Was 2017 the year the C-suite got woke?

The final big sustainability event of 2017 wrapped up shortly before the year-end holiday: The One Planet Summit convened by French President Emmanuel Macron just outside Paris. It delivered some important commitments designed to make good on the promise of the Paris Agreement, and it inspired me to reflect on all that has transpired over the past 12 months. 2017 overall is a year that will be remembered for two things: political turmoil and a new voice from business.

The West continues to be shaken by the election of Donald Trump and Europe’s own challenges of Brexit, security and migration. Globally, the space for civil society is shrinking in the face of crackdowns by numerous governments in all parts of the world. In just the last quarter of the year, the United States has been rocked by deeply troubling revelations of widespread sexual harassment, leading — one hopes — to a cultural shift that will render such misconduct a thing of the past.

It is easy to focus on these challenges (which are indeed very large), but 2017 was also a year when business leaders helped to assert a steady hand, contributing leadership where it is badly needed.

In the United States, the voice of business has been heard far more often than is usually the case. CEOs and other business leaders spoke swiftly and overwhelmingly in favor of America’s staying in the Paris Agreement; in opposition to the immigration ban established by the White House; and at many points in favor of fair treatment of women and the LGBTQ community. Notably, the business advisory councils established by the Trump administration collapsed in reaction to its apparent coddling of the extreme racism on display in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. 2017 may well be considered the year when the C-suite, to use the word we heard so much this year, got woke.

Words are important, and this year they have been more important than ever. But actions are what we really need.

This year brought many signs of important business action. Globally, business remains deeply committed to addressing climate change. At the One Planet Summit, new commitments were made by AXA on divestment from coal and oil sands; two dozen companies joined the Powering Past Coal initiative led by Canada and the United Kingdom; and more than 230 organizations expressed their intention to adopt the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures. As Macron stated, the world is moving too slowly; nonetheless, there is a great deal of action and it is accelerating.

Progress has been made on other fronts as well. In addition to what we sincerely hope will be a turning point on sexual harassment, new steps have been taken to empower women around the world. Several companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Google, Mars, Microsoft and Unilever, launched the Unstereotype Alliance in partnership with UN Women — a new global alliance set to banish stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising and all brand-led content. And more than two dozen companies, including Levi Strauss & Co. and TD Ameritrade, have expressed their support for the protection of family planning services in the face of the potential loss of these rights in the United States through Planned Parenthood’s Business for Birth Control effort.

The U.N. Forum on Business and Human Rights showed record turnout this year, and many companies have expressed their intention to continue taking and communicating action on conflict minerals despite the withdrawal of regulations under the U.S. Dodd-Frank law. In other contexts, legal provisions on supply chain and modern slavery continue to expand.

This was also a year when new issues emerged and became more important, as we outlined in our report on The Future of Sustainable Business. More and more, the future of work, climate resilience and the human rights impacts of new technologies are being discussed in boardrooms. Solutions are not yet here, but we can see growing recognition that the profound changes are reshaping business as fundamentally as they are disrupting the "old economy." For 2018, we hope that more decisive action will begin to flow from this awareness.

In a year with lots of unrest, there is much the business community did to speak out when needed and apply its resources to the world’s most pressing challenges. This is not to say that the private sector got it right all the time. Big issues remain, and corporate missteps occurred this year as they do every year. Even now, traditional business associations have continued to lend support for a deregulation agenda in the U.S. that undercuts the very sustainability commitments from the private sector that have become mainstream.   

Looking ahead, the massive shifts in our world will continue to define not only sustainability, not just business, but in fact everything, from our daily routines to the building blocks of the world’s economy. How business responds to — and better yet, shapes — these tectonic shifts will define the years and decades ahead. We will turn to that, and what BSR will be doing to meet this moment, early in the new year.

For now, let us celebrate the leadership business exerted in 2017, and use that as a springboard for positive change in the year to come.

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