Businesses must go All In for sustainability - RSA

Businesses must go All In for sustainability


  • Picture of David Grayson
    David Grayson
  • Sustainability

The networked world means businesses have increasingly less choice about transparency. Those who want to survive and thrive should embrace sustainability argues David Grayson FRSA.

In New Power: How it’s changing the 21st Century 0and why you need to know, Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans explain how global connectivity, the organising force of social platforms, the decline of deference and trust, and the alienation from conventional politics, have created new possibilities for social movements and new challenges for traditional, top-down, hierarchical organisations in business, government and civil society. It is a powerfully argued and well-written book that richly deserves the very positive reviews it has received.

The book provided important context and colour for the arguments made in a new book that I co-authored that argues that businesses that want a fighting chance of continuing into the indefinite future can no longer be tentative or half-hearted about embedding sustainability.

They have to go All In. This means having a clear purpose, which is authentic and inspiring, explains why the business exists and how it creates value for itself and for society. It is about having a comprehensive plan, which minimises negative social, environmental and economic impacts, maximises positive respective impacts and covers all aspects of the business and extends into the supply-chain. Going All In means having a sustainable culture, which is innovative, empowering and engaging, open and transparent, and with a core sense of ethics and responsibility. A business that goes All In, we need to have the skill and will to collaborate extensively with a range of business, civil society and public sector partners. It will need to act as advocates, speaking out and up for social justice and sustainable development.

The ‘new power’ era makes it even more urgent for businesses to go All In. As Don Tapscott argued in Naked Corporation, businesses have no choice about extreme transparency and if you are ‘naked’, then you had better be buff! And this means being responsible and accountable.

Businesses that go All In are I would argue more likely to survive and thrive in a new power era: their authentic purpose will be more attractive to a range of stakeholders and publics. Having an ambitious plan requires help from outside the business, including from suppliers, customers, active citizens all of which will be easier to generate through new power models. A culture that is transparent and open to ideas from outside, will harness social platforms and build support. For example, Unilever now publicises on its website where it would welcome proposals for collaboration to solve innovation challenges that they are struggling to meet on their own.

As Tapscott has identified in his work on Global Solution Networks, collaboration will increasingly rely on social platforms and engage active citizens. Consider, for example, how pre-competitive stage business collaborations like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, established by businesses such as Walmart, Patagonia and Nike, make use of on-line social platforms to curate and share good practice guidance and share sustainability audits. Advocacy supports, and will be supported by these kinds of platforms. Corporate advocacy such as #Wearestillin is using these kinds of models and media, while the apparel company Patagonia has a ‘Take Action’ page on its website,educating the public on how to campaign against the Trump administration on protection of public lands. Patagonia also now connects interested customers wanting to take action, with environmental NGOs that the company has given financial and organizational support to, over the years.

Being empathetic and competent can also help businesses to go All In, in a number of ways. It can enable platforms to help employee-led corporate social innovation and the co-creation of sustainability campaigns with consumers. It can also extend the scale and positive impact of business-to-business and business to multi-stakeholder solutions and collaborations, building support for and facilitating engagement with a business’s advocacy for sustainable development and social justice. Timms and Heimans also show where it can this can go off-key, as with Starbucks and their Race Together advocacy.

The New Power world adds a further layer of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity and businesses that go All In can aspire to continue to meet these into the indefinite future.

David Grayson is an independent commentator on responsible business and Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management. With Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan and Mark Lee, executive director of SustainAbility he is co-author All In – The Future of Business Leadership, published by Routledge .@DavidGrayson_

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