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Sustainability will not be sidelined

By Paul Gilding - posted Thursday, 26 March 2009

Profound change is rarely driven by ideas alone. Conditions must also be right - a crisis underway, a major risk emerging - before the momentum really builds for a major shift.

In this context, we can now safely assert that corporate sustainability’s time has well and truly arrived. Not because the ideas are right - they have been for decades - but because the underlying drivers have gathered such momentum they will overwhelm any remaining resistance and create a new set of market conditions.

So the election of Barak Obama, for example, is enormously significant and will create substantial change, but it is not the cause of the change. His election is a result of the joint crises in capitalism and environmentalism converging to create the conditions in which sustainability will catapult into the economic and social mainstream - enabling leaders like Obama to get elected and giving them a mandate to act.


Anyone who argues the global financial crisis will sideline sustainability fails to understand that the world’s scientists are now observing, rather than forecasting, a global ecosystem crisis with enormous direct economic and social impacts. The change ahead will be driven by the physics and biology of the ecosystem rather than the good intentions of our leaders.

The implications for business are enormous. Anyone who fails to understand this context will fail to guide their business through the coming storm.

Since 1995 I have been working in the boardrooms of some of the world’s largest companies across all sectors, particularly in the US but also Asia, Europe and Australia. I have been helping highly engaged CEOs and their executives prepare for what they well understood as core changes developing in their market context and the inherent unsustainability of their business models.

They saw the gathering storm of changes in regulation, competition, consumer demands and employee and stakeholder expectations. They recognised that being ahead of the change was better than having the change forced upon them.

In almost all cases, however, even those with the best of intentions could not break through the system that drove them to behave in ways they knew were wrong for humanity and, ultimately, their shareholders. They made improvements and adjustments, but in most cases these were marginal. The pressure to deliver short-term financial returns simply overwhelmed their desire to change. The best they generally could do was to prepare culturally and strategically for the time that has now arrived.

Now though they’ll get to bring home the bacon because in this new world the market conditions will leave companies no choice. The change will no longer be driven by social responsibility or visionary CEOs, but by regulation, particularly changes to pricing of resources and pollution, and by societal demands, particularly consumer and employee expectations. The era of single bottom line sustainability has arrived.


Beyond the great debate Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 work Silent Spring launched the modern environmental journey through the book’s underlying idea. As Carson writes: “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”

Since then, debate has raged over whether we can control and manage nature in our own interests or whether we should work in harmony with the system we are part of. Fortunately, our science has come a long way, particularly the science on the system as a whole, and the situation is now clear. Unfortunately, the news is not good and our problem goes well beyond climate change.

The UN-appointed Millennium Ecosystem Assessment recently conducted a comprehensive global analysis of peer reviewed ecosystem science, looking at the earth system as a whole.

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First published at Waste Management and Environment Media.

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About the Author

Paul Gilding is an independent adviser and commentator on sustainability and climate change and a Special Advisor to KPMG. Former roles include executive director of Greenpeace International, founder of Ecos Corporation and CEO of Easy Being Green.

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