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Business lessons from a small virus on a big planet

coronavirus earth

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The power of this microscopic being is astonishing: The mass of all the coronaviruses combined on our planet may just be a small fraction of a gram — less than a butterfly wing. Yet, it has changed everything, far beyond the classical "butterfly effect."

One measurable impact of the pandemic is the temporary reduction in human demand on nature. Ecological footprint accounting quantifies this demand by adding up all the human demands that compete for biologically productive area: to produce food, fiber, timber; to absorb excess CO2 from fossil fuel burning; to accommodate roads and houses, etc.

These areas are needed to regenerate what people demand. Then this demand can be compared with how much biologically productive area is available on this planet, or in each country or region.

This resource accounting, made available by Global Footprint Network, concluded that humanity’s demand this year, from Jan. 1 to Aug. 22, is as much as all ecosystems of the planet combined can regenerate in the entire year. Yes, we have already eaten up the annual resource budget of the planet because we use as much as if we lived on 1.6 planets. Last year, that budget only lasted to July 29. In other words, Earth Overshoot Day has moved by over three weeks.

But this slowdown is nothing to celebrate — it was driven by disaster, not design. Since this massive drop in resource consumption came unexpectedly, it is bound to be short-lived. Our infrastructure has not improved and neither have business models across industry sectors.

But as with financial budgets, it is not possible to overdraw your resource budget forever. Reality will reconcile one way or another, whether for financial budgets or ecological budgets. Consequently, our choice is whether we want to proactively pick the best path to live again within the resource budget, or have nature make the pick for us. Getting our ecological debt forgiven is not an option.

In an e-book produced for this year’s Earth Overshoot Day, Schneider Electric and Global Footprint Network spelled out why "one-planet prosperity" — the need for all to thrive within the limited capacity of our planet — is an ever-more-defining context for businesses, and one that can be quantified and monitored. It is the essence of Schneider Electric’s strategy but it also applies to any other business that wants to invest into its own longevity. It is the logical reaction to the shifting context of ecological overuse.

The urgency to address our resource imbalance is amplified by the COVID pandemic. Also, it is becoming evident that humanity needs to move rapidly out of using fossil fuels, as the social costs of using them has started to outweigh their benefits by far.

How is this transformation even possible, when the call for "back to normal" associated with even higher resource consumption is omnipresent? How can we put attention on the environmental dimension when the long-tail impact of widespread lockdowns will be most heavily felt by those among us who lack secure energy, safe housing and financial savings?

What is the role of companies, particularly given that many of them took a significant share of the beating as well? How can they contribute?

Fundamental question

We would argue that this is not the question. It is not about a noble appeal to corporations to come to our rescue. It is not about asking for magnanimous commitments.

It is much more fundamental. To us, the main question is: Are your business’ products and services enabling humanity to succeed? And humanity’s success obviously means that all can thrive on our one and only planet. That vision is widely shared among U.N. agencies, national governments and most business associations, particularly those with a sustainability bent, such as WBCSD, BSR, B Corps, UN Compact and We Mean Business.

What we add is to step beyond a noble argument. We turn the issue into the most essential strategic question a company can ask, particularly in times of ecological overshoot and global pandemics. Because meeting humanity’s inherent needs is the strongest insurance against business obsolescence. It is not an absolute guarantee — but conversely, products and services that detract from humanity’s success are inevitably bound to face ever more headwind.

It is not the only question, as obviously the business also has to be cost-competitive. However, it goes far beyond compliance thinking, including compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals. It is directly plugging into the vision of the SDGs without getting sidetracked by all the possible strategies and targets identified by the SDGs. It is about recognizing the future we are living into and making sure that your offer gains in value in that future.

Schneider Electric, providing digital solutions in energy and automation driving efficiency and sustainability, and Global Footprint Network, which is based on quantification and metrics, share a knack for evidence-based analytics. Therefore, one-planet prosperity is not just a slogan, but a vision empowered by tools and metrics that define it and track progress against it. The e-book showcases some basic tools, which also will be highlighted during our webinar.

Also, the one-planet prosperity framework points out that what is at stake is not a generic commitment to the collective good but rather the very destiny of countries, cities and corporations that need to ask themselves what it will take to position themselves on the path to get there. Because the time is now to choose between one-planet prosperity and the only other possible path — one-planet misery. Isn’t the choice obvious?

And still, implementation is lacking. This is why we are looking for colleagues who have recognized that one-planet prosperity is the most viable option. We seek to share experiences on how to support our companies to navigate the inevitable transition. Some perspectives are already in the e-book.

The good news is that preparing yourself for the transition is a positive-sum game. The more of us share this recognition and focus on business strategies that enable humanity to succeed, the easier it becomes for everybody else to follow suit.

It takes time to transform. Therefore, quit reading this article and get to work. There is no business case in waiting. By all means, let us know how it goes.

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