‘Mother of sustainability’ warns against climate virtue signalling

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Brundtland was addressing the Bühler Networking Days 2019 event
Brundtland was addressing the Bühler Networking Days 2019 event
Going green is great for business amid a sea change in attitudes among consumers, says Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister and decades-long important voice on climate change. But simply ‘saying’ the right things about sustainability and not ‘doing’ them won’t wash with today’s customers, she cautions.

There has been a 'sea change' in attitudes towards sustainability among the business community and consumers, according to Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Addressing a crowd of decision-makers in the global food industry at the second Bühler Networking Days event in Uzwil, Switzerland, the first female prime minister of Norway and pioneer of sustainable development practices, said: “The old fashioned idea that the business sector is somehow exempt from being responsible is now buried in the past​.” Now businesses even in the US "know that their customers and employees require positive and determined action for good​."

She celebrated the fact that the business community has embraced the pursuit of the sustainable development goals as a social responsibility and as an economic opportunity. "Environmental policy is accepted and mostly respected also because it offers business and investment opportunity​," she told the audience.

In 1987, she chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development that produced the ground-breaking Brundtland Report​, which advocated sustainable development and concerted efforts towards a ‘common future’ where ecological and economic issues were addressed together.

In those days, she explained, it was felt that those issues were not relevant for the business community and were the responsibility of governments solely to take care of. “Business leaders, I was told, should only focus on one single goal: the financial bottom line.”​ But today "increasingly businesses are not merely incorporating sustainability into their existing plans; they are more and more building their plans around it".

Consumers increasingly factor sustainability into their financial decisions

To illustrate the shift in attitude she cited BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s letter to investors​ earlier this year which said “commitment to a long-term approach is more important than ever – the global landscape is increasingly fragile and, as a result, susceptible to short-term behaviour by corporations and governments alike”.

Environmental, social and governance issues will be increasingly material to corporate valuations, added Brundtland. “Part of the business community still prioritises short-term profits: they will prove unsustainable. Consumers and clients increasingly factor sustainability into their purchasing and financial decisions... they demand corporate sustainability​.” 

Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, also known as the Oil Fund, was another example of how the dial is moving.

"The ethical guidelines of this fund hold 9,000 companies around the world accountable, aware as they are that being expelled from this fund on ethical grounds will not boost their investments.

“The ethical guidelines of the oil fund have become the normal standard for investment funds and are now being emulated by other funds because there is no turning back: the need for private sector engagement is stronger than ever.”

She also mentioned a recent report from the Business for Sustainable Development Commission. This found that sustainable models in the areas of food and agriculture, energy and health and wellbeing could create $12bn of economic opportunities and generate up to 380 million jobs by 2030.

We cannot solve the global challenges without the resources, expertise, technology and brainpower of business. The private sector is pivotal and going green is also great for business.” ​ 

Token efforts will be held to account

She also made the point that food companies engaging in token sustainability measures as simple PR exercises would not pass muster with consumers. "The pressure from public opinion, I’m sure, will continue to rise. There will be more attention from customers to look at which companies are doing the right thing and those who love themselves just by making glossy reports​.”

She said accountability measures were improving to make sure companies have done 'what they are talking about'. “We now have reporting mechanisms that help NGOs focus on companies that are not doing the right thing.” ​She urged for responsible business practices to continue and for a focus on social and environmental commitments.  

‘Sustainability has dominated my life for decades’

Brundtland trained as a physician. She served three terms as Norway’s prime minister and was also Director-General of the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2003. She joked that she was initially 'greatly alarmed' to be asked to address a gathering of decision-makers in an industry which promotes sugar and chocolate, "some of the key drivers of the major public health threat, diabetes, obesity and other non-communicable diseases. But then I reflected on what I was asked to address: sustainability, leadership and the responsibility towards future generations, something that has dominated my life for decades."

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