We are at such a vital turning point that we need a fundamental change to save the world. This is where sustainability comes in. Christine Figueres runs ‘Mission 2020’ aiming to accelerate climate change to the point of bending the curve of emissions in the next 3 years. It is challenging, but essential for saving the planet, so long as everyone is united on this main goal. However, as of yet, they are not. The necessary scale of sustainability needed to achieve this goal is radical and consequently seen by many as ‘impossible’. So it is largely ignored, brushed into a dark corner, and we continue as we are, hoping that the terrible imminent reality, somehow, will not occur.
This is naïve and dangerous.
Recently, I was given the privilege of attending one of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s conferences in Montreux, Switzerland. The organisation continues to work tirelessly to accelerate the progression towards sustainability for both our planet and its residents, by working with their member companies to adapt and implement practices combating enormous environmental issues.
I applied for this trip to Switzerland to help further develop my passion for sustainability, fueled from an intense, emotional and eye-opening volunteering trip to Cape Town, South Africa. The extreme poverty, lack of amenities and poor quality of life shocked me into realising the severe improvements needed across the globe. However, being only 14 at the time I felt ultimately powerless. After continuing to study sustainability and travel the world my passion grew further, as I witnessed other fundamental problems with environmental and human capital.
Even with this experience in my back pocket, I still arrived at the conference slightly oblivious to the scale of turmoil we could be facing if a change isn’t made. The meeting quickly changed that, with terrifying statistics being thrown about left, right and centre: by 2030, water demand will outweigh supply by 40%; the cost of conflict in 2014 was $14 trillion; 20 million people are in forced labour worldwide; annual extraction of raw materials has tripled in the last 2 decades to 70 billion tonnes yearly; and the 8 wealthiest men across the planet have more money than the poorest 50% of our entire population. All of these numerical values really help to operationalise the scale of the issues faced and reinforce fear into those who have the power to make a difference.
Corporates at the meeting showed how they are attempting to combat key issues of the water and fossil fuel crises. I had a fleeting moment of happiness and alleviation: maybe we could actually save the world. However, I quickly realised my ignorance, as at the rate of production and global growth, there is no chance of these businesses being able to slow down the consumption of resources on their own. The pattern found with environmentally friendly activity undertaken by most corporate giants is that they are employing sustainable practices as long as they are still beneficial for the company: producing profit, increasing sales, improving the company’s image. Yet there appears little motivation to protect the planet past this superficial layer. This is expected in the world of business, as everything ultimately revolves around profit. However, we are at such a pivotal moment that saving the planet needs to replace the desire to make money as if we continue at this rate, we will soon have no planet to make money on anyway. A paradigm shift is essential, to move the focus from just money, to capital. Balancing social, natural, financial and human capital will help companies to survive and profit, whilst recognizing and acting upon pressing environmental and humanitarian difficulties.
Aside from this main issue, even those organisations that are working beyond the point of profit margins are still unsuccessful. Mainly due to the aforementioned idea of incoordination, as companies parallel their CEOs and leaders, thus organisations, like individuals, are divided. They are all working separately to deal with the global issues rather than conglomerating. As Aesop’s famous quote goes ‘united we stand, divided we fall’, and quite logically in this case such a large-scale problem needs a large-scale army of like-minded troops. Industries overlap in their resources, processes and waste materials therefore must pool these all together in attempts to continue production whilst slicing resources acquired in a circular economy, where resources are kept in the production cycle for as long as possible to maximize their use.
A specific issue that continued to irritate me throughout the conference was the problem of food waste. After witnessing extreme hunger first hand, hearing about the amount of food wasted due to impossibly high standards in 1st world wholesalers and retailers was infuriating. Approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted annually. It is hard to even comprehend such an enormous quantity, let alone the amount of underprivileged people who could be saved from starvation with it. Again this could be reduced if we united to send waste products to less fortunate areas, or teamed up to moderate these ludicrous food standards held by our own weekly-shop outlets.
I keep going back to this same point that everyone is acting individually rather than as one race. People are disconnected from one another, across businesses, industries, countries and even amongst people. Different cultures, sexes and ages have diverse perspectives that can affect management practices. The most prominent differences are of course across the sexes. As they say, ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’, or at least as research has shown, are ‘from a different neighborhood on Mars’. Our brains are structured differently, providing contrasting thought processes, characteristics, priorities and primitive instincts. Perhaps improved equality and a better-united front from both sexes in business would increase the success of sustainability by giving us a more encompassing perspective.
The 21st century has witnessed a dramatic shift in gender roles with greater female autonomy and diversification from traditional expectations. Yet the female is still being received as a subordinate. Sometimes perceived to be less intelligent, less successful and often even less worthy. In 2012, only 3.8% of Fortune 500 companies had female CEOs. But this begs the question of why? Perhaps ‘one of the main barriers for women entrepreneurs is a lack of role models’ (Bev Hurley, founder of Enterprising Women) that came from the entirely patriarchal society of generations before us. We have been living in a ‘man’s world’ for far too long. They are the hunter-gatherers, protectors, world-leaders and CEOs. For centuries they have been building businesses for profit and self-actualisation, now it must be the turn of the woman, to takeover and nurture the world as she has done with her children for thousands of years.
As a young woman, starting a career in the business world is a daunting thought, with all the talk of glass ceilings and pay gaps, there is always the fear that we won’t be treated equally to our male counterparts. Not only does one such as myself have to contend with these social issues, but also overcome the environmental issues of a world in crisis. They spread far wider than we could initially imagine: fossil fuels, water, food, poverty, gender inequality, one doesn’t even know where to start. All that can be said is we are starting and are beginning to move in the right direction towards achieving a harmonious world for all. The greatest and most effective advancement for us now is to become united, on all fronts, to be more open-minded and grasp one another’s viewpoints in order to work as one body to save our planet.