Starting point: Activist economists in England concerned about contradictions inherent in global marketplace
Organizing Strategy: Create a think-tank and consulting operation
Tools: meetings, publications, consulting
Outcomes: Well-respected contributor to global sustainability dialog
SustainAbility was founded by activists John Elkington and Julia Hailes in 1987, the same year that the Brundtland Commission published Our Common Future and its foundational definition of sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Our first decade saw business awaken to the strategic implications of the Brundtland Report in a world of growing economic and political integration and complexity. The World Business Council on Sustainable Development, Business for Social Responsibility, the ISO 14001 environmental management system, Brazil’s Ethos Institute and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index entered the landscape, while controversies surrounding companies like Shell, Nike and Monsanto signaled strategic evolution of the agenda. Shell’s first sustainability report Profit and Principles: Does there have to be a choice? heralded a new era of corporate transparency, while the Fair Labor Association became one of the first multi-stakeholder partnerships to work on corporate responsibility.
Early work by SustainAbility on green consumerism soon expanded to emerging issues from genetic modification to human rights, evolving the concept of the “triple bottom line” coined by John Elkington in 1994’s Cannibals with Forks, helping companies engage external stakeholders and collaborating with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on our pioneering Global Reporters and Engaging Stakeholders programs. Our work took us around the world and saw us working with a growing range of multinational corporations and NGOs.
2000-2009 Value and Collaboration: The first decade of the new millennium brought fresh economic, political and social dynamics. The 9/11 attacks and the resulting U.S.-led “war on terror” heightened global tensions, while the deepening penetration of the Internet and social media forever changed the nature of business, collaboration and accountability. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth brought the dangers of climate change to mainstream audiences, while worldwide food price spikes called attention to the fragility of global supply chains and their sometimes devastating impact on the most vulnerable. Sustainability awareness accelerated, and with it came a growing emphasis on business solutions and opportunities for value creation. Companies from Dupont to Unilever to Wal-Mart established ambitious company- and portfolio-wide sustainability targets. More than 230,000 MW of non-fossil fuel-based energy was installed worldwide. Net Impact, the business student and professional network for sustainable business, grew to 200 chapters around the world.
SustainAbility collaborated with clients and partners to define and tackle issues related to the business case for sustainability (Buried Treasure and Developing Value, with the IFC), business and global governance (Gearing Up, with the UN Global Compact), business in a world of environmental limits (One Planet Business, with WWF), innovation in the developing world (Market Movers) and social entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship (Growing Opportunity and The Social Intrapreneurs, with the Skoll Foundation). We convened the ground-breaking Pharma Futures dialogues between institutional investors and the pharmaceutical industry and launched a sustainability expert opinion research program with GlobeScan. We joined debates at the World Economic Forum and the World Social Forum, and opened offices in the U.S., continental Europe and India.
2010-onwards Transformation: The sustainability agenda has never been more urgent. Corporate responsibility and accountability are necessary conditions for a sustainable future on a planet headed for more than nine billion humans by 2050. But securing our future has become less about accountability and conservation and more about disruptive, transformational change and creating value by delivering on societal needs such as access to energy, food and healthcare.
We have renewed our focus on these issues and work across the key themes of access, accountability, energy & climate, ecosystems & resources, globalization, strategy & innovation, and consumers & brands. We remain committed to inspiring and supporting business leadership on the sustainability agenda. Yet we are more determined than ever to push ourselves and our clients to uncover what’s next on this journey, and to evolve from current best-in-class approaches to entirely new and sustainable business models and systems. Such a transformation will ensure the long-term competitiveness of our clients’ businesses – and a just and sustainable world for us all.