Working with global companies on sustainability projects and promoting responsible business practices is not a simple task. The private sector is still often considered an enemy of sustainable development, the obstacle to overcome on the path of creating a better world. All the more so when their area of business is not considered the most sustainable. Take tobacco companies, refineries, pesticide or GMO producers.
I remember well a moment at a global sustainability conference, where the organizers were questioned by a delegate why they would let a representative of an ”evil company” speak at a responsible business- focused forum. My question is, Why not? Aren’t those companies most in need of support from others, requiring partners and watchdogs to develop their operations to be as sustainable as possible?
Companies are needed, there’s no getting around that fact. They actually hold the key to the future development of our planet. They have long-term business interest to sustain their operations, make profit now and in the future. The interest of making profit defines their motivation for sustainable development.
I’ve been challenged in my field of work with remarks on the private sector only being interested in green-washing and maximizing their profits no matter what. Surely I don’t disagree the motivation on doing good sometimes being the hoped-for improvements in company images. More often though, the motivation for better, greener business is that it’s good for business. Companies can save big amounts with investments to renewable energy or by training their supply chain.
Is that green-washing? Doing good because it’s good for business? Do the reasons for the motivation really matter? If a corporate shifts to using renewable energy, commits to reducing water consumption, develops the capacity of their local supply chains or creates affordable products for the people at the bottom of the pyramid, shouldn’t we embrace the development despite their motivations?
Companies are not charities nor should they be. By focusing on profit making, they trigger new innovations, are able to fund relevant research and can focus on long-term development plans. Innovations from life-saving vaccines and medicines, improved nutrition to healthier heating and lighting technologies are all outcomes of profit-seeking companies’ efforts, in their quest of making profit.
Certainly we need to be watchful and ask for better practices. But that’s what the collaboration is needed for. With NGOs demanding for more responsible business and consumers asking for more transparency, we’ll be on the right path. Companies have the power to change the world and we need to make sure they are taking it to the right direction.