Home / Opinion / Online-views /  The business of sustainable development

The high and mighty, from governments and businesses alike, do wordplay so well. At the opening plenary at this year’s World Economic Forum meeting at Davos on 17 January, China’s president Xi Jinping quoted Charles Dickens. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Xi said in Mandarin after he greeted guests for the coming lunar new year.

Those gobsmacked relaxed after a while as Xi familiarly wove a masterful speech of perception and application in a complicated world in which China clearly intends to be top dog. It’s easy to see why Xi likes Dickens. There’s that purported Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times."

That disquieting feeling came home again as I read a report released just a day before the Davos summit by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission—a London-based association of governments, businesses and international organizations launched just a year ago—in Davos. Titled Better Business, Better World, the Commission’s report is essentially a call to energize businesses using the trope of sustainable development—$12 trillion worth.

The idea isn’t new. As I discussed in a column late last year (Cynical practice and the death of CSR, 17 November 2016), it’s about a musketeer-like all-for-one-world-and-one-world-for-all effort where good business equals doing good by global society: addressing poverty, hunger, food waste, energy issues and such, alongside profiting with sustainable financial, social and environmental capital. That column was spurred by an observation—“CSR is dead!"—by the CEO of Geneva-based World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which represents more than 200 corporations, and thinks almost exactly as the Commission does. Only, the Commission’s membership is leavened by some so-called green organizations and development arms of some governments from developed countries.

The Commission’s report goes further in extending the logic of sustainable development, which in this case appears to be about sustaining business.

The platform of where-we-are is dismal because our “current model of development is deeply flawed", observes Better Business, and cites its “failure and imperfections". Climate change-related disasters have doubled since the 1980s, it claims, and violence and armed conflict “cost the world the equivalent of 9% of GDP in 2014, while lost biodiversity and ecosystem damage cost an estimated 3%". So, high carbon-output investments need to lessen.

ALSO READ: A new corporate benchmark for human rights

There is also great social inequity and rising unemployment among the youth, and women are paid an average of a quarter less than men for comparable work.

Then followed the impetus for the developed world. “Median real wages have been stagnant in developed economies since the 1980s, generating deep anxiety about the impact of automation on both service and manufacturing jobs and opposition to more globalization. Real interest rates are historically low, even negative, in several major economies, while total debt remains uncomfortably high. Economic views lurch unpredictably between techno-optimism and political pessimism."

Meanwhile, there is a “double-digit decline in the credibility of CEOs in 80% of countries", according to the 2017 Trust Barometer: Annual Global Study, by Chicago-based global public relations firm Edelman.

So, break out of this blue funk, bring communities and the developed and developing worlds together. Make good while making good money. It’s worthwhile, maintains the Commission, as it has the potential of unlocking “at least" $12 trillion of “business value" by 2030. Then it gets less coy: “Market opportunities".

These would arrive from “four economic systems", claims the Commission: “Food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being," which “represent around 60% of the real economy and are critical to delivering the Global Goals." These are sustainable development goals as agreed by most countries of the world under the umbrella of the United Nations.

And, market opportunities that ride the coat-tails of such development will mostly be from the “developing" world. There’s even a diagram showing it. Food and agriculture: 71% in the developing world. Cities: 52%. Energy and materials: 54%. Health and well-being: 60%.

“To capture these opportunities in full," the Commission counsels, “businesses need to pursue social and environmental sustainability as avidly as they pursue market share and shareholder value."

The prompt to “rebuild the social contract", and for businesses and business leaders to “regain society’s trust" to “secure their licence to operate" wears a bit thin with over-eager, disturbing phrases like “race to the top". Where I come from—and by it I mean: this world—that is precisely how human rights nightmares begin.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

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