A call for sustainable and responsible action

Sustainable Transformation


Do we need to stop CSR? Do we need a ‘new story of business’? We need a new enlightenment. How do we deal with the concept of sustainability and responsibility today and in the future? Is the triple bottom line really dead? And is stakeholder management immortal?

These and other questions were recently raised and debated with more than 300 representatives of academia, businesses and civil society from all over the world at the 8 th International Conference on Sustainability & Responsibility in Cologne, including sustainability gurus such as John Elkington, Ed Freeman, Robert Eccles, Ernest Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Wayne Visser and George Kell.

During the conference pre-event, Wayne Visser, who holds the Sustainable Transformation Chair at Antwerp Management School, shared his vision on ‘the values dividend: making what matters count by creating integrated value’. Integrated value is one way of thinking about transformation. More importantly, it is a call for action, a tracker of progress and a guide to the kinds of innovative approaches that will be necessary if we are to meet and exceed the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030

Act now!

Lize Booysen, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at the Graduate School of Leadership and Change at Antioch University, kickstarted the conference on Wednesday morning with a second call for action, a call to lead and a call to follow. A call for courageous and responsible ‘followers’. The topic of ‘sustainable leadership’ was a leitmotiv through the conference, with expert insights on how CSR managers can contribute to strengthening social cohesion, leading change from the inside out, and how responsible leadership starts with you.

Solution stages and interactive spaces used innovative whole-person approaches to explore what it will take from each of us to navigate the upcoming transformation. In the interactive space ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for’, people worked together to use their intuitive and creative understanding of the transformation we are in. Attendants used embodied approaches to explore how we can best serve the future that wants to emerge, and what the qualities of a regenerative leader might be.


Triple bottom line to think deeper

Later that day, a discourse on the future of CSR and sustainable management and a question from John Elkington for the audience: ‘Is our brain fit for purpose?’, brought lots of energy to the room. Earlier this year, Elkington proposed a strategic recall to do some finetuning of the term ‘triple bottom line’ (TBL). Elkington states that TBL wasn’t designed to be just an accounting tool. It was supposed to provoke deeper thinking about capitalism and its future, but many early adopters understood the concept as a balancing act, adopting a trade-off mentality. ‘We need a new wave of TBL innovation and deployment’, says Elkington in Harvard Business Review. René Schmidpeter, the conference host, used this to share his idea of ‘thinking the present from the future’, starting with a look at impact (on society and environment), before outcome (effects on target groups), output (products, turnover, etc.) and input (social, human, natural and financial capital).

At the end of the first day, Robert G. Eccles, Founding Chairman of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and one of the founders of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), received his lifetime achievement CSR award for his work on integrated reporting from the hands of George Kell, Chairman of Arabesque and Founding Director of the UN Global Compact.


New story of business

Ed Freeman, American Philosopher and Elis and Signe Olsson Professor of Business Administration at University of Virginia’s Darden School, opened the second day with another call for action on ‘the new story of business’. His main message was to tackle societal issues by creating a new story of business based on (1) purpose and values, (2) stakeholder engagement, (3) businesses embedded in society, and (4) the fact that human beings are complicated. Furthermore, Freeman shared his ideas on leadership, with an emphasis on effective leadership where people need to get things done, value-based leadership, ethical leadership, and leadership through creative imagination – using the metaphor of the notes that musicians play.

In other sessions, participants familiarized themselves with the concept of cultural intelligence, a case study on achieving food security, and how to code a sustainable world with blockchain. This last session gave a fundamental understanding of the blockchain technology, and how it can be employed in addressing the challenges of sustainable development, especially through increasing transparency, decreasing bureaucracy and transaction costs, and incentivizing ethical behavior.

During the last session of the conference, Ernest Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Co-Chair of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management and Honorary President of the Club of Rome, shared his thoughts on why we need a ‘new enlightenment’ to achieve sustainability. He posed poignant questions like: Do people still prefer reassuring lies over inconvenient truths? Do we really need growth to finance the Paris Agreement? Should we focus on humans or nature, short term or long term? Von Weizsäcker noted that balance is the key notion for achieving the new enlightenment. And with these last words, I believe all participants well understood the call for action, to become courageous and responsible ‘followers’, promoting the balance we need for a sustainable future – or shall I say a sustainable today?

The conference came to an end with a newborn institution: the launch of ‘WISE’, the World Institute for Sustainability and Ethics in Rising Economies. Its goal is to develop an ongoing research and educational agenda to drive integrated sustainability and to facilitate the implementation of best practices within rising economies. This echoed as a final call for sustainable and responsible action.

More information? Read our article in MO Magazine (Dutch)