Urgency and Agency: Mobilizing Business to Deliver the SDGs

The greatest risk to the sustainability movement is that it is struggling and so far failing to articulate a vision of a future that is both prosperous while remaining within planetary boundaries. Until it is able to showcase a plausible paradigm shift, then no-one is going to feel safe letting go of the current system that is driving us towards the edge of an environmental and social abyss.

Jo Confino

With less than a decade to go before all 17 Sustainable Development Goals are supposed to be reached, we’re not on track to meeting even one of them. As the engines of our economy, businesses have a huge role to play in getting us on a path to success, but two things have been sorely lacking: a sense of urgency and a sense of agency.

Instilling urgency

There are no end of headlines and campaigns on the need to act now to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, but most people are just carrying on as if it’s business as usual.

Why such a disconnect? A study from 2019 sheds light on this. The researchers asked thousands of people how they felt about a catastrophe that would end human civilization completely, compared one which would cause massive deaths but allow our species to survive. Amazingly most people thought there wasn’t that big a difference between the two. But when the same respondents were asked to imagine a long, peaceful, flourishing human future, most of them suddenly changed their mind, and rated human extinction as much worse. The researchers concluded that many people are suffering from a sort of hopelessness: they can’t see a path to a better future, so they don’t care too much about losing it.

To get people to really step up, we need to convince them that the future is worth fighting for. Our current narratives around systemic challenges like climate change are almost all negative, which instils not desire but fear. We’re shouting at people to slam on the brakes, when we should be enticing them to change course and speed up in pursuit of a far better world.

Take ESG reporting for example. The major standards from GRI, SASB, CDP and others – and hundreds of ESG ratings and rankings – all focus on gradually reducing negative impacts. So how can we tell who the real game changers are? Which companies are actually drawing down CO2 out of the atmosphere, or bringing their customers out of poverty, or enriching biodiversity through their supply chains? ESG reports and ratings don’t tell us that. At best they tell us who is least bad in a particular industry.

Not exactly inspiring stuff. If we want people to act, we must move our narratives beyond responsibility and risk, to focus on regeneration and resilience in pursuit of a flourishing future for all.

However, helping people see a compelling destination won’t make a difference unless they feel it can be reached. That’s why we also need to instill a sense of agency.

Instilling agency

Unfortunately, our economic system is working against us – and that’s because in the past 70 years GDP has become our default measure of success. But GDP is just a measure of how much money is flowing through the economy. It says nothing about the quality of the outcomes for people or planet which result from all those financial transactions. This is like sitting in a car and slamming down on the gas to get the rev counter as high as possible, without checking whether the car is actually in gear and going in a useful direction.

Enter Future-Fit

Today’s companies don’t need a rev counter – they need a satnav. This is where our work at Future-Fit Foundation comes in. We’re aiming to catalyze a shift in both business mindsets and business metrics. Our work starts with a compelling vision of a Future-Fit Society – one which is environmentally restorative, economically inclusive, and socially just, where everyone on Earth has the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives.

Earth and social systems scientists have for decades known what we must do - and not do – to deliver such a vision, by identifying what’s required to strengthen our social foundations and live within planetary boundaries. But often that knowledge is buried in academic journals, and is too complex and abstract to be easily put into practice. It’s as if the rules of the game are already well-established, but they’re in a language most people can’t read. So what we’ve done is translate that science into a methodology to help any organization measure, manage and improve all of the extra-financial impacts of its actions, both positive and negative.

This methodology is called the Future-Fit Business Benchmark, and it’s free for anyone to use. You can think of it as a kind of satnav to success for 21st century businesses. It helps companies of all shapes and sizes do three things: set the right ambitions; take better day-to-day decisions in pursuit of those ambitions; and explain their impacts – good and bad – in a way their customers, employees and investors can understand. And it clearly shows how every business practice – from procurement to product design – serves to help or hinder progress toward a flourishing future for all.

We’ve done a lot to ensure the Benchmark can be used not just by large companies and mainstream investors, but by social enterprises and impact investors, too. And later this year we’ll be launching a web-based management dashboard, to help businesses embed the Future-Fit approach into the core of what they do.

By offering companies a compelling destination to aim for, and the means to steer toward it, we believe the Future-Fit approach can help to instill the sense of urgency and agency that the SDG agenda so desperately needs. You can find out more at FutureFitBusiness.org.