As businesses set their 2024 plans, Forum for the Future’s Global Strategic Lead for the Purpose of Business, James Payne, hones in on three key opportunities for effective sustainability impact in the year ahead.

“We need to speed up. Big time.... but a lot of people seem to be satisfied with incremental change... Or maybe they are not satisfied by the incremental change, but face the complexity of the problems, vested interests and the lock-in of our current system. What is your individual agency for change?”

 This comment was made by Hans Stegeman, Chief Economist at Tridos Bank, reflecting on this month’s Net Zero Festival. It emphasises both the urgency for transformative action in the face of accelerating climate breakdown and the challenge business leaders face when engaging with the scale and pace of change needed. It also underscores the complexity and volatility of this new operating context that all businesses face in the decade ahead.  

In my work at Forum, in collaboration with many different businesses, I’ve spotted three key opportunities for business leaders to embrace their agency for change. As you start thinking about your priorities for 2024, don’t miss out on these opportunities for game-changing impact in the year ahead. 

1. It all begins with shifting your mindset 

Understanding the dominant mindset (i.e. the established set of attitudes and beliefs) in your business might sound like an abstract starting point, but people familiar with systems thinking will know that shifting mindsets or paradigms is the deepest, most powerful lever for transformative change.  Switching from a risk-mitigation, business-as-usual mindset to a more effective, future-fit mindset is the essential foundation for step-changing your positive impact.  

Take advantage of practical resources to do this, such as Forum’s Business Transformation Compass report or the Future of Sustainability Courage to Transform trajectories and kick-start the mindset-shift journey with your business. It’s often most effective to start with senior leaders, before moving on to embedding it into business culture across the board.  

2. Eradicate siloed approaches 

Sustainability issues do not exist in isolation - they are deeply interconnected with each other. Climate breakdown is a social issue, pollution impacts community health, and growing inequality erodes the social cohesion necessary for bold action on environmental issues. Smart businesses are calling time on sustainability strategies that inefficiently address issues as if they are separate from each other, and instead are designing programmes that solve multiple interconnected issues in a smart way that maximises co-benefits. 

To start addressing this, use the Integrating Environmental and Social Sustainability playbook. Produced in partnership with Mars and IDH, the playbook offers practical advice on the ‘what and why’ behind integrating environmental and social agendas, and explores just how you might start breaking down the silos potentially holding your business back.    

3. Make your value chain future-fit  

For many businesses their most significant impacts are in their value chains, well beyond their direct sphere of control. Businesses are increasingly waking up to the fragility and injustice of traditional value chain models, which often stem from colonial legacies and are based on harmful practices that externalise the true human and environmental costs they impose.  

So how are they responding? Enlightened leaders are embracing seven shifts. Whether it’s shifting from unfair contracting to reflecting the real costs of production and supply, or shifting from harmful exploitation to supporting wellbeing, these steps will enable you to fundamentally reconfigure your value chains to make them resilient, just and regenerative.  

So to reference Hans Stegeman again, "What is your individual agency for change?" For me, the answer lies in focusing your efforts on unlocking the deeper shifts needed to make meaningful change happen, whether that’s by shifting mindsets, eradicating siloed approaches, or making value chains future-fit.

If you’re interested in switching to a more effective approach to sustainability for your business, get in touch with James Payne, the Global Strategic Lead for Forum’s work on the purpose of business in society.