Skip to main content
Sustainable Innovation

Sustainable business: Questioning the status quo

Sustainable business: Questioning the status quo
Share this article:

“I don't pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.” Arthur C. Clarke

The future we want

It’s easy to get complacent and assume that the status quo is either the only way to do things or the right way to do them. However, in our increasingly connected, interdependent world, it’s important that we ask more questions about the purpose and direction of our organisations.

The role of business in engaging with global environmental and social challenges was brought into focus in 2015 with the establishment of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which outlines 17 global goals for a more sustainable future. Since then, business leaders are increasingly being asked to demonstrate how they are contributing to these goals. For instance, at the launch of the SDGs, the CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, said: ‘Unilever is involved in the SDG agenda as we fundamentally believe these are challenges that need to be addressed for economies, businesses and society to function.’ Organisations need to look beyond profit towards a place where they can demonstrate ambition and progress in delivering social, environmental and economic benefits.

What’s it all about?

The drive for a sustainable future relies on asking questions. Some are big and some are small; but sometimes the smallest questions have the biggest answers.

Human beings are good at asking questions, especially so as children. Children have an ability and commitment to ask questions that often outstrips our ability to answer them, either because we don't know the answers or we are unprepared to deal with their implications.

As we grow up, we keep questioning but the scope of these questions can narrow due to practical constraints, such as passing an exam or earning an income. Our questions become more about the details and less about the overall purpose. This kind of ‘bounded rationality’ keeps our questions within a less-examined frame of reference and poses a big challenge to our efforts to break away from unsustainable ways of being and create new ones.

Some questions demand answers

“A prudent question is one half of wisdom.” Francis Bacon

In simple terms, achieving sustainability is about doing the same things differently or doing different things.

Maintaining our status quo places us on a path to global catastrophe. To become more sustainable we need to ask and then answer some fundamental questions about economics, finance and business. Instead of asking ‘can we do business with less impact?’ we need to ask, 'how do we connect our business ambition and purpose with delivering a flourishing future?'

Whether we want to focus on our role in achieving the SDGs, or simply on long-term organisational success in a rapidly changing world, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Why do our systems of value and production function the way they do? Must they always do the same?
  • As organisations, can we develop a clear purpose that aims not only in profit, but also for social and environmental value?
  • Are our business models fit for the challenges of the future?
  • Must profit for one always mean loss for another?
  • How do we transition towards positive-sum enterprise, in which meeting our own needs delivers on those of others too?

Currently, the rules of the game for capitalism are undermining its own long-term existence. Any game includes winners and losers, creativity, luck, cooperation and competition, and should deliver the possibility of individual and collective choice, reward, and wellbeing.

Changing the rules of the game so that capitalism aims to deliver not only profit, but also sustainability, wouldn’t impact the range of possible outcomes and choices within the game. Indeed, it would guarantee that we all had a chance to play for longer, and that more of us might win.

Unless we ask the big questions “What is the point of capitalism?”, “How do we value a sustainable future?” and “How do we ensure that our companies are architects of the future, not its victim!” we will be unlikely to find answers which meet the scale of the challenges that we face.

Joss Tantram is a Founding Partner of Terrafiniti LLP. He leads Terrafiniti's strategic services and their innovation initiative, 'Towards 9 Billion'.