Sustainability in our time


I read a piece this week using Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” speech as an analogy for the “Future We Want” document that emerged from the Rio +20 Conference. It seems apt. The final paper at the summit suggested that “sustained development” (not the blue economy; not sustainable development; not even an end to fossil fuel subsidies) is the solution to climate change. That our political leaders met to find a solution to climate change and committed to the myopic course of action that has brought us into peril in the first place is the most shameful and dangerous abdication of collective political responsibility since failing to ask Hitler what he planned to do with all those Panzer tanks.

Many have pronounced a multilateral solution to climate change as dead. One of the more interesting developments at this summit was the increased engagement of big business. The profoundly disappointing efforts of government to produce anything relevant has re-focused many on the role of business in tackling climate change. So what might that role be?

Jeffry Sachs has quite concisely articulated the benefits and drawbacks of business’ current role in society; and it seems a sensible place to identify the particular areas business can engage in. First, the core strength of business over the past century has been in getting things done. Nobody is better placed today to create solutions to the climate challenge than organisations like Shell, Siemans and GE. Not only do they have the financial capital to make things happen, but they have some of the smartest, innovative minds in the world, and world class R&D processes designed to produce tangible results.

The most positive development in this space at Rio was the emergence of the Friends of Rio group, looking at multi-stakeholder collaboration and whole systems change. Combining business’ funding and delivery focus with Civil Society organisations’ values and experience with non-monetary deliverables, the possibilities are intriguing.

Secondly, there is the question of separating business from politics and stopping business from writing its own rules. In the words of Peter Bakker, we need to “change the way we think about business performance and align the business with the world we want to create”. At the moment, this charge is being led by an “enlightened few,” including the likes of Unilever and Puma. Businesses need to start thinking this way themselves and must be open to regulation in this space.

Tragic as the failure of the multinational process at Rio is; if the scale of the shortcomings is enough to force a “crowding in” effect from big business, Trade Unions and other non-traditional stakeholders, then perhaps all is not lost.


Sachs on business


“I deal with a number of businesses that I admire because they are better diplomats than the state department as they are actually doing things rather than talking about them. They are getting real things done.
“The other face of businesses is that they are too powerful in our societies. They write the rules, they pay the politicians, sometimes illegally and sometimes, via what is called legal, which is financing their campaigns or massive lobbying.
“Billions of dollars are spent and this is horrendous because if business writes the rules, it is not true their shareholder value is their value to society. It can reflect highly destructive practices which the politicians turn their eyes away from because of the political power companies hold. This has got completely out of control and is leading to the breakdown of modern democracy.”

– Jeffry Sachs

A concise summary of the potential and barriers to business’ current role in society. Its pertinence is highlighted by Barack Obama’s current messaging about his fundraising. The quote comes from an interesting article by Jo Confino in the Guardian. Whether you love or hate Jeffry Sachs, its worth a read.

Profit – an end to a means?


In 2011, Bob Diamond laid out his view of what organisational culture means, and what it should look like at Barclays:

“Our culture must be one where the interests of customers and clients are at the very heart of every decision we make; where we all act with trust and integrity.”

Much has been made of these comments over the last couple of days, and how the LIBOR-fixing scandal has made a mockery of his words.

While there can be no doubt that Barclay’s behaviour in fixing LIBOR rates has not put their customers and their clients at the heart of their decision making, I find myself more depressed at the limited scope for good – even in this, what should have been Diamond’s most aspirational address. Diamond gave plenty of good examples of CSR, and ways that Barclays could contribute to society while also continuing a relentless drive for its own profitability; but surely there must be a real debate at this stage about the viability of organising society around businesses driven primarily by profit.

It’s a concern that is not limited to Barclay’s by any means – indeed most blue chip companies would take a similar view of their purpose: Delighting customers and producing value for shareholders. The traditional argument says that the role of business to fuel economic growth, and this helps society by creating jobs and wealth.

There is truth to this – and it is not surprising that the financial system has produced hermeneutic knowledge to justify its behaviour. What is left out of this narrative however is that in pursuit of growth, this capitalist system has also produced a range of negative unintended side-effects whose consequences now significantly outweigh the positives produced by economic growth.

Klaas Van Egmond has articulated the obvious, in highlighting capitalism’s “tendency to reverse ends and means”. He suggests the financial system has become an end in itself, rather than being the means it should be to further human happiness and social value.

What is truly frightening is how embedded this topsy-turvy capitalist narrative is. Even this week Bob Diamond has been praised for masterminding a “British corporate success story”. National newspapers are peddling the argument that he should stay because he would be too difficult to replace.

Just why are we putting such value on his job?

Barclays exists today, to enrich itself, and by so doing (it would say), improve society. We need to re-imaging Barclays, and every major business so that they exist to improve society, and in so doing enrich themselves in a sustainable way.

If Diamond was leading on organisation that thought and acted in that way; then maybe, just maybe you could begin to fathom his £17 million annual pay packet. As it stands, I find myself slack-jawed as people formulate arguments for continuing to pay a man 649 times the average wage in Britain so that he can continue to increase the profitiability of an investment bank without thinking beyond his immediate “customers and clients”.