Climate Action

Sustainability’s Cinderella – us!

Simon Zadek
Principal, Project Catalyst, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
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Simon ZadekThe Forum has launched its latest report on sustainable consumption, More with Less: Scaling Sustainable Consumption and Resource Efficiency. It sets out the case for companies and their stakeholders embracing sustainable consumption to advance the transition to a sustainable economy.

The very term ‘sustainable consumption’ reflects the paradoxes that it seeks to resolve. “Sustainable consumption has gained centre-stage”, wrote S.D. Shibulal, Infosys’s Chief Executive, highlighting the hundreds of millions of Indians still living in dire poverty. Consume more from us, plead the Europeans of the Germans, just as China commits to boosting its domestic consumption to provide more balanced growth. Mark Bolland, Chief Executive of Marks & Spencer, champions the view that technology-enabled consumers will increasingly use social networking to ‘choice edit’ their consumer decisions. Paul Polman, Unilever’s Chief Executive, offers an integrated view of the three-fold essentials of sustainable consumption: as a growth driver, a means of bringing improved material well-being to the poor, and as a means for reducing the material impact of that consumption.

Scale is the challenge, and rightly the focus of the Forum’s new report.

The report distinguishes three, complementary ways to deliver ‘more-with-less’: by rebuilding the value chain and products themselves; through consumer responses; and by changing the rules of the game. Its emphasis is on the supply side and the rules of the game, but we write off scaled consumer action at our cost. Technology, as Mr Bolland points out, is a game changer in catalyzing collective action. We are seeing new forms of collective action, from the unfinished business of the Arab Spring to the on-going actions of the Occupy movement.

These citizens’ movements are rarely thought of as the vanguard of sustainable consumption, but we should not be so hasty in our judgment. Many commentators of Egypt’s early uprising have pointed out the coincidence of food price spiking. The Occupy movement has not focused on consumption per se, but has called for corporate reforms and greater equality in outcomes of today’s global markets. Many of the estimated 180,000 ‘mass protests’ in China last year called for less corruption, greater accountability and a fairer deal for poorer communities. These scaled uprisings may not be about the peaks of sustainable consumption, but are without doubt the heartland of its foothills.

Business can catalyze dramatic change.  Individual leadership must be celebrated, but scaling demands collective action with governments and citizens groups through competitive forces and collaboration. Acting together, the world’s largest companies could commit in the run up to Rio+20to targets that would put many governments to shame, goading them to act with courage and collective intelligence.

The ‘More with Less’ report is a call to action that blends pragmatism with radicalism into a cocktail fit for this era. It spells out what needs to be done, the cost of inaction, and the potential benefits from turning big words into big actions. These messages report come not from the street, but from the boardrooms of global businesses and their partners. We cannot afford to choose. Both despite and because of the power of business, scale will only happen when it finds either common purpose or mutual interest to act in concert with the street. The opportunity does exist, and must be taken, to join the dots.

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