New report calls for 'extended leadership' on sustainability

Each year, the Worldwatch Institute publishes its flagship State of the World report. The 2013 edition is organized around whether sustainability is still an attainable goal. In the opening chapter, Worldwatch President Robert Englemen asks starkly, "In the wake of failed international environmental and climate summits, when national governments take no actions commensurate with the risk of catastrophic environmental change, are there ways humanity might still alter current behaviors to make them sustainable? Is sustainability still possible?"

This is similar to the starting point for a new report from SustainAbility and GlobeScan, Changing Tack: Extending Corporate Leadership on Sustainable Development. The report is the final, summative output of The Regeneration Roadmap, an 18-month project designed to assess progress on sustainable development during the last 25 years, and to consider how to more thoroughly accelerate and scale such progress in response to the growing urgency of economic, social and environmental challenges today. 

Global context

Not surprisingly, Changing Tack finds that the macro picture isn't very good. Despite decades of well-intentioned effort and dialogue, as well as genuine improvement in social and economic welfare in many parts of the world, nearly every metric of global environmental health is still moving in the wrong direction, while inequity, volatility and political upheaval continue to cause damaging social disruptions in rich and poor countries alike. Taken together, these trends threaten to undermine or reverse progress on development more generally, and to severely constrain opportunities for future prosperity.

This is the sustainable development challenge in a nutshell, and Changing Tack joins a chorus of voices proclaiming we still have a long way to go to improve the overall outlook. That perspective doesn't overlook the great number of positive examples and trends we do observe, which, even if not yet adequate in macro terms, are both encouraging and important. Indeed, real change is often the result of years and years of trial and error, accumulated effort and plenty of starts and stops along the way. As such, it is likely that we wouldn't recognize a meaningful tipping point on sustainable development until well after it has occurred. Still, it is not radical to acknowledge that more and faster progress is needed in order for civilization to outrun the worst of what the future may hold. 

Business to the fore

While acknowledging the vital role of both civil society and governments in driving the agenda early on, Changing Tack recognizes the increasing role and importance of private-sector leadership today, and while others (particularly governments) cannot be left behind, we see the private sector as having the greatest potential to drive forward progress in the short term. 

This conclusion is partly a response to stubborn reality: as Rio+20 and recent climate change summits have proved, governments are still largely incapable of delivering meaningful, enforceable international policy frameworks for critical issues, and civil society organizations (for now) lack adequate influence and resources to compel them to do so. It also rests on the view that business has both the reasons and resources needed to chart the course toward a more sustainable global economy, and to pull governments, consumers and other critical actors along with them.

Next page: Six attributes of extended leadership