Sustainability Means Rethinking Business

 
   

Will Day
Sustainability advisor

Our economies incentivise people and businesses to consume way beyond the planet's capacity to regenerate itself. Will Day, sustainability advisor to PwC, asks, if a planet were a company, and we were its owners or shareholders, would we really sit by and watch it erode its capital the way we're doing?

Transcript

"There's only one planet Earth, totally unique in its ability to support life. So why are we placing so much pressure on its finite resources? If a planet were a company, and we were its owners or shareholders, would we really sit by and watch it erode its capital the way that we're doing? The planet is an incredibly complex eco system, it provides us with the most extraordinary range of eco systems services; some are obvious like food and fibre but things like air quality, water quality, erosion control, pollinating insects, these are things that we take for granted and those underpin human existence and life on the planet, and yet we degrade it and deplete it at an unsustainable rate. When you start to try to put a price tag against those services you come up with some really interesting numbers. It might cost, let's say, $45 billion a year to maintain those eco systems compared with the cost if we don't preserve them - a hundred times more, up to $4 trillion a year.

Our economies incentivise people and businesses to consume way beyond the planet's capacity to regenerate itself.

Many natural resources are actually under threat, some of them are more visible than others, and we're more aware of some than others. But all of them constitute risks to businesses that have supply chains. Maybe the most obvious one is oil - it's estimated we've got about 40 years left of oil. Lead, tin, copper: a matter of a few decades before we exhaust the world's supply of those. Some of the precious metals that would go into plasma screens or mobile phones run out even more quickly. There are huge business opportunities in efficient use of resources in recycling, in reuse, redesigning the products that we use and making certain that we don't lose those precious materials.

One of our most undervalued resources is fresh water, and any business that has water anywhere in its supply chain will really have to sit up and take notice. Science doesn't do certainty, that's not what science does, science does probability. But when it comes to climate change, science is using words like 'unequivocal' - they are absolutely clear that we're confronting a warming climate, and they're absolutely certain that that is related to man's activities and hugely to our input of fossil fuels to the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. There are going to be significant increases in temperature extremes - so cold and hot, drought and flood, wind - all of those things have a significant impact on business, and business is going to have to respond in all sorts of different ways. We're going to have to rethink our infrastructure; we're going to have to rethink the energy we use to cool our houses and cars. It's not just us that will have to adapt, nature will need to adapt - animal and plant species won't survive that and they will need to move. Food is going to have to be produced in different places and different ways, and already we're starting to see signs of that. The clock is ticking: we've got 5 maybe 10 years to make the fundamental decisions that will change that.

The next half century is going to bring dramatic change. And the question is the extent to which we choose to shape that, or simply react to it and suffer the consequences. It's going to require intelligent people who are prepared to innovate. It's going to require people who will think in the long term but act in the short term. It's going to require people to stand up and be counted.

Every organisation needs to prepare for the new context. Every business needs to understand what the opportunities and the risks are of the sustainability agenda.

To what extent is your organisation dependent on eco systems services? How secure are they? Are you aware of the opportunities that sustainability holds for your organisation? Are you seizing them? What about the risks? Are you exposed to them? How resilient are you? Are you ready?

Our way of life is under threat from our way of life. Something has to change."