implausible in light of the status quo, to those goals. You’d be surprised how few efforts do such a thing.
  • A regular, though likely not constant, revisiting of long-term goals
  • A de-emphasizing of transparency for its own sake, and an emphasis on achievement.
  • More clarity about where voluntary action representing genuine progress is not supported by policy. After all, if we all need to reach a destination, the rules should embody that imperative.
  • The question of progress must come home to roost at various scales – most naturally in policy, but also for individual firms (especially big ones) and for the giant collaborations they engage for help and cover, such as the ones listed at the outset.

None of that is easy, and often it isn’t fun. It might not even be sexy from a PR perspective. Clearly defining fast enough in a given situation might not lead to a compelling anecdote, a charismatic poster child, or an easily shared sound bit. But without this work, we’re doomed to lose by winning slowly. Just as one can be too busy chopping wood to stop and sharpen the axe, it’s easy to imagine how we might, at our peril, fail to look up from our good and earnest work to ensure that it is, in a word, enough.

This question of whether we are making progress is therefore, in this sense, a test of our resolve and our clarity – a test of how badly we want to avoid winning too slowly, and instead manage to look up and set our sights anew. I hope we pass that test.

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