• New report from international non-profit Forum for the Future highlights five key shifts businesses should implement to build operational resilience through intensifying social and environmental crises
  • Comes amid more frequent extreme weather events and ahead of international ‘Climate Week’ gathering in New York

Tuesday 5 September 2023 (London, New York, Singapore, Mumbai): International sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future has today published its latest Future of Sustainability report, “Courage to Transform”. It highlights four possible future trajectories and calls for five shifts in how businesses operate if they are to manage the systemic risks associated with an increasingly disrupted climate.

The report comes on the back of a series of unprecedented and extreme weather events, including wildfires in Hawaii, Canada and Australia, record-breaking heat waves across Europe, and intensifying air pollution and flooding in Asia. It recognises the extremely challenging operating environment businesses face right now — from inflation and price volatility to rapidly changing reporting and disclosure standards and an increasingly politicised ESG agenda — all underpinned by growing geopolitical tension.

In a bid to enable leaders and change makers to stay focused on transformation, the report analyses examples of how businesses are responding to today’s ‘polycrisis’ (defined by the World Economic Forum as a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects) and highlights four very different yet plausible ‘future trajectories’ as a result. 

The ‘Profit Supreme’ trajectory sees a continuation of the status quo, where maximising shareholder value is prioritised above all else. ‘Shallow Gestures’ sees actions being taken, but ultimately falling short of creating meaningful, lasting impact. In ‘Tech Optimism’, companies use the power of data and technology to innovate through crises, as a way to decarbonise, recover from environmental disasters and restore nature — but become overdependent on tech as a ‘silver bullet’ in the long-term. 

The report suggests it is only the fourth trajectory, ‘Courage to Transform’, that has the potential to create change at the scale and pace needed. It’s here businesses, governments and society recognise that profit cannot come at the expense of human and planetary wellbeing, and businesses in particular look to fundamentally rethink how they respond to sustainability challenges. 

Dr Sally Uren, Forum for the Future’s Chief Executive, said: “The Future of Sustainability offers a way of navigating the growing polycrisis. We need to shift our focus from mitigating risk to building resilience. While our analysis shows four possible futures emerging for business, we feel only one has the potential to create the socially just and regenerative future we urgently need. Realising this future will mean focusing on five key shifts.” 

With the trajectories in mind, the report then calls on leaders to shift their business: 

  1. From a risk prevention mindset to a transformative one, which involves seeing opportunity, not risk, in change, while investing in both climate adaptation and mitigation measures.
  2. From addressing the symptoms of our social and environmental crises to tackling their root causes. This necessitates moving beyond incremental ‘solutions’ (that are likely to fail) to recognise underlying causes of challenges and the potential unintended consequences of your interventions.
  3. From passively responding to their operating context to actively shaping it. From influencing policy to better engaging stakeholders and customers, businesses must increase their agency to drive change.
  4. From slow centralised decision-making to more agile distributed governance models. Instead of consolidating power, businesses must distribute responsibilities and value creation across multiple levels and stakeholder groups.
  5. From failing to acknowledge the influence of individual, organisational and contextual bias to identifying and removing this bias in risk assessment. Businesses making this shift will see more equitable and balanced decision-making longer-term. 

“Pressure on businesses to step up is mounting”, continued Dr Uren. “This report fills a gap in guidance on what action can be taken when the headwinds are getting stronger and stronger. The five shifts Forum has outlined will enable businesses to deliver on the transformational agendas so urgently needed. Whether it’s by seeing opportunity in change or actively influencing the broader political, economic and social operating context, businesses can lead if they find the courage to do so.”

Produced with support from Bupa, People’s Postcode Lottery Green Trust, Aldi Süd, The Crown Estate and Henkel, the report draws on in-depth desktop research, interviews with business leaders and ‘signals of change’ generated through the online ‘Futures Centre’ hub: an open-source participatory platform powered by Forum that tracks and makes sense of change.

James Payne, Forum for the Future’s Global Strategic Lead – Purpose of Business, said: “There’s not enough focus right now on how businesses can most effectively achieve their sustainability goals against a backdrop of ongoing disruption. Futures tools, as used in this report, can help leaders to anticipate and respond in smarter ways to the volatility ahead. Understanding the different futures you could face clarifies the role your business could play in creating them. This is key to resetting how you understand and respond to the social and environmental challenges shaping the health of your operating context.”

Glyn Richards, Group Director of Sustainability, Bupa Group said: “More than ever before, there’s an expectation that businesses should be proactive and be delivering meaningful change when it comes to sustainability. For a long time, this agenda has been treated as separate to commercial priorities, global market developments and regulatory pressures, but it’s clear that sustainability needs to become part of the decisions and discussions impacting future business success and efficiency. As a healthcare company, that could mean focusing on helping people stay well and encouraging healthy lifestyles – which could benefit patients, as well as the planet.

“Embedding sustainability within all corners of a business - from procurement, technology, risk and finance to M&A, property and, for us as a healthcare business, clinical and actuarial teams – is absolutely vital,” Mr Richards continues. “Sustainability must be elevated within corporate strategies and owned by all teams, whether that’s through including climate action within financial reporting processes, business planning, remuneration practices, risk management and governance, or by upskilling employees so that they’re empowered and equipped with the skills and knowledge to help deliver a sustainable future.”

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Download the Future of Sustainability report here.

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About the Future of Sustainability report

Produced in partnership with Bupa, People’s Postcode Lottery Green Trust, Aldi Süd, The Crown Estate and Henkel, the Future of Sustainability: Courage to Transformt draws on in-depth desktop research, interviews with business leaders and ‘signals of change’ generated through the online ‘Futures Centre’ hub, an open-source participatory platform powered by Forum for the Future that tracks and makes sense of change. The report is aimed at business leaders looking for guidance on tackling the polycrisis. 

About Forum for the Future

Forum for the Future is a leading international sustainability non-profit. For more than 25 years we’ve been working in partnership with business, governments and civil society to accelerate the shift towards a just and regenerative future in which both people and the planet thrive. Forum is focused on enabling deep transformation in three game-changing areas: how we think about, produce, consume and value both food and energy, and the purpose of business in society and the economy.