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Build Back Better – with sustainable development: New “blueprints from CSR leaders (11/22/20)

Today, hard as it may be to imagine … there will come a time after COVID-19.

The great news this month on vaccines for the virus, although preliminary, gives reason to begin to think what society might be like – perhaps what it should be like – when that time comes. Surely, the post-COVID-19 world will not be the world of pre-COVID-19. The vast economic impacts will remain for many years. And so, how to “build back better” will become the central question of our time.

It is not Panglossian to believe that the recovery from this deep societal wound, whatever the recovery duration, is an opportunity to address long-standing socio-economic challenges.

So, leaders of the corporate social responsibility/sustainable development community have just presented bold new “blueprints” for such societal reconstruction. They conjure nothing less than a new epoch in the evolution of global capitalism. Not incidentally, their high-concept proposals complement United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

For over 25 years, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) has been a leader in corporate sustainability, working with some 250 member companies and other partners to “build a just and sustainable world … in which everyone can lead a prosperous and dignified life within the boundaries of the Earth’s natural resources.” Earlier this month, BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer proposed a comprehensive agenda urging businesses to call on the Biden administration to adopt an ambitious “build back better” model, “The Sustainable Business Agenda in a Biden-Harris Administration” addressing these macro issue-and-policy structural elements:

Employment and Economic – Repairing the safety net. Income inequality. Future of work.

Climate and Environment – Net zero target for the U.S. Climate justice/just transition. Green infrastructure. Regenerative agriculture.

Social – Racial justice. Technology and human rights/privacy. Restoring support for human rights and democracy. Human migration and refugee policies.

Governance – Corporate governance reforms and listing requirements. Restoring democracy. Rules-based trading system with multilateral agreements. [Government] Procurement.

Having provided detailed analysis in each of those categories, Cramer concludes with: “[In] the achievement of sustainable business, the business voice [emphasis added] remains a powerful tool in creating an economy that works for all”.

In a parallel commentary, Cramer’s colleague, Jeremy Prepscius, Vice President, Asia-Pacific, added this counsel on related financial aspects:

“Business sustainability investments now will matter most as the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis … How will finance, banking and investor engagement be affected as the pools of available capital and their expectations change?” He presents detailed advice for five strategic steps to be taken:

Update your materiality.

Refresh your strategy and purpose.

Plan for alternate futures.

Build resiliency in your value chains.

Engage your employees.

About the same time, another leading organization in corporate social responsibility – The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, published an even more ambitious agenda. WBCSD, “a global, CEO-led organization of over 200 leading businesses … representing a combined revenue of more than USD $8.5 trillion and 19 million employees… working together to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world” – issued a new macro-issue brief, “Reinventing Capitalism: a transformation agenda” on why capitalism “needs to be reinvented if it is to create the conditions for long-term business success …  Key excerpts:

“… the capitalism we need is one that rewards true value creation … Specifically, this means that all social and environmental costs and benefits should be internalized and reflected in the relative price of goods and services, and in companies’ profit and loss statements, cost of capital and market valuations …

” A reinvented model of capitalism … will be characterized by five features: stakeholder-oriented, impact-internalizing, long term, regenerative and accountable … The reality is that this is not simply a social and environmental agenda – it is about creating the conditions for long-term business success.”

Even if they acknowledge, in part or completely, these catalogues of current and post-COVID-19 socio-economic challenges, some observers will dismiss this current sustainable development portfolio as too broad, deep, fractious, expensive or implausible..

But with the growth of movements such as sustainable responsible investing, stakeholder capitalism and “brands-taking-stands”, the doubters may do well to re-consider.