The World Business Council of Sustainable Business is made up of around 200 large businesses with global influence and power: the Councils’ members are diverse in industry type, with representatives from energy, plastics, automotive, professional services and banking to name a few. With such range of business types being represented, I expect there to be differences in attitude towards the idea of sustainable development, which I believe is embedded in the corporate culture of a company: managers are under pressure to deliver results for owners, and often even have incentive clauses within their contracts – such as bonuses, or share buying options – which align to the demands of major shareholders. Therefore maximizing economic performance is typically the principal objective of businesses. To the contrary, there are businesses with very strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, and hence may have more empathy for the sustainable development concept: it will be interesting to see if I can spot clashes of ethos on the subject between council member companies.
In short term business, sustainability is not something that will enhance profits – research and development expenses are high (while productive results are typically only realized in the long term, so little or no return), while operating in an environmentally friendly way tends not to be at profit-maximizing cost levels. Operating in a way which could be considered sustainable takes vast amounts of finances away from what creates companies their wealth: their resources, such as labour and capital. Having less resources means less output, which therefore means less profit – causing ground to be lost on competitors. To summarize, a business pursuing sustainability objectives is certain to lose profits in the short term. For those businesses who are truly wishing to change their ways, they must face the sustainable development business paradigm, which is whether to sacrifice today for tomorrow. I desperately hope to see Council members back up their good intentions with disclosure of the actual steps they are taking to reach sustainable development: hopefully, these steps will be large strides in the right direction.
I must admit, I do have my doubts about the WBCSD: an organization which, for companies to become part of, charges a huge annual membership fee – E.ON is quoted here as paying 70,000 Swiss Francs yearly to the WBCSD. This makes it a very exclusive group, and hence smaller companies with great potential to have an impact with new technologies do not, because of such large costs to be a part of the Council. Furthermore, if E.ON’s fee is the standard amount paid by each of the 200 members, one must not be surprised the organization affords extravagant annual meetings in locations such as Paris, Montreux, Ankara and more. These meetings represent perhaps a problem endemic of society as a whole – excessive consumption, unnecessary luxuries, and mindless disposal. We greedily, selfishly take resources when we want, and dispose of them as though there’s a black hole for it all to cease existing. Change is of paramount necessity; the perfect place to begin this change is a worldwide organization trying to encourage it.
To contrast my scepticism, I truly do believe over the next few days I will witness specialists speak at great length in their respective fields of expertise with great passion and endeavour: I hope for a grand awakening during these conferences; that companies are striving towards a new era of sustainability and that the next wave of technological advancements is on the horizon for a better world. I know people care deeply about the subject of sustainability – after all, some have dedicated their whole lives trying to progress the model of sustainable development, and are still pushing for this. Despite my optimisms however, I fear the Councils’ efforts are in vain. A company’s environmental affairs representative is going to be much more enthusiastic about sustainability than the rest of the company – how much power can they assert over a global company’s way of business, when any other way would harm profits, particularly in a global, competitive economy?
Ultimately, those with the most power in companies dictate how the organisation is ran: attitudes towards change is dictated by a top-down business culture – if owners benefit from the status quo, change in business operations will not be sought. I appreciate the work and commitment shown by employees at global companies who seek a change in sustainability and development practises, such as those attending as liaison delegates at this WBCSD event. However, I believe revolutionary change in businesses requires revolutionary leaders, or revolt from within – neither of which come about often. The only other way for change is a change in the industry itself: I believe in ‘Creative Destruction’, a term coined by economist Eric Schumpeter: where firms who do not innovate fiercely enough are consumed by poor sales and rising debts.
Overall, I currently see membership to the WBCSD as an attempt by big business to appear to be doing something for sustainability, by having a relationship with an institution who portrays to be pursuing progress in sustainability and development – good press for them, when bad things happen. The reason for this opinion is due to current WBCSD members having been involved in environmental scandals over the last few years: consider the BP oil spillage of 2010, the Volkswagen false emissions testing scandal of 2015… and Monsanto: a long list of environmental and societal abuses. Can a Council of this nature be a valid driving force for sustainability with members comprising of abusers of the Council’s core values?
I hope over the next few days to become better informed of the future of sustainable development, big businesses future intentions and whether the WBCSD can really make a difference to the world it is trying to represent and do good for.