How we live and work today, in the developed West, is not sustainable. Two forces, climate change and social discontent, threaten to make our lives harder, our economies poorer.
We may not see firsthand poverty or war. But weather and pollution are starting to disrupt business and personal lives; and we all know people with exacerbated mental or physical health conditions.
For decades, opportunity followed in the wake of trade. Still, growth also led to the present worries. With industrialisation came greenhouse gases; with capitalism, unhealthy lifestyles and dangerous inequalities.
It is hard to change the system. Demands for cheap products and short-term profit conspire with apathy to keep governments, companies and individuals locked onto the current path. Finger-pointing takes us nowhere.
Companies are more agile than governments and more influential than individuals. Cast unhelpfully as the villain, business now has a crucial role in how we champion a sustainable economic and cultural system.
To prosper, and help others thrive, companies must operate beyond the cycle of product, customer and profit that has defined commerce for years. Executive teams must reimagine what it means to create value, accounting for ecological and social, as well as economic, returns.
Business wields great influence within our capitalist system. This privilege leaves executive teams with two obligations: first, to stand for a wiser, less narrow conception of ‘value’; second, to ensure that day-to-day practice delivers returns for society, the world we live in, and also shareholders.
Many firms are slow to grapple with these new demands. Markets, culture, operations and cash-flow concerns get in the way. A fresh, more holistic approach to strategy is required.