Accelerate Business

Business as usual: a Ticking Time Bomb

An excerpt from Paul Polman's speech at Edie23.

Paul speaks to business and sustainability leaders about what’s at stake if we continue with business as usual, addressing Edie23. While the Sustainable Development Goals provide us with a roadmap towards the peaceful, equitable and prosperous future we owe the next generation, we find ourselves veering dangerously off track.

Followed by a panel with Elizabeth Wathuti, Founder of the Green Generation Initiative

The Speech:

Thank you Luke and all at Edie for inviting me and for bringing us together. And for the great work you do, to champion and push for business leadership. The theme ‘Leadership Through Crisis’ is more important than ever. Many of you are aware that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb.I am energised to be speaking with Elizabeth Wathuti again, an incredible youth leader who I had the pleasure of sharing the podium with in Egypt a few months ago.

This is a crucial moment for humanity. We are at a delicate tipping point. Some call it a “permacrisis,” an “extended period of instability and insecurity.” Others call it a “polycrisis,” where a number of depressing factors have combined to create one big alarming super-situation. For me its a ticking time bomb for our planet. Our future hangs in the balance.

Either, we face the catastrophic results of breaking all of our planetary boundaries. Or, we use this moment to rise to our senses and make the radical changes needed to get us towards a sustainable and equitable future. This will require sacrifice and hard work. Science still tells us it is possible to remain at around 1.5 degrees. It’s not a question of a lack of money, tools or technology but one of human willpower and leadership, both business and political.

We are moving. Lots has changed for the better. I believe more has changed in the last 2 to 3 years than the previous 20. Certainly, since I was running a business. That’s the good news, and thanks to the hard work of many of you here today. We now understand that there are no profits nor jobs on a dead planet. That there are no healthy people on an unhealthy planet.

With cost of inaction rapidly starting to exceed cost of action , many are moving from risk mitigation to seizing this enormous opportunities the transition offers.

We continue to apply linear thinking to an exponential problem. Without stepping up the speed and scale we remain at the will of this ticking time bomb.

Companies are moving. Over 4,000 companies, representing $38 trillion in value are committed to the Science Based Targets initiative, almost double since last year.

Governments are moving. 91% emissions now under net zero pledge from countries. Legislation like the IRA, the European Green Deal,now the Industrial Plan, China’s 14th 5-year plan are all driving investment. Financial markets are moving. 60% of the world’s Assets Under Management – $70 trillion – are now committed to net- zero emissions targets. And citizens are demanding greener goods with 2/3 people buying or advocating for brands that align with their values and calling out greenwashing.

In all of this progress also lies the danger, a false sense of comfort. Whilst we are surely moving and doing amazing things, it’s simply not fast enough. We continue to apply linear thinking to an exponential problem. Without stepping up the speed and scale we remain at the will of this ticking time bomb.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are fast approaching their 2030 deadline. They remain the best moral framework we have and it is sad that Covid set us back on every single one. It is alarming that emissions are still set to increase by over 10.6% by 2030 when we need them to drop 45%. Or that the richest 1 % grabbed nearly two-thirds of all new wealth worth $42 trillion created since 2020, whilst more and more are slipping back into poverty or food insecurity. Even here in the UK, a report from the National Audit Office yesterday warned about little progress with a plan to have all electricity generated through clean energy.

It’s clear that, making commitments alone, is not enough. Some are even questioning whether the SDGs are even compatible with planetary boundaries. Others will say that it is impossible to turn things around. But we cannot give up. And as my good friend, and inspiration to us all, Christiana Figueres always says “impossible is not a fact, it is an attitude and only an attitude. And our attitudes are fully under our own control.” Giving up is giving in, and frankly there is no better alternative at least that I have discovered.

As ever, we must be mindful of the forces against us. The vested fossil fuel industries, many backtracking on commitments. The many government policies still getting in the way. Most still uphold the $1.8 trillion of perverse subsidies pushing us back. The ESG backlash with many US financial companies now warning that a backlash against sustainable investing is now a material risk. The fatigue setting in in various corners. The upfront capital that no one seems willing to bear. And ongoing daily crises that risk distracting us from the greatest threat.

We must recognize these forces to be able to counteract them. Not a reason to give up, though but a reason to work smarter and harder. To be even more determined to do the harder right over the easier wrong.

ultimately, it takes leadership. Many have said this is not a crisis of climate change, deforestation, food security or inequality but one of greed, apathy, selfishness.

Yes, we need multilateral financing system to work and more money to flow to these opportunities. Supporting the Bridgetown initiative and reforming financial institutions like the WB and IMF will be key. Especially, helping the developing markets with resilience and adaptation.

Yes, we need to step up innovations and big bets. Forming the bolder partnerships needed such as the first mover coalition, the Mission Possible partnership or race to zero.Yes, we need to measure what matters and develop accounting standards and set a price on carbon. Yes, we need to demand better government policies to counteract the $1.8 trillion perverse subsidies.

But ultimately, it takes leadership. Many have said this is not a crisis of climate change, deforestation, food security or inequality but one of greed, apathy, selfishness.

During Covid, we saw a clear bifurcation in companies business models but also leadership. We indeed need moral leaders who are values driven. My wife just wrote a book Values for a life economy where we consider what we value. Where we prioritise love for each other, compassion, love for the planet, and the next generation.

This first requires a higher level of consciousness. Until we embrace the reality of our connectedness, we’ll continue to bear the worst of its consequences. It also requires us to act in the service of future generations. We are stewards of this planet and should aim to be remembered as good ancestors. We may not have any control over when our time will come but we do have control over how we live our lives right now. Many don’t realize this until it is too late. Because what we do today is about tomorrow, too. Our choices will affect people we will never meet, but who matter as much as we do. We see a glimpse of their faces in our children and grandchildren.

We are stewards of this planet and should aim to be remembered as good ancestors.

Finally we must start with ourselves. Rumi a 13th Century Iranian poet once said “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself”. It’s too late for wish lists, we need now binding to-do lists, to save both our credibility and our planet.

This takes courage, which is why we wrote Net Positive,“how courageous companies strive by giving more then they take.” Most are now convinced by the “why” but struggle with the “how.”

So in the book we ask two questions:

  1. How profit from solving world’s problems instead of creating them?
  2. Is world better off because your company is in it?

Last year, world overshoot day was July 28th, which is the day we use up more resources than we can replenish. In fact, after that day, each day, we are stealing from future generations.

Most companies are still in the CSR mode, which I call doing less bad. But having overshot our planetary boundaries by such an extent, less bad is simply not good enough anymore. We need to move beyond CSR and think restorative, regenerative, reparative.

This requires courageous companies and leaders who:

Have a broader growth mindset, looking at societal issues, not as risks but as opportunities to create value.

Look beyond the short-termism of quarterly earnings and towards long term value creation.
Who take responsibility for their total impact In this world,

Who set targets that science demands not the ones they can get away with Leaders that move from competitive leadership to collaborative leadership.

Leaders who embrace the broader transformative partnerships that might feel uncomfortable.

We have to live it ourselves. We have to demand it from the leaders in our organizations.

You can tell them that expectations are changing. That employees are quitting roles and taking pay cuts to work for companies that align with their values as we found in my Net Positive Employee Barometer.

In this talent war, that’s another ticking time bomb that CEOs should pay attention to.

Is the world better off with my business in it, or not?

Some will say that they are just one person, too small to make a difference, so why bother? But we know that tipping points are non-linear. None of us truly know what is going to make the difference, but we know that in the end, systems do shift and all the little actions add up to a new world.

Think about the last snowflake causing the avalanche.

Achieving the SDGs requires the best of all of us.

And the road ahead will be unique for each organization.

So, I urge you to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does taking responsibility across your company and entire value chain look like?
  • What ambiguous targets, supported by science, does your company need to reach?
  • What collective action within your industry is now needed to tackle the biggest challenges?

And finally, remember. The most important question of all: ‘Is the world better off with my business in it, or not?’

With Elizabeth Wathuti here from Kenya let me end with a quote from Nobel price winner Wangari Maathai

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called upon to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground.

Ladies and gentlemen, that time is now.

Thank you for all you are doing.



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