More than just buzz: Mainstreaming sustainability in the business sphere

As a global company it is almost impossible to ignore sustainability today; a major shift from 15 years ago. Major business media has changed their stance, and sustainability is talked about more often, at a higher level, and in more mainstream business forums all around the world.

In 2000, sustainability was on the agenda of only a few pioneering business leaders, mostly motivated by their personal convictions, and often without the backing of the companies they led.

This picture has now changed dramatically, with an increasing number of business leaders talking publicly about sustainability. According to the PwC Global CEO survey, three out of four CEOs believe satisfying societal needs and protecting the interests of future generations is important. A recent survey of 2,000 companies found that two-thirds of business persons think social and environmental matters are “significant” or “very significant”. And 93 per cent of CEOs of Global Compact signatories say that sustainability is key to future business success, however only 33 per cent believe that companies are doing enough to address global sustainability challenges.

Talk is translating into commitment. Not only has the total number of Global Compact signatories increased in the past 15 years, perhaps most notable is the number of the world’s most influential economic players that are now also on board (see finding 1).

Generally, we also see increasing participation in a growing number of sustainability events, attended by higher-level company representatives. Notably, the UN Private Sector Forum in 2014 was the largest gathering in history bringing together heads of state and governments, and chief executives from business, on the issue of climate change.

A milestone was reached at the Rio +20 conference in 2012, where more than 3,000 business people convened for a full three day conference, firmly establishing that corporate sustainability has become a global movement.

Whereas traditionally conservative trade and industry associations have been slower to act, there are signs that an increasing number are launching initiatives to advance sustainability. One notable example is the International Council on Metals and Mining Sustainable Development Framework.


CORPORATE SUSTAINABILITY REACHES MAINSTREAM BUSINESS MEDIA

At the turn of the century, ‘corporate sustainability’ had not yet made the jump from niche news reporting to the wide public consciousness. Tracking mentions of the term in the international press gives an indication of when this transition occurred.

The English-language press led the way with a sudden spike in mentions between 2001 and 2002, followed by steady growth until 2007.

After 2008 this trend was briefly reversed, probably due to the fall-out from the financial crisis which took up column inches in the business sections. Although robust press interest resumed in 2011, it has still not reached pre-crisis levels.

A key symbolic turning point was when the influential newspaper The Economist, previously dismissive of CSR as a business cost, acknowledged that it was a central part of business activity in 2008:

“Done well, though, it is not some separate activity that companies do on the side, a corner of corporate life reserved for virtue: it is just good business.”


COVERAGE IN BRAZIL

As early as 2000, the business magazine Revista EXAME launched an award for “good corporate citizenship”, helping to shed light on corporate sustainability in Brazil. This later evolved to become the major corporate sustainability award in the country. However, other than this, we find scarce corporate sustainability coverage in Brazilian media in the early 2000s.

In 2004-2005 however, the issue started gaining relevance, primarily due to the events like the launch of the BOVESPA Sustainability Index. In 2007, another important milestone was reached when the publishing house Editora Abril launched Planeta Sustentável - one of the most important news platforms on sustainability issues today.

The Global Compact was first mentioned in Brazilian media in 2001, in a short article by Valor Economico.


COVERAGE IN CHINA

In China, there has also been a significant increase in mainstream coverage. Media coverage started with coverage on pollution control in 1999, when the government initiated a campaign to shut down polluting factories around the Huai River area.

Mainstream business media covered Global Compact’s second annual summit in Shanghai in 2005. Shanghai Oriental Morning explained then the notion that sustainability can be of business values rather than being “a luxury“.

The same year, the China Business Times had a ground breaking article on a private company’s program to support the social development in rural areas in western China, linking the initiative to SA 8000 standards and UNDC’s principles.

Larger scale media coverage followed from 2006, when State Owned Enterprises was encouraged by the state to issue social responsibility reports annually. More recently, media coverage has also started to include issues such as recycling and the circulate economy. 

“Even The Economist magazine writes: ‘the question is not whether, but how we go forward on corporate responsibility’. That I think is a big development.”
JOHN RUGGIE PROFESSOR, HARVARD UNIVERSITY.

THE ROLE OF THE UN GLOBAL COMPACT:

DRIVING UP THE AGENDA

As sustainability becomes more embedded on the world business agenda, what has been the role of the Global Compact in catalysing change?

There are, of course, many players that have contributed to infusing sustainability into the minds of the global business community. A deeper understanding of issues and interdependencies, civil society pressure, high-level corporate scandals, the emergence of social media with real time reporting of events, greater demands for transparency and platforms such as WikiLeaks, of course all contribute to move issues up the corporate ladder.


PAVING THE WAY

However, the Global Compact has in our view played a significant role in driving sustainability up the business agenda globally. By acting as a first mover, a convenor and a reliable and trusted source of expert guidance, the Global Compact helped pave the way for the sustainability agenda to grow. In fact, the majority of the surveyed Global Compact signatories, 57 per cent, state that the Global Compact has played a “significant” or “essential” role in spreading the practice of corporate sustainability worldwide (See figure on the next page).

Particularly in the area of human rights, the Global Compact has been instrumental in shaping business interest in and understanding of the topic. By putting human rights firmly into the first two principles and systematically focusing on human rights over the years, the Global Compact has contributed to a change in the understanding of the role of business in respecting and supporting human rights. The Global Compact has also contributed to putting anti-corruption on the business agenda, particularly in developing countries.

The Global Compact has also played an important role in the area of climate, influencing the UN’s climate change narrative at a leadership level and the priorities of key stakeholders in the process, as well as in the area of water which is now seen as a real business risk.

The process to bring business voices into the post-2015 sustainable development debate has also been noteworthy. Through the Global Compact and Local Networks, thousands of companies have been consulted in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goal development process. Through this process business have been able to shape these critical goals for the future.


DIFFUSING IDEAS

Although the impact is difficult to attribute definitively, there is no doubt that the 349 major global and 9,171 local Global Compact events organised over the course of the past 15 years have contributed to the advancement of the corporate sustainability agenda globally.

Since 2009 the number of media mentions of the Global Compact has risen dramatically, indicating that the general public’s awareness of the Global Compact is on the rise. In many countries, the Global Compact has been a key driver in introducing the idea and practice of corporate sustainability through its many Local Networks, launches and summits. A notable example is the 2005 summit in China, ‘Building Alliances for a Sustainable Economy’.

It is difficult to estimate the full impact, but it is clear that the hundreds of tools and resources produced have also significantly shaped the debate over the years. Today, the Global Compact website contains the largest public knowledge base with practical information about sustainable business. Some resources have been ground-breaking and raised the bar for what companies should do, such as ‘Fighting Corruption in the Supply Chain’.

“I can see significant changes in the Japanese business communities’ management mindsets, and their conduct relative to their social responsibility.”
TOSHIO ARIMA FORMER CHAIRMAN, FUJI XEROX