Leading companies on sustainability set ambitious strategic goals like carbon positive, gender equality, 100% renewables or zero occupational illness.
Exclusive interview with Wayne Visser, listed as one of the world’s Top 10 most influential faculty thinkers on issues of responsible business in social media
1.Community Index Magazine: You are the author of 29 books, including “The World Guide to Sustainable Enterprise and Sustainable Frontiers: Unlocking Change through Business”, Leadership and Innovation. When did you become interested in sustainability and what are your key motivational drivers?
Wayne Visser: I was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in South Africa, where I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time outdoors in nature, especially as a Boy Scout, going camping, hiking or on wildlife safaris. So from a young age, I felt an emotional connection to the environment. Then, at university, I developed a strong interest in the link between ethics and business. The country was in transition from a racist system of apartheid to democracy and I became highly sensitized to social injustice. It was also the time when sustainable development had just come onto the agenda (1988-91). I ended up attending conferences on business and sustainability, in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Japan, as youth input to the UN Rio Earth Summit of 1992.
From there, I continued to shape my career as a “pracademic” in the direction of corporate social responsibility and sustainability. What motivates me is a desire to tackle social injustice and ‘ecocide’ on the one hand and excitement about all the wonderful innovations that are making a sustainable future possible.
2. Community Index Magazine: How do you perceive the current status of corporate sustainability in developed economies? Does the status differ greatly from that in emerging economies?
Wayne Visser: First, I see that the gap between corporate sustainability in high-, middle- and low-income countries has narrowed. I see progress on a spectrum of maturity, from defensive, philanthropic and promotional to strategic and transformative approaches to corporate sustainability. There are companies at all of these stages in every country, but there tend to be more still in the first three stages in low- and middle-income countries. In high income countries, most are at the strategic stage, meaning they have sustainability management systems and follow codes and standards, but progress is still incremental. The leading companies on sustainability set ambitious strategic goals (like carbon positive, gender equality, 100% renewables, zero occupational illness) using innovation, new business models, positive lobbying and cross-sector partnerships to achieve these. Increasingly, we see examples of this transformation in emerging economies as well.
3. Community Index Magazine: We know you believe that we learn best by constantly challenging ourselves to do research. How can research help sustainability move forward?
Wayne Visser: The quest for sustainability is an attempt to tackle and resolve ‘wicked problems’, which means problems that have no simple, easy solution. That is because of the systemic, interconnected nature of our complex living systems, where no single actor, or single action can solve these problems. The role of research is to help us to understand the issues – and especially the interconnections. Since complex systems cannot be controlled, only influenced, research helps us understand which actions are more, or less, effective in moving business, government and society towards sustainable outcomes. Research should also provide the independent perspective that is often lacking in business, government and NGOs, due to their own vested interests, so that we can make evidence -based – rather than politically, or economically based – decisions.
4. Community Index Magazine: What are your current considerations regarding the degree in which organizations have embraced the SDGs?
Wayne Visser: I believe there are 6 levels of response to the SDGs, which also form a spectrum of maturity:
1: organizations ignore the SDGs;
2: organizations spin the SDGs;
3: organizations cherry-pick the SDGs;
4: organizations adopt the SDGs;
5: organizations innovate around the SDGs;
6: organizations use the SDGs to transform the economy and society.
On this scale, most organizations are between stages 1-3, with very few reach 4-6 so far. For example in the 2018 Belgian SDG Barometer, 85% of businesses are focused on a few SDGs, rather than all 17. This will change with time, as pressure and knowledge increase. Here as well, there is a role for research, to keep track of progress. In addition, we need to show how systems thinking can be applied to the SDGs. One missing piece of the puzzle, which is just starting to take shape, is to link the SDGs to science-based targets, such as Doughnut Economics metrics, or Future-Fit Benchmark KPIs.
5. Community Index Magazine: What do you think are the main aspects of a community investment program – as opposed to philanthropy?
Wayne Visser: There are a number of elements that are important. First, the community investment program should not create dependency in the way that philanthropy often does. This means that there should be a pathway to self-sufficiency. Second, the community investment program should be a cross-sector partnership between different players, rather than a simple investment transaction. Hence, the community also adds value to the partnership and the business does not only contribute money. Third, investment implies a return, which means that the community investment program has a way to measure social-economic benefits or returns on the investment. Fourth, the community investment program channels money towards productive economic activities, including supporting social/ eco-enterprises and entrepreneurship.
6. Community Index Magazine: Do you believe that sustainability has a growing influence on how brands are built? How can brands help build a better tomorrow?
Wayne Visser: Brands are built on trust and increasingly, trust is dependent on a social contract or social license to operate. Increasingly, customers, investors and the general public are using sustainability performance as a proxy for a company’s societal legitimacy. Hence, sustainable performance is starting to turn into a competitive advantage. However, for this to become the rule, rather than the exception, we need to change the current perverse incentives in market prices and government policies. Today, these still reward companies that have negative sustainability impacts (e.g. through fossil fuel subsidies) and punish their positive impacts (e.g. taxes on electric vehicles).
Despite these challenges, there is growing evidence that sustainable brands are being supported by the market. For example, in May 2018 Unilever had 26 sustainable living brands, i.e. brands that either reduce environmental footprints or increase positive social impact. These brands grew 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70% of its turnover growth. In 10 years’ time, I expect that brands without a credible story to tell about how they bring solutions to our global sustainability challenges will be on a steep road to decline. By contrast, sustainable brands will compete using innovation and ambition to show that they are more effective in reversing social injustice and ecological damage, thus fueling a ‘race to the top’.
Prof. Dr Wayne Visser is a globally recognized ‘pracademic’, listed as one of the world’s Top 10 most influential faculty thinkers on issues of responsible business in social media, a top 100 influencer on CSR and sustainable business, a top 100 thought-leader in trustworthy business and a top 100 sustainability leader. He is the author of 29 books and his work as a strategy analyst, sustainability advisor, CSR expert, futurist and professional speaker has taken him to 77 countries in the past 30 years. He currently serves Professor of Integrated Value at Antwerp Management School, where he also holds the Chair in Sustainable Transformation, supported by BASF, Port of Antwerp and Randstad. He is a Fellow of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, Director of the think-tank and media company, Kaleidoscope Futures and Founder of CSR International. Previous roles were as Director of Sustainability Services for KPMG and Strategy Analyst for Capgemini in South Africa. He lives in Antwerp with his wife, Indira.
The article was first published in the bilingual yearbook Community Index Magazine 2019.