Sally Uren is a leading climate champion and sustainability speaker. Her role as the CEO of Forum for the Future has improved business practices for organisations across the globe, by supplying guidance on a sustainable future across the supply chain.
In this exclusive interview, we sat down with Sally to discover the role businesses play in driving climate change.
1). As the Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, could you tell me about what Forum for the Future does and how it is defining the next wave of corporate sustainability?
“Forum for the Future is a sustainable development non-profit, a charity registered here in the UK, as well as in the US, India and Singapore.
“We have a mission to accelerate progress towards sustainable development, through working in partnership with organisations that are really ambitious for sustainability. We run multi-stakeholder collaborations and also build capacity amongst changemakers, to really drive their ambition and allow them to design for transformational change.
“We are quite clear that the next wave of corporate sustainability is all about being regenerative. And what I mean by that is, simply being “less bad” isn’t enough. Putting more into the environment that we take out is pretty ambitious, but still not enough.
“If we’re going to meet the scale and the urgency of the social and environmental challenges that we face, then we actually need to reconfigure the systems that we rely on. And we need to do that in such a way that the food system, the energy system, the health system is capable of resilience and flourishing on a long-term basis.
“So that’s why, for me, the next wave of sustainability is all about how we can encourage the systems that we rely on to regenerate – which is actually the definition of sustainability.”
2). What are your top tips all businesses should adopt to improve their sustainability policies?
“First of all, focus on your big impact areas.
“Sometimes, sustainability policies don’t focus on where you can make the biggest difference. So, for retailers, there’s been a preoccupation with the plastic bag, which is not a material impact area. However, where and how you’re sourcing raw materials, really is a much bigger impact area, how you are helping your customers lead more sustainable lives through the use phase of products, is also much bigger than a carrier bag. Focus on those big material impact areas.
“Then the second is, be specific to your business. You see lots of sustainability policies where you could erase the title and switch them over – they’re a bit vanilla. A really good sustainability policy should be really specific to your business.
“Tip three is set targets, put targets in your policy. Science-based targets for climate are the targets for customers reach with new products, for example, or revenue sales from sustainable products.
“And finally, be honest and authentic. Use your policy to talk openly and honestly about your progress.
“If you do those four things – focus on the material impact areas, include targets, make your policy specific and be honest and open about your progress – I think we’d see a general uptick in performance.”
3). Do you believe leading businesses and brands are doing enough to combat climate issues? If not, why not?
“No, they’re not – nobody is.
“Why not? Partly because of the constraints of the economy that we’re in, and also the economy that is fuelled to a large extent on short term profit maximisation. And so, whilst there is a really strong business case for sustainability, you may need upfront investment in, for example, solar panels or other renewable types of energy. You may need to enter into long term contracts with your supplier and actually commit more resources upfront as a way of building resilience in your supply chain.
“If you are having to meet really short term demands on profitability, then that longer-term investment becomes harder – even though you can show the rate of return. So, one of the biggest barriers is this drive for short term profit maximisation. It’s really great that investors are beginning to realise that short term profit maximisation without a view to long term value creation is really short-sighted for the long term prosperity of the market.
“I think there’s another barrier which is much more human, which is, I just don’t think we’re ambitious enough. I think we’re too comfortable. We’ll tweak things here, tweak things there. I think another barrier is what we would call mindset, there’s a lack of ambition in some quarters and a lack of creativity.
“If we can be bold and ambitious, then I think you’ll see an acceleration [of sustainability].”
4.) In the last few years, we have seen a big move to large-scale brands bringing sustainability positions into the boardroom. What do you think has driven this and are you seeing enough change in their actions?
“I think what has driven sustainability entering the boardroom is an understanding that this isn’t a peripheral agenda, that this agenda really does impact business prosperity.
“Also, people really care about it. Many employees now really are expecting their organisations to do the right thing by this agenda – all the change we’ve seen over the last few years has created a really compelling business case to take this issue seriously, that’s why I think it’s headed to the boardroom.
“The rate at which sustainability is entering into those conversations is pretty good. Again, in the pandemic, it’s increased. So last year, the number of organisations adopting science-based targets doubled in the pandemic.
“Is it fast enough? Probably the rate at which the conversation is heading into the boardroom is fast enough. What isn’t fast enough, though, is the response. We’re still seeing too much hand wringing dialogue, what we need are big, bold targets, and commitments to new business models, commitments to new ways of offering products into the marketplace.
“We need action.”
5). What drives you?
“I think many, many, many things. I’ve obviously been in this space for a long time, but I think probably the thread that runs through everything is a belief that things can be better and a belief that what happens tomorrow is within your control.
“There’s a brilliant quote from a science writer that I always use called William Gibson, a US novelist. And he wrote, I think it was in the 1950s: “the future is already here. It’s all around us. It’s just not evenly distributed”.
“A sustainable future is already here – we’ve got new business models, the circular economy, sustainable products, we’ve got resilient communities that sit at the edge of our system. If we work hard to bring these flashes of brilliance from the edge into the mainstream, we can create what I would call systemic change.
“It’s the belief that the future isn’t something that happens to us, but something that we can shape, I think it’s really what gets me out of bed every day.”
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