As I was first preparing for the week in Montreux, I began exploring the WBCSD in more detail. I looked into individual member companies, and some of the work being done around the globe as a result of these important annual meetings. While I was familiar with the group’s Vision 2050 document, their work was otherwise largely unknown to me. I read about enthusiastic efforts from member companies to reduce carbon footprints, create new sustainable materials, and support movements and organisations around the world. The leaders seemed to be the usual suspects – technology companies, consumer-facing firms with eco-friendly brand images, and others one might commonly associate with sustainability efforts. As I continued my research, however, I was struck by some of the firms involved both with the Council and its ongoing research efforts. “Why Big Oil?”, I asked myself, “Big Tobacco? Big Pharma?”. Here were some of the companies most vilified by the media, listed as supporters of one of the world’s preeminent Business Sustainability organisations. Surely, I thought, I must be missing something.
The consistent explanation, that a demonstrated commitment to sustainability is important regardless of industry, certainly made sense. At the time, however, I was still left a bit puzzled. It was not until much later, conducting research with a professor at Northeastern University (Boston, MA), that I realized the true importance of this concept. For most of the year, I have worked with professors to collect and analyse research into the role Corporate Social Responsibility reporting plays at emerging market multinationals. The final product, which will be submitted for publication in the Journal of International Business Studies, assesses the extent to which firms use CSR reporting to bolster perceived legitimacy on an international scale, faced with the challenge of their home countries’ reputation. We must account for the unfortunate presence of greenwashing – firms who purport to do great things for the environment, while working primarily for their own financial gain. I gained new awareness of the active harm being done by some firms, as well as the more passive implications of diluting the value of true environmental responsibility with false claims. In seeing these negative examples, I gained a much greater appreciation for only of the justification of many firms’ membership in the WBCSD, but also the vital importance of their presence and positive efforts.
While we all would love a carbon-neutral global society, this represents an aspirational goal more than a feasible immediate reality. A global consumption culture, population boon, and varying access to sustainable technology prevent change from happening overnight. Despite this challenge, everyone has the ability to make relative improvements. These may vary in nature or impact, but all contribute to the collective effort for change. Growing up involved in all levels of politics in the United States, I am all too aware of the unfortunate consequences of approaching complex, collaborative problems from the perspective of “right vs. wrong” or “us vs. them”. On all fronts, the most productive advancements are often the product of open dialogue and debate. When we exclude a party from conversation because they are perceived to contribute to the cause, we lose both their perspective and their insights. Excluded firms can neither help others understand their reason for operating as they do (and thus, better plan to approach a solution), nor contribute to the body of research developing alternative options. Furthermore, these excluded firms may then be incentivised to undermine the efforts of organisations, taking advantage of greenwashing opportunities and manipulating well-intentioned consumers. In taking a collaborative approach to tackling climate change, one can realize immense potential gains while ensuring all voices genuinely seeking to affect change are given a seat at the table.
As is so often the case with life’s most challenging problems, the task of changing minds, lifestyles, and consumption habits to shape a more sustainable future requires all hands on deck. Organisations like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development act as a powerful forum for collaboration on projects, sharing of ideas, and maintaining focus and perspective towards the common goal. In order to progress towards the sort of future outlined in Vision 2050, society cannot and should not discount any genuine efforts to contribute. By hearing, recognizing, and collaborating with all voices, we can simultaneously discourage counterproductive efforts by excluded parties, and maximize the potential for new discoveries. Now, I am more confident than ever in the importance of every business on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. We must continue encouraging efforts to bring about a more sustainable tomorrow in all areas of life, wherever that opportunity arises.
Thanks for reading!