Business as usual will not save the planet (tell us something we don’t know)


The Sustainable Development Goals describe a wonderful future for us all – so what’s getting in the way of us getting there? The SDGs are helpful. They offer a language, a structure and a clear set of targets for the nature and scale of the challenges we face; and this recent HBR article by the folks from FSG makes a good argument for their commercial value and what it looks like for businesses to take them on in a meaningfully way. But what the SDGs don’t do is tell us how to get from where we are to where we need to be.

We all love a solution – especially a good one and Kramer, Agarwal & Srinivas offer some good advice and a lovely sounding solution ($12 trillion of value anyone?). A solution whereby business does well and the SDGs are realised (well, mostly). But for me there is a missing question, “So what’s getting in the way?

Systems resist change. The current ‘system’ in which we all live and in which business operates is working (at least for some, some of the time). It delivers value (to many); it follows the rules and incentives that exist; indeed, it has evolved to flourish. And at the same time we have created a system that is burning up people and the planet. If we want to change this system, change the way business is done, and change it in ways that recognise the value of public goods (such as air and water quality) in ways that enhance biodiversity and the natural environment, in ways that more fairly share the value created, then we are going to need to work much harder than just creating a wonderful vision and a compelling argument for the future. Rather, we are going to need to change the current dynamics, incentives and beliefs that create the current system – the things that make business as usual happen. And to do this we need to start not by demanding the end to business as usual but by understanding what drives it and unpicking and building something new in a host of practical and relentless ways.

David Stroh¹ coined an elegant and helpful question which I regularly borrow, and which I ask now: “Why, despite our best effort, have we been unable to embed the SDGs within our way of doing business?” When we ask this question, we are forced to confront not the jam and sunshine of the future, not the logic of why, but the reality of now; and only then we can start to work out how.

¹ David Peter Stroh (2015) Systems Thinking for Social Change