Governments and Corporate Sustainability – a Rudderless Ship?

Governments and Corporate Sustainability – a Rudderless Ship?

Sustainability ‘Made in Germany’ – Way to Go!

1572-3Following the global financial crisis there was a widespread desire to emerge from it with economic reform that would meet the true needs of society. Gone were the days when sustainability thinking was the domain of marginalised environmentalists. It was a wake-up call which required affected governments to bail out companies to prevent financial ruin – setting new terms and conditions for the financial industry in the process.

But have reforms gone far enough or are we back to business as usual? Governments have not in fact been at the forefront of setting responsible sustainability policies and regulation and it is about time they catch up!

A notable exception, however, is Germany which has been at the forefront of the international movement for more sustainable development initiatives.  And for very good reason: not to save the planet  – which in itself would be sufficiently motivating – but Germany has developed and implemented well conceived sustainability plans to obtain competitive advantage in today’s  global economy.

A National Sustainability Strategy

Germany has branded itself as ‘sustainability – made in Germany’ and released a national sustainability strategy in April 2012, recognising that there will be high demand for all sustainability expertise globally.  This is most likely to be influenced by the fact that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel is a scientist and held the role of  Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety for four years. This role was established in response to the Chernobyl disaster, a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

Progressive Sustainability Policies Made in Germany

Although Angela Merkel is conservative, she has played a significant role in pushing the sustainability agenda to the centre of government in Germany and Germany’s actions are progressive on a global scale.

Notably,  following the nuclear crisis at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, mass protests against nuclear power plants across Germany led to the decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022. This makes Germany the largest industrial nation to move away from nuclear energy.

States which continue to cling to the myth of economic free market principles at the expense of long term sustainable development will lose influence and worse, serve their citizens poorly.  A sustainable development framework has to replace the free market myth and only national governments can affect the changes that are needed in all sectors of society. We cannot rely on voluntary corporate sustainability initiatives.

Developed Nations are Unsustainable

In Malaysia for example the state subscribes to a 2020 vision to become a ‘developed nation’ and much of the development has been to the detriment of the environment. We urgently need to work out what we mean by developed and prevent the rest of the world to following our model without intelligent amendments.

Sustainability leadership from Governments around the world has been lagging behind so it is refreshing to see an entire country ‘branding’ itself as ‘Sustainability Made in Germany. We need more countries to follow suit and develop their own sustainability strategy rather than pursuing economic development at all costs and repeating the mistakes we in the so called ‘developed’ world have made.

Rethinking the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Part of re-positioning Governments into active drivers and participants in sustainability requires re-thinking the Gross Domestic Product ( GDP) by which we measure and compare the productivity of nations.

It is generally assumed that what get’s measured, gets done. Hence, what we measure affects our life. Policies are based on what is being measured and translate into delivery of services and more. The Malaysian Government’s vision of becoming a developed nation is based on economic performance measurements.

 ….measurements are flawed, decisions are distorted. Choices between promoting GDP and protecting the environment may be false choices, once environmental degradation is appropriately included in our measurement of economic performance. So too, we often draw inferences about what are good policies by looking at what policies have promoted economic growth; but if our metrics of performance are flawed, so too may be the inferences we draw.

This is a quote from ‘The Commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress’ report, Executive Summary, point 3). It’s target audience was primarily government leaders – I wonder how many have read it?  Although it dates back to 2009 it is still very relevant.

Bobby Kennedy famously said in 1968:

Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Robert F. Kennedy Address, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, March 18, 1968

Proposed further reading:

The Commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress report.

Malaysia’s fully developed country vision – Prime Minister’s website