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You know things have changed when the Financial Times rebrands itself to promote a kinder form of capitalism. In its “Capitalism.Time for a Reset” special edition, the world’s premier financial newspaper acknowledged that business should serve a purpose, and that sustainable growth should be the measure of a successful society. Better late than never, some might say. 

The EU organised its first “Beyond GDP” conference back in 2008. At the time, I was managing Ogilvy Public Relations in Brussels and we had just launched a new global sustainability practice. I secured a speaking slot for Sir Martin Sorrell, then CEO of the parent WPP worldwide communication group. It seemed a timely, thought leadership opportunity. “Not my thing” was the reply that came back. I recall thinking it was a shame not to grasp an opportunity to lead, but also wondering how a successful businessman and darling of the stock exchange could fail to see the trend. We were just into the financial crisis that would impact us all over the coming decade. 

Other companies were spotting the sustainability opportunity. Unilever was considering the impact of its products on the environment – possibly prompted by a highly visible Greenpeace campaign – but nonetheless blazing a trail that continues today with its pledge to reduce by 50% its use of non recyclable plastic packaging by 2025. Siemens was considering ways to measure efforts to mitigate climate change, including by sponsoring The European Green Cities Index launched by The Economist in the run up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference. 

A memorable moment in Copenhagen was when governors and mayors from some of the largest urban areas in the world publicly urged each other to press ahead with developing the sustainable cities of the future. All whilst their governments spectacularly failed to reach agreement. I came away feeling optimistic. The leaders might not be able to agree, but cities and regions were doing it anyway. 

Which brings us to the September 2019 climate issue of The Economist. Ten years on, in the week that 16 year-old Greta Thunberg stormed the UN with a speech that shamed leaders and made people around the world sit up and listen, a leading economic newspaper finally put climate change front and centre. 

So what does that mean for the rest of us? 

As consumers we’ve been recycling, using less plastic, perhaps eating less meat, buying more seasonal, local produce and thinking about our carbon footprint (though perhaps not yet flying less). But without concerted efforts from companies, cities and countries, our impact on creating a more sustainable society will be limited.  

Where business, governments and consumers can come together to create a powerful force for change is around the new green economy. Promoted variously at the EU and national level, policies and programmes to support transition and incentivise innovation – economic, environmental and social – can build a circular economy based on renewable energy, sustainable infrastructure projects and human ingenuity.

Now it’s time for the whole of society to step up. We have the roadmap with the UN SDGs, and the financial community increasingly acknowledging the need for change.

This blog is pointing to the opportunity to cooperate – across countries, cities and companies, with citizens and consumers. Are we ready to  grasp the opportunity?

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