One of the biggest obstacles to sustainable development is the absence of practitioners at the heart of business decision making and the shaping of corporate strategies.
This and other opinions were expressed by Chandran Nair, founder and chief executive of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, at the World Knowledge Forum 2006 in Seoul.
Mr Nair was a panellist at a breakout session discussing, “Growth future value: business and sustainable development”. Mr Nair, Lee Byung Wook , president of LG Environmental Strategy Institute, and Gary Dirks, group vice president of BP, engaged in a lively discussion moderated by Sandy Park, a partner of Saturn Communications.
The World Knowledge Forum covers a wide range of regional and global issues to help “design the future of the world”. Participants share ideas and practices. One of its features is intensive interaction and candid dialogue. This year’s forum took place on 17-19 October, with the main theme “Creative economy”. The panel discussion was part of the final day’s events.
The key points that Mr Nair put across were:
We must start by understanding two core principles: that sustainable development is about balancing economic, social and environmental needs in the creation of prosperity, and inter-generational equity. These principles are difficult for companies, given the fixation on growth, short-term results and the way key players are rewarded.
While it is a good thing that more information and issues are coming to the fore, there is at the same time an unfortunate parallel “mega-trend”, and this is the gap between the severity of the issues and the knowledge building within corporate Asia to deal with them. Very complex and important issues are being “dumbed down”.
These “mega-issues” were, in his opinion:
- Irreversible change in the natural world
- Climate change
- The rise of China and India, and the global impacts of this on the planet’s resource base
- The role of technology, not just as a solution provider but also as source of destructiveness
- Forms of governance for sustainable development
- Geo-political sustainable development issues, such as water scarcity and climate change
Much of this widening gap between the severity of the issues and businesses’ knowledge of how to deal with them is due to a dearth of Asian business leaders and politicians coming to grips with the wide range of policy and technical issues.
Often, sustainability issues are confused with those of meeting environmental laws, ethics, and corporate social responsibility. Much of the corporate response to these fundamental issues is being shaped by corporate affairs – in other words, public relations – rather than those people who have the knowledge of the issues and how they should be approached, both within a company’s own operations and its impacts.
Sustainability practitioners are often in powerless corners of business. They are not linked to business decisions and the shaping of over all corporate strategies.
The best approach is that Asia needs to start making sure that companies and the public meet existing laws: these relate to the financial, such as taxes that pay for wider societal needs; social issues and those of labour; and environmental legislation. Laws are in place for a reason, and that is to protect the common good, which is the starting point of sustainability.