It’s no longer “business as usual”. Over the last century the economic, ecological and societal impact (“People – Planet – Profit”) of business has grown tremendously. Some companies now have a larger footprint than several countries. This increased impact should come together with a more responsible attitude. Impact (power) and responsibility are inseparable.

Charles Darwin wrote 150 years ago: you need to adapt in order to survive. It is my belief that business – including the financial sector – needs to address how they serve society, rather than the other way around. Especially since: “You cannot be successful, nor even call yourself successful, in a society that fails”.

What this basically means is that business needs to take a long term view and focus on sustainability in the broad sense of the word. At DSM we distinguish three stages of sustainability, and as a company we are now at the third level. In the 70s and 80s sustainability was about compliance, in the 90s and 00s about Corporate Social Responsibility. Now however, we are talking about sustainability as a business driver, and are fully integrating it into all our activities.

Let’s face it; sustainability is driving, or could be driving, business nowadays. As an example, public-private partnerships aimed at solving societal challenges, such as our partnership with the World Food Programme of the UN, help millions of people in the world in combating their micronutrient-deficiencies and the diseases as a result of that.

Via this partnership millions of people, at the so called bottom of the pyramid, benefit from the competencies of our company. At the same moment this also leads to employee engagement and recognition in the labor market, but it also intensifies relationships with governments, enlarges the business network leading to new business growth, and motivates staff to innovate and develop new or improved products.

If we look at the mega trends and challenges today, sustainability is not a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘need-to-have’ if you want to survive in the long term as a company. Looking at the challenges in the fields of climate change, energy and resources, health and well-being and the global shifts it is clear that a company that can provide solutions to these challenges has excellent growth prospects.

This shift to a more responsible, more sustainable mindset will of course not happen overnight. As a business leader you have to be reasonably unreasonable; unreasonable in the sense that you expect things to be done (much) differently, but reasonable in the sense that you need to recognize today’s reality as it is seen, experienced and lived in the organization; you need to stay connected (reasonable) while driving the change. As a business leader you need to be the agent of change in the value chain — a change that will make your company a more valuable and indispensable part of the chain whilst serving society.

Companies need to be more transparent about their increased impact on environment and society. Along with this, comes greater responsibility. I believe that businesses will have no choice but to aim for clearer “People, Planet and Profit” goals and to pursue them simultaneously and in parallel. Once again, you cannot be successful, nor call yourself successful, in a society that fails”.

Author: Feike Sijbesma, CEO Royal DSM and Mentor at the World Economic Forum Annual Meetings of the new Champions.

Picture: A man walks past a sign showing the evolution of man in a business district in downtown Tokyo November. REUTERS/Michael Caronn