A good director brings that rare ability to peer over the horizon and see what's incoming. A few weeks ago, I was in Bangalore, taking part in a Shell "GameChangers" event designed to help the oil company explore the future of technology and sustainable mobility. The number of incoming risks and opportunities identified was, quite simply, phenomenal. But one thing that struck me repeatedly over the three days was the readiness with which many participants used terms like "sustainable" and "sustainability".
I was sensitive to this indicator of change, partly because we are about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, which first pushed the concept of sustainable development onto the political agenda, and partly because for several years after we founded SustainAbility my colleagues and I had to spell the S-word, over and over and over again.
These days the S-words are everywhere, even in the US, which long resisted them as synonyms for socialism, or even communism. At least from the perspective of 1987, we really have made huge progress in terms of creating a paradigm shift in business thinking—albeit against the backdrop of climate change and the collapse of oceanic fisheries. And this accelerating shift in business priorities was dramatized in the weeks following the Bangalore session by Director and two leading US business magazines, Fast Company and Fortune (Europe edition).
Anyone who recalls GE CEO Jack Welch's heyday may also recall that he was no friend of the green lobby. Yet Jack and Suzy Welch's article in Director last month claims that although it isn't clear how serious the challenge will be, the evidence now suggests that do-nothing strategies would be bad business.
Business leaders should act as if the risks are real, they counsel. Golly. Even if the risks prove to be less serious than originally feared, "your plants will use less energy and emit fewer effluents. Your packaging will be more biodegradable, and your new products will be able to capture any markets created by severe weather effects." They note that the "perfect analogy is globalization." Companies that failed to wake up in time to the flattening of the world lost progress, profits and jobs.
Meanwhile, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger graced the cover of the "Fast 50" edition of Fast Company. This argued that we have to move to "Business 3.0"—a new, socially and environmentally sustainable set of economic and business models that acknowledge that "we can't continue indefinitely to cannibalize our life-support systems for spare parts." This caught my attention because I have been using the 3.0 tag for well over a year to describe the change we see in the corporate agenda, taking us from regulatory compliance (1.0) through corporate citizenship (2.0) to 3.0 economic and business models, based on creative destruction and reconstruction. The "Fast 50" is a listing of companies well positioned for the new order, but it's interesting that Schwarzenegger—dubbed 'The Germinator'—tops the list, on the basis that he leads the way in shaping markets to incentivise renewable energy and other forms of clean technology.
Fortune made its case bluntly: "Go Green. Get Rich." But the really interesting thing about the Fortune survey was that it wasn't just about climate change. It spotlighted seven great problems that will create massive new market opportunities, including poverty and malnutrition, epidemics and overfishing. The magazine also quoted Ray Lane, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, to the effect that all of this could be "bigger than the internet, by an order of magnitude."
Two opportunities, says Lane, are dirty air and dirty water. Under the latter, we are reminded that "there are about two billion people without access to clean water". WaterHealth CEO Tralance Addy wants to take the lead, but insists that "the market opportunity is certainly large enough to accommodate a number of players." That's probably the understatement of the decade.