Business and sustainability advisor Sam Mostyn

20 June 2013 — Influential business and sustainability advisor Sam Mostyn has used her keynote address to this week’s Green Capital forum to implore business to show leadership on sustainability.

The speech came as a report by a number of key business groups called on the government for action on climate change resilience, and a coal-industry backed report said that government inaction on climate change didn’t mean business should step in.

Mostyn’s address to the Green Capital forum The Phoenix Effect, which covered the emerging paradigms of business sustainability, said that business played a key role in progressing the sustainability narrative.

Mostyn said the sustainability narrative had come a long way, but that business leaders needed to stand up for what they believed in and voice their concerns.

She said the business community held much influence in shaping the national agenda when it came to action on sustainability, giving an example of a business roundtable on climate change that led to John Howard warming to the idea of putting a price on carbon.

While Mostyn was optimistic about a new resurgence of sustainability thinking after the “brick wall” of the GFC and a “terrible” political climate, she said it needed to be “tempered slightly with the realism about the responsibilities of leadership required right now”.

“I think our leadership has failed us, and failed a generation that’s arriving and saying, ‘We expect more of you’,” she said.

“The possibilities that we need to grab require great leadership. We are past the time where those with great influence and capacity can sit back and wait for others to transform our economies, or rely on governments to do the heavy lifting.

She said short-termism in politics was stunting government’s ability to respond to pressing issues, and that business had a key role to play in promoting a sustainable path forward.

Mostyn pointed to a recent speech by IMF boss Christine Lagarde that said the goal of the private sector could not just be about profit, but to add value, create jobs and come up with new ideas to drive the economy forward.

Mostyn used General David Morrison’s statement to the army on culture, which has gone viral on YouTube, to illustrate what great leadership was.

“It took an extreme event to collide with a great leader,” she said. “He set a tone for how change is possible.”

“He makes a number of incredible points. One is that everyone is responsible for the environment in which we operate. He’s using that in the context of the Australian Army, but I use that more generally. We’re all responsible for our environment.

“He talks about moral courage. He also makes a comment that’s not just related to the poor treatment of women. He just says very simply, ‘The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.’

“If I think about the sustainability community, and leadership in this community more broadly, we need lots more of us standing up on our boards, in chief executive rooms, in management committees, and just saying, ‘The standard of the current way in which we think about our economy is not good enough. It’s not valuing the things we know matter to our communities’.”

A war brewing on climate change leadership in business

At the same time as Mostyn’s speech, and in stark contrast, the coal industry released a report stating that business shouldn’t be showing any leadership when it comes to investment in coal.

The coal-industry funded report, Fossil Fuels: A Sound Investment in a Growing World, reviewed the recently released Unburnable Carbon: Australia’s carbon bubble report by Sydney-based The Climate Institute and London’s Carbon Tracker Initiative.

The coal industry report came to the conclusion that it wasn’t up to private investors to pursue policy goals, because it was the proper domain of government, and government inaction on climate policy was no reason for business to step in.

“Encouraging business people to take over the legitimate role of government is likely to encourage inferior economic performance,” the report said.

The report’s view that business should not engage with national policy issues “no matter how worthy these goals might be” might come as a surprise to the many businesses that can and do interject regularly into the policy domain, playing a vital role in governance.

Queensland premier Campbell Newman gave business leaders a bit more agency, imploring them to stand up against the “clandestine” groups asking business to divest from fossil fuel companies.

“Business has to be part of the debate,” he said at an Infrastructure Partnerships Australia lunch on Wednesday. “You have to stand up and be counted.”

This week did mark the launch of a group of businesses joining the debate and voicing their concern on climate change. The Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities – which includes Westpac, Investa, Optus, the Australian Red Cross, IAG and Munich RE – released a report, Building our Nation’s Resilience to Natural Disasters, which showed that the government is only investing $50 million a year on mitigation measures to improve resilience while $560 million is being spent per year on recovery measures.

The joint CEO statement said, “As business leaders representing a large and diverse cross-section of the Australian economy, along with the Australian Red Cross, an auxiliary to government, we believe making communities safer and more resilient to natural disasters is of national importance”.

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