Written by Tanguy Delestré, Pascal Durdu and Laurent Bouty
We note March 30th. For Belgium it is calculated that this is the overshoot day, the day that we have used up the resources of Planet earth. All the rest of the year we live on the credit of our biosphere and the future generations.
Imagine that each year, you need to sell a % of your house because you have consumed all your budget. After decades, you will end up with few square meters where life will become impossible.
Interestingly enough, this is not something new. In 1987, Brundland commission wrote: "In some parts of the world, particularly since the mid-1950s, growth and development have vastly improved living standards and the quality of life. Many of the products and technologies that have gone into this improvement are raw material- and energy-intensive and entail a substantial amount of pollution. The consequent impact on the environment is greater than ever before in human history."
We are not in balance. The main driver of our companies is the corporate balance sheet, and guess what, this inbalance is not yet in the books and giving back a dividend goes to shareholders and not to replenishing the used resources of the planet. There are however some movements to incorporate Environmental, Social and Governance topics in the financial discussion. ESG related topics are more and more considered as potential liabilities for companies and therefore investors are urging companies to report ont it.
Also in January 2020, Cyrus Taraporevala, President and CEO of State Street Global Advisors, stated that ESG is “no longer an option for long-term strategy.” He went on: “We believe that addressing material ESG issues is good business practice and essential to a company’s long-term financial performance—a matter of value, not values.”
Let's take this day as a reminder that there is a sense of urgency to move towards sustainable business models
Why give back to the planet?
Companies need to thrive in a solid environment of social interactions and within the planetary limits. The recent Dasgupta Review on the economics of biodiversity reminds us of that: “Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature.” “Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply, and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level.” “Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path.”
What to give back to the planet?
Actually before being able to give back, it is important to know the company positive and negative effects on society, the so called externalities (materiality index). Once this homework done your company processes need to reduce drastically the extractive parts, and completely rethink the processes in a circular way so as to keep value of the product for a longer time in a larger ecosystem than just your complany.
We should be able to provide goods and services and leave no trace behind, like the trailwalker.
Bumpy road ahead
However, this is not easy and despite good intentions, sustainable business models do fail.
A recent article by the Brussels chamber of commerce BECI relates that last year especially impact driven companies have had a difficult financial year. The management of a company like Danone that became the first stock market 'entreprise à impact sociétal' is being challenged due to short term investors, so as not to pursue on the road to societal impact. While the Danone case is probably more complex than simply opposing sustainability to short-term profits, it is fair to say that both need at least to coexist on the CEO and shareholders agenda. They cannot be opposed but instead should be in symbiosis.
The recovery provides a clear possibility to put sustainability in the heart of finance; this is already reflected in the lending of European Central Banks, in the ESG ratings, and also in recently the Brussels Region recovery fund that ties funding to a sustainability project.
With one year of COVID-19 crisis, world-wide impact on jobs and on lives has been dramatic. But to put it into perspective, some toxic industries are a yearly killer of more than COVID-19 lives every year; and this article in the lancet pleads for example for forbidding the complete tobacco industry; the article states that it is an industry with a definitive known and negative impact on health. At the same time the stocks of mayor cigarette manufacturers are still recommended as an excellent investment in the financial world. The price of environment/social externalities of this type of harmful industries is definitely not taken into account.
The road ahead to give back: a mission oriented company?
The sustainable business models first wave focused on environment and material elements (circular models etc.) The second wave of 'for good' companies are working on social elements; an area where at this moment entrepreneurship is still tangled in government subsidies and non for profit existing social models. The third wave, an economic models with inclusive value creation, repurposing, etc is not yet on the horizon.
In order to give back, we need to become a mission oriented company, and ty that mission in the worldwide common framework of the United Nations SDGs (sustainable development goals).
Professor Mariana Mazzucato, talks about retooling Europe’s design capabilities for a mission-oriented Green Deal , a new 'Bauhaus' approach, transdisciplinary and 'bottom up' one that will move away from dull roadmaps to create and design a future that is not only more green but also sustainable in terms of human creativity :
Building agile, engaged, and deeply participative relationships with context, counterpointed by visionary long-term thinking and planning, would prevent an elitist, siloed or out-of-touch technical project" ( Bauhaus report )
Here some concrete steps towards this mission oriented company:
On Non-financial reporting obligations that start to be imposed, the societal value created or set in danger (liabilities) will - in a certain way - be captured in the overall value creation of the company and not only in terms of finance. Materiality matrix is a good start for identifying topics that are related to sustainability.
On value capturing: an essential element when talking about sustainable business models : where is the value capture? How can we build product that are Sustainable by design? Do we allow it to be captured by the stakeholders and not the shareholders,...
Start a movement towards your mission and get all your stakeholders engaged.
The creation of specific company structures like in Luxemburg (société à impact sociétal) or France (entreprise à mission) also provides an answer to this value capturing issues, as 50% of the shares are not entitled to provide dividends to shareholders, but need to stay in the organisation and be used for the mission and stakeholder value.
Overshoot day, https://www.overshootday.org/
1987, UN, Brundland report, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5987our-common-future.pdf
2020, Legal Liability for ESG Disclosures, Harvard Law, https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2020/08/03/legal-liability-for-esg-disclosures/
2020 Bauhaus Report , UCLA , https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/public-purpose/sites/public-purpose/files/new_bauhaus_cb_rc_dh_mm_0.pdf
2021 Does the COVID-19 pandemic provide an opportunity to eliminate the tobacco industry? , The Lancet https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(20)30466-6/fulltext
2021 Dasgupta Review, UK Government, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/final-report-the-economics-of-biodiversity-the-dasgupta-review