Discussing collaboration between NGOs and business

Today on the Guardian’s website was a discussion between readers and a panel of experts to discuss the relationship between non-Government organisations (NGOs) and business.

This was of course of interest to me, and I took the opportunity to ask a question. But before I tell you what the question was, and the differing answers, I would like to show you a couple of slides that I use when discussing sustainability with business executives.

The first is designed to really bring home the point that our current levels of consumption are simply not sustainable.  At current levels, we need 1.5 planets to maintain our current lifestyles globally.  If everyone were to adopt an American lifestyle (i.e. USA), we would need 5 planets worth of resources every year.

If you want to know more about this in detail, the first place to visit should be the Global Footprint Network.

The image of the earth with a barcode on it comes from a report of the New Economics Foundation called “The Consumption Explosion” and it is well worth a read.  You can download a free copy here.

My second slide was created by Rob Hopkins, and the slide is part of a publicly available set of slides for people who are part of the Transition Movement.

It shows how different people have very different visions of the future, post peak-oil and in a world of climate change. Some people see technology as being the solution, with continuing growth as per normal.  Others see the need to “powerdown” or reduce our consumption, and other more pessimistic people see the future as filled with chaos and anarchy, just as in the movie “Mad Max”.

To find out more I recommend that you read a copy of Rob’s Energy Descent Pathways where Rob describes this slide in detail.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I asked the panel of experts the following question:

I am really interested in the areas of global footprint, i.e. how many planets we need to meet the demands of our current lifestyles. Although many companies are now taking on board some aspects of sustainability, I wonder if this is not enough. I am interested in how we can move away from the mantra of eternal growth and continual consumerism.

My question is are any NGOs playing a role in advocating quite a radical stance in business? Is this a viable approach to take?

Here are their replies:

Dax Lovegrove, head of business and industry at WWF-UK. He manages WWF-UK’s business engagement strategy while identifying opportunities for converging business and environmental interests.

We had this debate at our ‘World with a Future’ event and championed a ‘better not bigger’ agenda. Can green growth ever really deliver absolute decoupling or do we need to reorienate to a well-being economy.

This theme continues to thread through our One Planet MBA, our One Planet Leaders course and at many of our events. You are absolutely right that this needs to continue as a live and critical debate.

See event write up http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/world_with_a_future_summary2.pd

Hannah Rooley, acting head of global HSBC programme, Earthwatch. She has responsibility for the delivery of the Global HSBC Climate Partnership Programme, Earthwatch’s largest single programme, which brings together HSBC, Earthwatch, The Climate Group, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and WWF.

I agree that this is a real tension – a drive for continuous growth against a stark reality of depleting resources. On our field programmes we show corporate participants data on how many planets worth of resources we are currently consuming, and this can be quite a shocking realisation for them. That said, shareholders are always going to be looking for growth and better ROI. I think there can be opportunities for companies to drive increases in efficiencies and use advances in technologies to reduce their consumption of resources. I think consumer pressure has a role to play here – see Levi’s new “waterless jeans” as an example of a very brand-value focused company starting to do things in a more sustainable way, which also provides them with a differentiator for consumers. I think the downturn in the economy has also had a role to play in encouraging companies to be more efficient and use fewer resources and we see business people who might not care too mcuh about the environment but they do care about cutting costs and there can be great opportunities for synergy here.

None of these address the fundamental idealistic issue of whether we all consume too much, in societies which have evolved around constant consumption. That’s a tough one!

Oliver Balch is a freelance journalist specialising in sustainable business, working for a range of newspapers and specialist trade publications.

The question of how viable for NGOs to take a ‘radical stance’ in relation to business is a very practical one. It cuts to the issue not just of NGO financing but of their public mandate. NGOs claim to be speaking and acting on behalf of public concern. Examples of ‘radical’ NGOs such as animal rights group PETA and anti-baby formula group Baby Milk Action, seem to survive without any corporate financing. They rely entirely on public donations. That’s where their legitimacy – and their viability – lies. Taking corporate money, on the other hand, is one sure way to lose both legitimacy and viability. That’s if they want to stay as powerful advocacy NGOs, of course

Darian Stibbe, director of The Partnering Initiative – a programme of the International Business Leaders Forum – which works with business, government, NGOs and donor agencies to drive the use of effective collaboration for a more sustainable world. Darian has specialised in cross-sector collaboration for a decade and is the author of a range of publications on the topic.

We live in an unsustainable society. How can we have growth in living standards without using up our resources? How can we cope with a population rising to over 9 billion in 2050? How can we increase equity across society to avoid societal strife and human and environmental catastrophe? At the International Business Leaders Forum we are currently developing programmes on the role of leaders in addressing these vital issues. Watch this space…

The question I asked is of course incredibly difficult, but still worthy of being asked. I do feel that there are many solutions to this problem, and as I wrote in a previous post, I have recently read “Cradle to Cradle” which provides a huge amount of inspiration in dealing with these issues.

The book also addresses the psychological dimensions of this issue too.  We need to move away from always making people guilty about their consumption, and help people and organisations move to a way of business that is totally inspired by nature.  Anything that is not in harmony with nature will soon enough fail, since we are not apart from nature, but embedded within the natural world, and as we are finding out, out attempts to control and dominate the natural world are now coming back to bite us with interest, and we can no longer continue down the path we are going, not if we want to continue any form of viable living on this beautiful planet of ours.

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