Contribution to GTI Roundtable "True Corporate Sustainability"

Alan Willis

In responding to Bob Willard's viewpoint, I have to state up front that I come to this as a lifelong idealist and optimist and often have to remind myself to recognize (but not be depressed by) the very real systemic impediments to achieving true global sustainability. Judging by his paper, I can’t help thinking Willard may somewhat share this outlook on life.

The impediments in question are certainly encountered not only within the business (corporate) and investment world, but also within society more broadly at all levels—from individuals to communities to states and governments. As citizens of society on planet Earth, we all share responsibility in various ways for getting us to where we are and for getting us collectively back on track to a sustainable future. Creating the governance structures and the political will to do so depends ultimately on citizen votes to empower governments and other agencies to do what is needed.

As we know, this is easier said than done. But a combination of citizen awareness and education together with corporate leadership and more enlightened capital market influence may eventually bring to bear the necessary changes in the global governance, policy, and regulatory environment. There are already signs of progress in the realms of human rights and some environmental issues such as hazardous wastes and ozone depleting substances. Climate change is of course at the top of the list of challenges, but perhaps business and eventually citizen action regarding the UN’s Millennium Development Goals will support progress in the right direction.

I like and agree with Willard’s analysis and description of the state of the world—how the planet, society, and business function together as “nested dependencies”, the perils of “business as usual” (and I’d add “consumerism as usual”), and how to reframe corporate (and indeed societal) sustainability. I also agree with his concern about incrementalism: we don’t have time for such an approach. There needs to be a global wake-up call of some kind to trigger urgency—either by crisis and disaster, or by leadership in change strategies from international political leaders—perhaps in response to a world crisis or disaster, or to citizens demanding it through democratic process. Encouragingly, there are also examples of corporate leadership in setting game-changing goals and targets, such as Unilever (Paul Polman) and Interface (Ray Anderson), or Richard Branson and the B-Team. We need many more like this!

The above need for a call to action and securing global leadership and cooperation particularly strikes me as I read Bob Willard’s proposals for global implementation of policies to address the three FSSD ecological system conditions. The same thought occurs to me as I read his urging for enforceable, measurable (as well as fair) targets and metrics being set by independent bodies. But how might this all come about?

This year, we remember the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. It has been a while since we witnessed the world’s most powerful leaders putting aside national interests to collaborate in overcoming a terrible threat to the common good (and doing so at great human and economic cost in each country). How can we get the threat to global sustainability to be similarly taken on by a coalition of world leaders? In theory, the UN should be that forum, but in practice, looking at support by global leaders (lip service much of the time) for the roles of UN today and the frequent dysfunctionality of the UN’s own govern bodies, I can’t help being pessimistic.

One topic Bob Willard did not directly address is the vital need for societal (i.e., citizen) trust in corporations and government to be restored. This, of course, is a tall order when we see so many fatal flaws in the fabric of governance and society, such as income disparity and CEO pay, corruption in business and government (including crippling degrees of lobbying), unsafe working conditions, and poverty and lack of access to medicine (in spite of pharmaceutical companies’ huge profits). Such organizations, then, have a lot of work to do to restore that trust, and that process will include greater transparency, accountability, and participation. Trust is ultimately the glue of healthy societies; perhaps it is embedded somewhere in Bob Willard’s five attributes for a desirable and resilient social system.

As he says, we need a radical change of direction (fueled by a radical change in mindset about the problem and its urgency). Achieving this is a systemic challenge of the first order. I wish Willard could have offered some provocative proposals for where or how to start. But perhaps his paper will open up and inform new conversations on how to move forward to true global, not just corporate, sustainability. I hope so!

Alan Willis
Alan Willis is an independent researcher, writer, and advisor on the implications of sustainability for corporate performance and served on the founding Steering Committee of the Global Reporting Initiative.

Cite as Alan Willis, contribution to GTI Roundtable "True Corporate Sustainability," Great Transition Initiative (June 2014),

Back to Publication

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.