Opportunity for Business: Solutions for a Sustainable Future

By Shannon Schuyler, Corporate Responsibility Leader, PwC and Jeff Senne, Director, Environment & Marketplace, Corporate Responsibility, PwC

Now, a few weeks after Rio+20 – the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development that addressed the sustainable future we seek as a global society – we have reflected on some key elements of the discussions.

First and foremost, we were impressed on how sustainability issues are becoming ever more personal for people. The stories we are hearing about the effects of climate change and other environmental and social issues are not only being told society or community wide, but at very personal levels. For example, climate change has become a personal issue for PwC’s Kathy Nieland, New Orleans office managing partner and U.S. Sustainable Business Solutions Leader (SBS). When Hurricane Katrina hit, Nieland experienced the devastation firsthand. It served as a catalyst for her to join the SBS practice to help clients understand the impact sustainability can have on companies and communities. 

While our colleagues in PwC’s SBS practice came to Rio providing distinct business acumen on issues around CR strategy, tax, assurance, water scarcity, and sustainability valuation, we brought an internal and operational perspective. That was, to understand how companies can make a difference within their walls and in the communities in which they operate. As one of the nation’s largest professional services firms, we continually explore ways to engage our people to be part of the solution and to scale change.

Here are several of the insights we believe provide opportunities for businesses to advance a more sustainable future:  

1. Women are key to accelerating economic growth: At the PwC-sponsored Earth Day Network WAGE (Women and the Green Economy) event, Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director, UN Women, led a lively discussion about the value proposition held by women. Among us, it was agreed that women are a dynamic force in sustainable economic development. One telling statistic: Where a young woman typically will reinvest 90% of her income back into her family, her brother will reinvest only 30% to 40%. Yet, much more must be done to identify mechanisms and policies to help those at the bottom of the pyramid begin to rise to the top. 

Assisting women economically will accelerate the ability to make sustainable progress in every sector. We see the same opportunity as it relates to undertapped acumen for business leadership. As Nieland noted in one of the sessions, the importance of having the diverse perspective of women leaders globally is equally critical for long-term business success and sustainable growth.

2. Cities have an opportunity to lead—and this furnishes an opportunity for business: A predominant sentiment emerged that cities are far more nimble than countries in achieving climate targets. Municipalities can set targets more easily, and it’s simpler to harness the influence of businesses. It was noteworthy that two U.S. municipalities, Milwaukee and San Francisco, were among a United Nations Global Compact panel on sustainable cities because the U.S. has been criticized for making slow progress in this space. 

For a firm like PwC, with more than 80 offices and 35,000 partners and staff in the U.S., this offers the opportunity to deepen relationships in the cities where our people live and work and to leverage resources and identify common solutions. Rio+20 also reminds us that incremental progress is occurring all over the world, including our backyard, and we can't and shouldn’t ignore or underestimate it.

3. As sustainability challenges increase, business must lend its expertise in scaling solutions: The topic of scale and speed—the focus of the Business Action for Sustainable Development panel—also proved the major topic of the Corporate Sustainability Forum. The last day of the summit ended amid great fanfare, and underscored the United Nations Global Compact’s commitment to scale to 20,000 participants by 2020.  

Increasingly, it’s clear that as the challenges are global, so must be the solutions – and business must play a more significant role in developing them.  As Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, maintained at last year’s Social Innovation Summit, business can deliver the most value by lending its greatest expertise in efficiency and scalability.

It has been fascinating to be a part of Rio+20. Many questions remain about the direct action that will result and how quickly change will come. It’s clear, however, that these processes add great value in keeping us moving forward and working to find common ground.