Commentary: Climate activists aren't just irking businesses. They're setting capitalism on fire
The ripples of youth activism and demands for sustainability are felt globally. It’s time for businesses to relook their goals, say Susan Goldsworthy Oly and Natalia Olynec.
SINGAPORE: In just a year, 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has quickly become the poster child for her generation, a powerful community unwilling to compromise on ethics and fuelling a sense of urgency on climate change.
At Singapore’s recent Climate Rally, 11-year-old activist Oliver Chua was the youngest speaker to take the stage to call for responsible leadership to mitigate climate change.
“Parents really do care about what their children think. Let's teach our parents a lesson for once." His closing statement was met with cheers from all who attended - including parents and grandparents alike.
THE GEN Z REVOLUTION
Thunberg, and many others like her, have inspired school children around the world to fight for their future. The ripples of youth activism are being felt globally.
As world leaders gathered in New York City for the UN Climate Action Summit this September, millions of young people in more than 200 countries marched to demand the adults in charge treat climate change as an emergency.
Young people are refusing to take silence as an answer - demanding that government and business leaders step up to their responsibility to take action on the challenges facing our planet.
In today’s world of real-time communication and radical transparency, CEOs ignore this new generation of consumers at their peril.
The generation born late 1990s to early 2000s (Gen Zs – which account for more than 16 per cent of the population) are more likely to say that the purpose of business is to “serve communities and society” rather than to simply “make good products and services,” according to a survey by BBMG and GlobeScan.
They are more likely than others to call on brands to “advocate or speak out” on social and environmental issues.
"The corporate veil is being pierced by this generation," said Emmanuel Faber, the CEO of US$55 billion food-and-beverage giant Danone, announcing an industry alliance to protect biodiversity.
Gen Z is forcing corporate leaders to take stand on climate change, he said. These digital natives are increasingly demanding full transparency.
Younger shoppers take a box on the shelf and they turn it around because they want to look at the small print, understanding what the ingredients are and from where they're sourced.
CAPITALISM WITH PURPOSE
Expectations of business leaders are growing, and they are now under pressure to show their brands have purpose beyond profit and help, rather than hurt, society.
The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer shows publics around the world are looking to business leaders for leadership on big social issues, including the environment; 76 per cent of survey respondents said CEOs should take the lead on change, rather than wait on governments to impose it.
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And in response, a small, but growing group of business leaders are embracing an approach which systematically considers the impact corporate decisions have on society.
They realise that you can look after your pocket, people and the planet at the same time.
The US Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executives of 181 of the world’s largest companies, announced recently its commitment to all stakeholders, upending their longstanding view of the primacy of shareholders.
BIG BUSINESS’ NEW GOALS
Many are incorporating into their strategies the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by UN member states in 2015 to address key goals including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, and peace and justice by 2030.
At IMD Business School, our work with senior executives across industries also shows leaders are being influenced to do better for the environment by their children, grandchildren and rising young activists.
Our MBA students increasingly tell us how purpose, in addition to earnings, is driving their career choices.
In response to dialogues with senior executives, and aligned with its vision, IMD has published a storybook for both adults and children focused on biodiversity loss, aligned with the UN SDGs, encouraging leaders to act before it is too late.
Corporations that have mapped their practices to the SDGs - such as Volvo, Unilever, Panasonic and Siemens - say the Global Goals provide a framework for embracing systemic change and disruption to address the world’s urgent challenges.
This creates huge opportunities for innovation, investment, greater relevance and market share.
According to a report by the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, the SDGs could generate US$12 trillion in business savings and revenue across four sectors by 2030: Energy, cities, food and agriculture, and health and well-being.
It points to the 60 biggest market opportunities related to delivering the SDGs, such as sustainable aquaculture and mine rehabilitation. The report also estimates the creation of 380 million new jobs linked to these four sectors in the next 10 to 15 years due to alignment of business strategy to the SDGs.
STILL FALLING SHORT
Companies that focus on high-impact sustainability issues directly related to their core business are more innovative and perform better, research shows.
However, more progress is needed and quickly. In the UN Sustainable Development Report 2019, high-level political commitment to the SDGs is falling short of historic promises
Out of 43 countries, including all G20 countries and countries with a population greater than 100 million, surveyed on SDG implementation efforts, 33 countries have endorsed the SDGs in official statements since January 2018.
Yet in only 18 of them do central budget documents mention the SDGs. The report makes a plea for the gap between rhetoric and action to be closed and quickly.
Only 21 per cent of Chief Executives believe business is playing a critical role in contributing to the Global Goals, and less than half are integrating sustainability into their business operations.
Socioeconomic, geopolitical and technological uncertainties over the past four years have distracted CEOs’ sustainability efforts, the report said.
With this new outspoken generation, we see that business leaders are now inspired to build partnerships across industries and sectors to achieve the SDGs and address the climate crisis.
That means showing true leadership and focusing on what binds us together – the urgent problems we face.
While the needs of various stakeholders may differ, only by embracing a collective purpose can we act and achieve these global goals, creating real impact for a better society.
It’s time to follow the calls from our young to demonstrate the kind of leadership that unites heads, hearts and hands.
Susan Goldsworthy Oly is Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD Business School in Switzerland and Singapore, co-director of IMD’s senior executive programme CLEAR (Cultivating Leadership Energy through Awareness and Reflection) and co-author of award-winning books Choosing Change & Care to Dare.
Natalia Olynec is Sustainability Partner at IMD Business School in Switzerland and Singapore , responsible for IMD’s policies and research and former Global Head of Sustainability for Damco, part of Maersk.