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Nathan Goode Nathan Goode

Nathan Goode calls for a change of narrative in the sustainability debate

"We have delivered," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said at the recent climate change negotiations in New York. But the question is delivered what? Other than a stirring speech by Barack Obama and a US$1bn commitment by France to the climate change fund for developing economies, there were plenty of promises but (as yet) few actions. It was left to Nelson Mandela's widow, Graça Machel, to punctuate the self-congratulatory mood of delegates, telling them that there was still a massive mismatch between the challenge posed by environmental degradation and their response.

This highlights two key (and interrelated) points: firstly that getting a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions in Paris next year will be fiendishly difficult, if not impossible; and secondly that action to prevent climate change is largely being left to businesses and consumers. Here at least there is some better news; two-thirds of business leaders are moving towards more sustainable practices because of customer demand.

But if we really want to see a step-change in business actions we need to start talking in language that resonates with the corporate world. The relationship between businesses and the environment is dynamic and interdependent. So the question is how to shift the focus from a perceived general burden of supporting the common good to a debate about the benefits of action and the costs of inaction.

As with so many ubiquitous concepts sustainability means different things to different people. For me, it tells us that our growth ambitions (and indeed consumption patterns) need to take into account the wider impact on society and the environment, and the limitations of the world in which we operate. Yes, there are short-term costs associated with acting more sustainably, but these are far outweighed by future benefits. For businesses it could mean the difference between success or failure in the long-term.

Nowhere is this change in narrative more necessary than in the developing world. According to our new report released earlier this month, the cost, availability and sustainability of key inputs such as energy and raw materials are far more important to their business growth prospects compared with developed world peers. Not only are developing economies more resource-intensive, but energy transmission and distribution networks can also be so unreliable that energy self-sufficiency has become a corporate, rather than a national aspiration.

This is somewhat contrary to the position of many developing world political leaders who continue to affirm that their number one priority is the eradication of poverty. However the growth of these economies increasingly relies on how they manage access to scarce resources such as water. There is no choice to be made on whether to focus on sustainability or poverty; the two are mutually dependent. As job-creators, the voice of business needs to be heard.

So while the politicians prevaricate, my advice to businesses is simple: with traditional energy sources increasingly volatile and competition growing for scarce raw materials, you need to understand how sustainable your growth strategy is. Those who wait to be told to act by their government are likely to be stuck shooting envious glances over the fence at the lower costs and higher orders of their more prescient competitors.

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