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How to future-fit business?

2015 is a critical year that can set the trend for the next generation. In September, the United Nations General Assembly will establish the new Sustainable Development Goals, and we aim to reach a new, universal climate agreement at the Paris summit in December. 2015 will definitely provide a new framework for the business sector. A global framework that will provide direction, inspiration and new opportunities for business innovation. And – gradually – shape tomorrows winners in the entire business sector.

What’s the context?

UN Global Compact – the world’s largest network for sustainable business – was launched in 2000 as a response to fierce criticism against globalization and the lack of governance of international business. Fifteen years later, at a time when good news seems hard to come by on the global stage, it is worth stepping back and looking at some of the larger, more positive trends that do exist. In fact, tremendous progress has been made in the past 15 years.

A recent UN report on development goals certainly conveys that impression. One of the most striking indicators is the steep drop in global poverty levels. In 1990, nearly half of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day. That proportion has dropped to 14% in 2015. The number of people belonging to the working middle class has almost tripled, globally, since 1990. In developing countries, the proportion of undernourished people has fallen by almost half, from 23.3% in 1990 to around 13% today.

With this as the context, and as part of DNV GL’s recent assessment of the UN Global Compact, we have asked a selection of leaders a key question on how to future-fit business: “what’s next for sustainable business?”

Forward-thinking, progressive and inspiring people heeded the call, including Ban Ki-moon, Georg Kell, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, Paul Polman, Yolanda Kakabadse and Kofi Annan. The result is a new book titled NEXT – Sustainable Business, containing 30 leading voices reflecting on how to future fit our business sector.


So what are the next great challenges?

The answers to this question can help profile the future, not just of corporate sustainability but the entire world economy. Indeed, these challenges shape the space in which future generations will live and pursue their dreams and ambitions.

When faced with questions of this magnitude, we should always be careful about the answers we offer. However, if ever there was a group of people to whom we should listen for inspiration in these matters, it is the contributors to this book.

Taken together, these 30 interviews form a collection of unique insights on the importance of corporate sustainability, and on what’s next for businesses who seek to be active, engaged and responsible corporate citizens.

A ten point plan to future fit your business

What’s the essence of the insights the contributors to this book have shared with us? What is next for sustainable business? I have summarized the interviews into 10 key takeaways. Ten points that resonate across many of the interviews. Some are developments or trends we expect to see emerging, others are hoped for, as we enter the next 15 years of creating a safe and sustainable future.


Too many good stories are never told and too much experience is not shared. In the coming years we will turn into a sharing economy where sharing best practices becomes the norm, as businesses realize that everybody wins when we share knowledge, to enable even more businesses to go sustainable.


Customers and employees will be more informed and powerful. They will pressurize and inspire businesses to become more sustainable. In the coming years we will see corporate sustainability moving in to the core of human resource management as businesses use their sustainability performance as a tool in recruiting and in employee and other stakeholder relations.


The next generations of leaders and employees are world citizens that will be attuned to sustainability in a very different way than today’s executives. They will not need to un-learn that business is solely about shareholder value, period. They bring a new set of values and skills for holistic leadership that will move mountains.


The world needs transformative changes, and to drive that we need bold, visionary and principled leadership. The leadership challenge is perhaps the most commonly stressed in the interviews. Sharing ideas and creating platforms for collaboration is vital. The Global Compact Local Networks are set for a more influential role  having become platforms for dialogue, forming policy, building trust, and real change.


In times of transformation, lifelong learning is essential – on all levels. From executive MBAs to primary education, sustainability needs to be on the curriculum and increasingly it is. And, it just so happens, that education in itself is one of the most powerful tools in the sustainable development toolkit.


Businesses will increasingly see themselves as part of the solution and want a level playing field. They are increasingly advocating progressive and smart regulation, seeking to embed the principles of sustainable business in regulations and standards.


Transparency and sustainability go hand in hand. Commitments to responsible behaviour are worth little if stakeholders don’t trust you to keep your word. Rapid development in communication technology and reporting will create a hyper-transparent business environment.


We will need to be better at measuring the impact of doing business sustainably. Business will need to demonstrate a positive impact for itself, but also for society and the environment. Creating meaningful metrics will be crucial to engage a wider group of businesses and investors.


Sustainable development has a strong stabilizing effect on potential conflict, but responsible businesses also can play a role. When different factions are at odds, businesses can keep up daily relations, weaving strands of commitment and trust.


Last, but most definitely not least, the interviews all express hope. It is a resolute belief that doing the right thing – for the right reasons – actually matters. It is the only way to stay in business in the long run.

The book has been published in connection with the UN Global Compact’s 15th anniversary and it follows close on the heels of DNV GL’s assessment report for the Global Compact, Impact: Transforming Business, Changing the World.

You can download the assessment report and all the interviews here.

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