WBCSD Meeting, Paris 2015- Group Diary

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OWT.230 Management & the Environment – Ethics & Sustainability

Group Diary written by Xiaoyu Chen, Jan-Oliver Distler, Celia Iordache, Miriam Luft, Alexia Petricu, Ferdinand Weiler, Veronika Wiesner & Victoria Wood

Expectations 

After working through the Vision 2050 and Action 2020 Documents and Reports our expectations were quite mixed. On one hand we were a bit sceptical as the Vision 2050 Report seemed very untouchable and “fluffy”. We missed a detailed action plan about how to approach the problems and visions mentioned in it. On the other hand, it created even more excitement on our trip as we now hoped to see how several companies, CEOs and governments were going to deal with the requirements and changes necessary according to Vision 2050.

We all looked forward to networking with CEOs and business executives, and the opportunity to hear open discussion “behind closed doors” around the subject sustainability. Our excitement rose even more regarding the fact we were going to see Al Gore and Ban Ki-Moon speak in Paris. For some we would even get the opportunity to network with Lancaster University alumni at an event being held at the British Embassy.

Among the excitement for this event was the prospect of getting an insight into how to run a sustainable company and a closer look at the job opportunities created should Vision 2050 be achieved. But underlying this excitement was an anxious feeling in us all which made us question if we would be up to the task ahead of us at the conference. However, these nerves were calmed after a meeting with Rodney Irwin who clearly explained our roles and made us all feel comfortable with what would be expected of us.

It wasn’t really until the train to Paris it set in that we were about to be a part of an amazing event, which had the possibility, along with COP21, to become known as the turning point in the future of our planet.

 

Saturday the 5th December: The game of value and wealth

Before the conference even officially started we got a taste of what it means to be a CEO in a company facing the challenges of the 21st century. We were invited to take part in a business simulation game conjointly developed by Deloitte and the WBCSD. Having thoroughly prepared for the event we felt confident to put our knowledge to the test. We were in it to win it – a fallacy as it turned out.

Our objective seemed simple at first: Maximize value and maximize wealth. So, we slipped into the role of executives, chose a business model and strategy, and then were faced by decisions in areas such as employee satisfaction, criminal acts, mergers & acquisitions, environmental management, etc., which we needed to solve under time pressure. At the same time, we had to manage for cash and revenue as well as social, environmental and fiduciary scores.

Even though we knew from J. Stead’s and W. Stead’s book “Management for a small planet” that ‘[s]ustainability provides the middle way for transcending the perceived economy-society-ecology dichotomies’ (2009: 11), it was rather complex to identify the analogue solution. Funtowicz & Ravetz define complex systems by two key properties radical uncertainty and plurality of legitimate perspectives (2001: 3). The observation of variegation within our opinions about optimal solutions made us reproduce Funtowicz’s & Ravetz’s definition as well as conclusion that environmental decisions, or even more generally most management decisions, classify as post-normal science. Hence, not being able to identify the efficient solution most of the time, we ended up in a constant stabilising act between the aforementioned criteria. The more unbalanced it became the more narrower minded decisions were made, to the extent that cash management was the only priority, which in turn led to a downward spiral into bankruptcy. The game was over, the learning was not, in fact that is when it really began. The discussions afterwards were probably more heated then the ones we had during the game. Our minds were made up of many questions: Where did we go wrong? Did we lose track of value, because of wealth? What even defined value? What defined wealth? While we did not get an answer to a number of those questions, we will make sure that we ask them before facing those decisions in real life.

In conclusion the “gamification” of real life sustainability problems provided a great learning opportunity. It reflected what the WBCSD stands for in terms of innovative education and we wish to see it on a broader scale as it has potential to change the perception of students and leaders have about the role of business in society.

Monday 6th December – Plenary Day at WBCSD Council Meeting

Our official first day at the WBCSD Council Meeting 2015 started bright and early with alarms going off at 5am and in taxis from the hostel to the conference centre at 6am. This early start, however, did not hinder the fact all eight of us were excited for the day ahead.

Going into today none of us truly new what to expect. We had been told the plenary day would be the busiest with around 800 business executives attending, including around 100 CEOs. We knew the speakers we heard would be incredible as they included the former Vice President of the US Al Gore and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. But other than this we only hoped we would be able to absorb what was happening around us and to perfect our networking skills.

As the sessions were all closed today we did most of our observing at the plenary speeches, in between scanning at the entrances or sessions. The highlight speakers were definitely Al Gore and Ban Ki-Moon. Ban Ki-Moon was especially intriguing to listen to as he spoke about how business needs to do whatever it can to support government in the battle to a low-carbon world, and vice versa. This notion stood out as a highlight as it reflected the need for both institutions to support the same goal because they have the power to reach it differently. The governments can hopefully at COP21 reach a legally binding agreement which will change government policy in regards to carbon emissions. At the same time businesses can educate and direct consumers to purchase goods and services which have lower carbon emissions and support the movement to a sustainable society.

Nadir Godrej, CEO of Godrej Industries, was definitely the stand out speaker from the day with his poem which was completely unexpected, yet very appropriate. The poem highlighted issues faced in this battle towards a low-carbon sustainable society but did so in such a way that had the audience captive. This was such a change of pace that everyone in the room listened and heard every word spoken. Surprisingly this emphasized the fact we need more things like this. The eight of us pay attention as students to these events and issues because we are interested in it. But what about the wider public? Why would they pay attention to these issues? This is exactly where we need poems like this being marketed out to a wider audience, to engage the wider public in unusual ways to ensure they are following these issues and pushing for businesses to make change through organisations such as the WBCSD. This poem also highlights the need for education, both inside and outside of business, something which we know is a key factor for the WBCSD.

Overall, we made it through the plenary fuelled by the buzz of being surrounded by such an incredible and inspiring group of business executives. Our only hope is that we are not living in a fairy tale world and that over the next two days we see businesses striving to make a real difference in this world.

Tuesday 7th December

Today we attended sessions covering different interesting topics such as the redefinition of value in an organization, climate change, sustainable water management, finance, and risk management. It has an intense but extremely exciting day. We heard about new strategies that are currently being implemented in different companies as well as speeches on what is important in a business. They also discussed about new project launches and technologies like the innovative data-based technical tool that was introduced in the Water Cluster session, aimed at identifying and measuring both qualitative and quantitative factors of arable land resources, that could help for example to see whether they could be returned to water-stored wetlands. Most of the speakers in this session conveyed a call for cooperation between business, governments and communities, and expressed an appreciation of the data and techniques that academics have been provided to them since the project started.

Beside this session, we were also looking forward to hearing the projects that the Future Leaders have been carried out around the topic “Scaling up business actions on climate change and improving business case”. Overall, it was really engaging as they used an interactive approach which triggered the public’s critical thought around this topic. Through their presentations we could feel their commitment in further developing their knowledge of sustainability. Compared to previous generations, the Future Leaders’ generation is the only one which is completely aware of the Climate Change problem and therefore cannot escape from it. They have big responsibilities on their shoulders. As we belong to this generation, we felt particularly involved and motivated to change the rules of the game. It was interesting to see how they tackled the Climate Change issue and which recommendations they gave. We could immediately see they had carried out in-depth analysis around the topic.

Certainly, we cannot claim companies are not responsible for this problem, but the future leaders’ speeches, today, showed us how they are also trying to be part of the solution. Business is a powerful force that, with respect to how it is used, can either support sustainable change or be dangerous for the environment and the communities. For this reason governments, businesses and single individuals should cooperate. They should not only more seriously consider each other in their decision-making processes, but they should also make significant contributions and restrain their relative powers. They need each other.

As Ahmad wrote in 2011: “Governments, civil societies, academicians, indigenous people, communities, businesses and international organisations need to become engaged in the formulation and enforcement of environmentally and ecologically sound development policies along with relevant research, education, training, awareness and change in social values”.

Film premier – Ice and the Sky

In the evening of this Tuesday, we had the great opportunity to watch the documentary film “Ice and the Sky” that took us on a journey to the Antarctica with Claude Lorius who started to explore this magical but also dangerous place in his 20s in 1957.

At the end of the film, after reviewing his life’s work, Lorius challenges us by saying ‘Now that, just like me, you know, what do you intend to do?’ (Wild-Touch, 2014). After we had just witnessed the lifelong commitment of the scientist, we could deeply feel the need for action, the need to support the planetary boundaries concept (Rockström et al., 2009) that indicates a “safe operating space for humanity with respect to the functioning of the Earth System” (Rockström et al., 2009) with the Holocene[1] as scientific reference point.

Wednesday 8th December – Generating positive impact in Landscapes (Interactive Workshop)

Today a really informing and exciting workshop on Landscapes took place. Landscape management is an integral part of Vision 2050, dealing for instance with opportunities to restore forests (WBCSD, 2010: 55). The workshop consisted of several short presentations of WBCSD staff and the partners ‘The Forest Dialogue’, ‘IDH The Sustainable Trade Initiative’, ‘Sustainable Food Lab’ and ‘Wageningen University’.

In comparison to other sessions we could be part of, this session was truly interactive with a positive atmosphere created by the participants aimed at making the most out of this workshop. The participants were eager to share their experiences and business cases and to establish a conversation to solve the problems they are facing e.g. in convincing their management.

One of the discussion points was why many companies do not turn up to meetings to discuss landscape management. Unfortunately, the answer was simply pure bottom line thinking. Many companies are still not long-term orientated and do not see the point in investing without making money today. This indicated how far we are from an implemented triple bottom line that grounds sustainable organizational management on the overlapping domains economic success, social responsibility and environmental protection (Stead, J., Stead, W., 2009).

Ahmad et al. (2011) stipulated that “[i]nternational agencies, NGOs, and scientific associations should increase education, training and awareness activities”. In this context, it was also an enrichment to see the exchange between the WBCSD members and staff on which platforms, meetings, workshops and materials are needed to promote the concept of landscape management, how they seek to collaborate with the WBCSD to develop those requirements and when those requirements should be available within the next year.

Reflections

Four days later everything comes to an end and as the train takes us back to Lancaster we have time to reflect on what this trip has meant for us.

To start with, this opportunity has meant witnessing the real situation of sustainability in the business industry. Networking has also been one of the highlights, even though the first day was somewhat hard for us to engage into any conversation, we found it easier to speak to everyone as the days went by. We really appreciated how open all business members were when it came to speaking to undergraduates. Indeed, we have realised the industry has an actual interest in engaging sustainability and education, an idea well reflected on the development of the WBCSD Future Leaders Program. It is worth noting companies are now encouraging employees from a broader range of departments, not only the Sustainability Department, to participate in this program in an effort to integrate sustainability at a wider level across business.

However, we feel there is still a lot to do in this respect. Even though some companies really try to make sustainability a core aspect of their strategy, the influence this aspect has on making strategic decisions is low. Given the current influence economic and political factors have on operations, it does not look like the situation will change soon. This general feeling was conveyed in many of the sessions, where some leaders engaged in discussions regarding the profitability of new ideas and which lead us to question ourselves: would these ideas be implemented if they did not bring substantial profits to companies? Is business still playing the “greenwashing” game?

In any case, what this conference has taught us is there is still a lot of work to do in these terms. Companies are still learning and struggling to balance the challenges and benefits of sustainable practices, and they very much depend on pilot tests. However, we believe working on public engagement is still very much needed. It has been reassuring to see how companies are working on inter-business collaboration, especially in cases where these companies compete against each other. There seems to be a strong commitment from the business members to really make progress in this area, but there is still a huge gap between what happens at a corporate level and what happens at consumer level, a gap addressed in speeches by Al Gore and Ban Ki Moon earlier this week. Indeed, despite being great to see how this work is discussed and implemented at a top level, companies could do a lot more to influence consumer minds and lifestyles. In the end, consumers only follow what they can see and will only learn once they have been taught.

There is slow but real progress being made, and the industry is willing to keep it this way: members will be following up this time next year and discuss the progress made on the projects discussed this week, just like they do every year. We are still hopeful one day this progress will have a major impact in the quest against climate change and that even we, some day, will become an active part of the discussion.

References:  

Stead, J. & Stead, W. (2009) ‘Management for a Small planet’, Sharpe. Chapter 1, p. 3-18

Funtowicz, S. & Ravetz, J. (2001) ‘Post-Normal Science – Environmental Policy under Conditions of Uncertainty’. NUSAP.net

Waseem, Ahmad, Soskolne L. Colin, and Ahmed Tanvir. “Strategic Thinking on Sustainability: Challenges and Sectoral Roles.” Environment, Development and Sustainability 14.1 (2012): 67-83. Web.

GoodPlanet (2010) Claude Lorius: how we discovered we could read the history of the climate in the ice. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRRX1aBlJwY (Accessed: 13/01/2016).

Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley (2009) ‘Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity’, Ecology and Society 14(2), 32 [Online] Available at: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/ (Accessed: 13/01/2016), p. 3-4.

UniFrance (2015) Ice and the Sky / La Glace et le ciel (2015) – Trailer (Eng Subs). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpZYkNkkiTg (Accessed: 13/01/2016).

Wild-Touch (2014) Cinema. Available at: http://iceandsky.com/cinema (Accessed: 13/01/2016).

Ahmad, W., Soskolne, C., Ahmed, T. (2011) Strategic thinking on sustainability: challenges and sectoral roles [Online]. Available at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10668-011-9309-5 (Accessed: 13/01/2016), p.10.

Global Canopy Foundation (2015) The Little Sustainable Landscapes Book [Online]. Available at: http://globalcanopy.org/sites/default/files/documents/resources/GCP_Little_Sustainable_LB_DEC15.pdf (Accessed: 13/01/2016).

World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) (2010) Vision 2050 [Online]. Available at: http://www.wbcsd.org/WEB/PROJECTS/BZROLE/VISION2050-FULLREPORT_FINAL.PDF (Accessed: 13/01/2016).

[1] The Holocene is defined as “the […] interglacial period that began about 10 000 years ago, allowed agriculture and complex societies, including the present, to develop and flourish […]” (Rockström et al., 2009).

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