Industry Must Lead Toward Sustainable Economy: Panel

Industry Must Lead Toward Sustainable Economy: Panel

In his acceptance speech Tuesday night, President-Elect Barack Obama acknowledged a planet in peril and global economy in tatters.

Yet he didn't connect the two crises.

"We cannot think about these two issues separately," Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, told business leaders gathered for the opening of the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) conference Wednesday. "They have got to be integrated."

The business community needs to take on a leadership role in addressing societal problems by incorporating sustainability into their economic policies, according to Lubber and a group of experts gathered as part of a panel discussion on how the economic crisis and presidential election will impact sustainability and industry.

They must look beyond short-term financial performance to the bigger picture, the panelists said. And despite the historic election and Obama's promise to foster a green economy, the business community must not wait for government to come to the rescue.

"Barack Obama is not the only person who has an opportunity to capture the mantle of leadership and take us in a positive direction," said Aron Cramer, BSR president and CEO. "Everyone in this room holds in her hands or his hands the very same opportunity to demonstrate leadership and take the passion for sustainability we all have ... and to be part of the story of how we build economic recovery that points in the right direction not only in the next two, three or four quarters, but over the next two, three, or four decades."

Cramer agreed that times were tough but urged attendees to rise to the challenges before them.

"If we are going to navigate a more punishing business environment, we who believe in sustainable business have to make the case that it's an essential piece of a strong economy," Cramer said.

In order to do that, he offered three three prescriptions: concentrate on the long-term, focus on value and think big.

"We have very strong short-term pressures but we have to make sure that we and all of our companies and all of those with whom we work stay focused on the long-term trends that really are shaping our world and remain very dynamic," Cramer said.

The economic downturn creates a stronger need to demonstrate that corporate social responsibility brings value to business and society, he said.  Businesses need to think big by honing in on the systemic and collaborative solutions that go beyond the limitations of what an individual company can achieve.

"In fact, in a difficult economy, collaboration is often the efficient choice," Cramer said. "It's a way to leverage the power of individual companies by acting together. This is especially true on supply chains, which is why we've seen so many industry groupings come together to try to make progress jointly."

Lubber of Ceres, a coalition of investors, environmental and public interest groups, argued that building a sustainable economy is impossible if businesses continue to ignore resource challenges. She pointed to two examples of bold and practical actions companies can take to integrate sustainability into their business models.

"I want to issue a challenge to all of us and that is that we move towards universal, mandatory reporting," Lubber said. "Why (should) these issues be voluntary, why (should) they be a burden that you all share but not your competitors?"

American companies need to "scale up," she said.

"What we do in the United States needs to be exported to other countries," Lubber said. "We need to make sure our products, our facilities and our employees are part of the solution. We need to integrate principles that we apply here to our supply chain."

Panelists George Kell, executive director of the United Nations Global Compact, and Kumi Naidoo, secretary general and CEO of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, called on governments and businesses to recognize and address the "imbalances" with which we live.

"The leadership that is required for governments, businesses and civil society right now is for us to be able to recognize that this world is out of balance and that we have to recognize that finding the answers to re-balance this world is going to be difficult," Naidoo said. "But if there is political will, this can be achieved."

Naidoo advised the business community to align itself with the civil society and push the new Obama administration to turn the campaign rhetoric into action.

"As somebody coming from the developing world, we have a lot of optimism ... for what you achieved yesterday but we are also not naive," said Naidoo, a South African native. "People and leaders only change when there is constant vigilance, constant pressure and people are willing to step up."