20 Years Ago He Gave Cannibals Forks. Now John Asks: Where’s the Disruption?

On the 20th anniversary of the publication of his seminal book, Cannibals with Forks, John Elkington answers questions on the state of the sustainability movement and how he maintains optimism (originally published in the Huffington Post on July 10, 2017).

John Elkington & Adam Sulkowski, Summer 2017.png

John Elkington (left) and Adam Sulkowski (right) at the Volans office in London, June 23, 2017.

John Elkington is co-founder of ENDS, SustainAbility, and Volans and author of 19 books. He coined terms such as “green consumer” and “triple bottom line” and has been recognized in several rankings and lists as one of the world’s most influential authorities on sustainable business. John published Cannibals with Forks in 1997. It was a seminal work on strategy, business models, value creation, and mega-trends, and also popularized how sustainability reporting (that is, disclosing data on economic, environmental, and societal impacts) might serve as a fork—a civilizing first step—to start taming the unsustainable excesses of companies. John clarifies that the fork analogy (borrowed from an aphorism by Stanislaw Lec) relates to the fact that companies act like cannibals, gobbling each other up and spitting bits out. The question was whether learning to do this a 3-tined fork, (i.e. triple bottom line—or TBL—reporting), would represent progress.

Here are some big take-aways, distilled from our lengthy conversation on June 23, 2017, in his London office on Bloomsbury Place:

Q: What would you write about now?

A: “It would not be about sustainability reporting! But if I were to write about it…

…it would be that corporate sustainability reporting has become a ghetto for a specialized audience and that companies don’t even read their competitors’ reports. In my work with the GRI and IIRC, I advocated for a reframing: that reporting should break out of silos, that it should be more searchable by anyone, democratizing, widely disseminated, truthfully tracing multiple forms of capital through the supply chain, using immediate data on all impacts at any level, with the granularity of Google Earth. It could use satellite sensing to allow for zooming from a square meter of soil to the planetary scale—Planet Labs, eRevalue, Good Guide, and Arabesque—these are all promising starts on making sustainability reporting understandable.”

On the issue of why reporting standards have become complex and what it would take to make sustainability data user-friendly and actionable, John added: “Now we have access to data that would have been inconceivable 30 years ago thanks to the Carbon Disclosure Project, Bloomberg, CarbonTracker, GRI. But we need a vision. A coherent one. Complexity is just what happens when you go for complexity because of a complex world. So we need a vision of reporting that informs decisions. As Bucky (Buckminster Fuller) said: ‘we did not get a user manual for running the planet.’”

…and in 40-50 years sustainability reporting may be ubiquitous-yet-invisible…

“Originally triple bottom line reporting was meant to be a whack to the head of business leaders. As Ernst Ligteringen clarified, it was to change mindsets. In 40-50 years, we may see the reporting of today as Stone Age—by then, we will be instantly, seamlessly and radically connected to data. Sustainability data could be a part of life without even thinking of it—the closest analogy being weather reports.”

…instead, John would now write about disruptions needed for systemic change, specifically:

(1) “The sustainability industry is perhaps most in need of disruption. There is some ‘putting old wine in new bottles.’ We can no longer talk about 10% improvements as success. Nor even 10x. We need 100x improvements.”

(2) “There are incumbents versus insurgents. We’ve helped incumbent companies see their business cases [for sustainability]. But that is not what the insurgents want—we are at risk of failing them. 30 years ago we were helping get Greenpeace into corporations. 15 years ago we were introducing social entrepreneurship to the corporate world. Now we need to be less incrementalist, more transformative.”

(3) “Increasingly, we should focus on the insurgents and what they want – on how their innovations can be aggregated, engaged, and brought to scale. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, robotics, the internet-of-things and synthetic biology are all developing at a furious rate. There are 30-40 technologies easily that are part of this, whereas in a normal industrial revolution, it is just 3, 4, or 5 industry technologies changing. These technologies will hybridize to form different ones. But there will be friction. Uber illustrates the collisions between emerging and current social norms. Uber may be a hyper-successful insurgent, but it has been badly dented because it didn’t understand the issue of social norms.”

(4) On the role of cities in sustainability innovation as a worthy focus: “I was trained as a city planner, and used to see cities as tumors, divorced from their impacts. Now I see them [cities] as incubators, creating markets for new technologies, products and services.”

(5) John noted that “2017 is also the 30th anniversary of the Brundtland Commission Report, with its emphasis on intergenerational equity. If I were a young person I would be absolutely incensed [at the previous generation], and I would be thinking ‘you screwed us!’” Noting the [typically] superior resources and networks of seniors and the ideas and drive of youth, he went on: “there is a need for intergenerational work – bridge-building – getting older and younger generations to work together more.” He offered Encore as an early indication of what will be needed.

Q: In your book, The Breakthrough Challenge, you describe the need for businesses to disrupt their ecosystems to bring about systemic change. Elsewhere you have noted the value of memes. Mel Edwards and Ed Freeman (the father of stakeholder theory) and I just had an article accepted for publication about stakeholder shaking—it’s a meme we came up with to describe the phenomenon of companies shaking stakeholders and networks of stakeholders out of complacency—do any great examples of this come to mind?

A: “Decades ago, our struggle was getting NGOs into the midst of business leaders, but it was business leaders who challenged and sometimes coopted NGOs. Novo Nordisk is an example of what you describe: seeing that the cost of diabetes could collapse healthcare systems, they saw the need to address a different set of stakeholders, and started educating health care authorities and city administrations on the need for dietary and exercise solutions to slow the spread of diabetes. This has the added benefit of building trust. Covestro is another example. Its CEO, Patrick Thomas, describes it as an 82-year-old, 16,000 employee, $12 billion start-up. In this case, they are trying to help others see carbon as an asset and ask: ‘how do we assist in coming up with breakthrough solutions?’”

Q: What would you like to tell educators – what’s your message for academia?

A: “Sustainability right now is still seen as just one more option, or elective. But in 15-20 years, it will fundamentally inform everything that is taught in business schools. I realize that rankings can prevent schools from taking risks, but learning journeys—as illustrated by Leaders’ Quest—are extremely valuable and powerful, especially when they involve contexts outside of students’ comfort zones.”

Q: Who else has succeeded as much as Interface in terms of setting and meeting ambitious goals along the way to achieving net zero harms?

A: “From memory, Ray Anderson, the founder and CEO, still owned something like 60% of the shares, so he could more or less do what he wanted—which is a very different situation from most other companies. That said, other positive examples include Unilever, Tesla, Solar City, Novo Nordisk, and major car companies Ford, Nissan and Volvo, to some extent.”

Q: In previous interviews you’ve said you’re an optimist. How do you maintain your optimism? Is it because of trends that you see, or despite them?

A: “I do go though periods of gloom. I stay inspired by constant conversations with people and encountering new ideas. And there is always just enough progress to stay broadly optimistic. Our species tends to do its best work when backed into a corner—and, as the Anthropocene epoch builds around us, now we have backed ourselves into the mother of all corners.

I never thought about my legacy, but now I think, if there was one word to put on my tombstone, it would be ‘environmentalist.’ Nature brought me in. To your point on trends: take, for example, eels [which sparked John’s early awareness of ecology as a child]: I’m aware that they have experienced a collapse of 99.5% in Europe, with similar patterns in N. America, and Asia, and these are a keystone species. As a member of the WWF UK Council of Ambassadors, I am uncomfortably aware of such grim trends, but I guess I probably blank them out much of the time.”

Q: Would you want to write a book—a 20 year retrospective on Cannibals with Forks? Maybe Cannibals with Spoons—to reflect the increasingly fluid context of business, to which you alluded in the Coda (the final chapter) of Cannibals with Forks?

A: “No, when I write a book I do not want to cover ground I have already explored.”

Q: There seems to be a tension between prognoses you recently offered—is the next decade the “detox decade” or a “bottoming-out”?

A: “Both, I think. One problem is that we seem to be in something of a ‘contained depression’, which means that the normal processes of creative destruction are blunted. But, in the end, unsustainable parts of the economy will flame out. The detox decade is another way of viewing the bottom of the economic U-turn we are heading into, where an old order disassembles and a new one struggles to be born.”

Follow the latest updates from John Elkington on Twitter at @VolansJohn.

Adam Sulkowski is on Twitter at @Adam_Sulkowski.

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Packing tip–but really life advice–try it!

My best Jedi meditation pose, on rim of Mount Aragats caldera, Armenia, 2013

A friend asked what carry-on to buy. This poured out:

“For what it’s worth, I’m learning it’s best to go simple, cheap, light (maybe even used) and then reuse until threadbare — and also to leave +50% of what’s packed at home, leaving the rest empty for gifts (either for folks one visits, or gifts to take back home).”

It hit me this might as well be life advice: (1) minimize (and keep simple) stuff (you’ll move faster, see and enjoy more, and experience less trauma when stuff is damaged or lost); (2) reduce, reuse, recycle material stuff (variation on the same theme: consume less — it’s a loss of time, money, energy, and brain power, and has surprisingly massive negative environmental impacts up the supply chain); (3) leave room for the unplanned and serendipitous; (4) invest some time thinking about the people where you will go and what may pleasantly surprise them; and (5) invest some time thinking about the folks at home and what will be fun to share with them (besides hopefully epic pics and stories).

Try it. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Gautama Buddha, “don’t take my word for it, test it for yourself.” Safe travels!

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Investing in Cuba: 1 key step Trump is unlikely to change

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Investing in Cuba: 1 key step Trump is unlikely to change

Trump will annouce changes to Cuba policy this week. You may be curious about investing in Cuba and be wondering if it will still be possible. This legal research article based on a teachable case study based on my personal experience describes the one key step to be able to (legally) do so as an Amercian. It is also available on the website of the Journal of Legal Studies Education. Whie visiting Cuba, I was invited to invest in a friend’s start-up. In researching how to possibly do it, I learned that American citizens can make investments in a few dozen sanctioned countries if they apply for a special license from the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Treasury. The article describes related details and guidance, as well as ideas on how to protect investments under Cuban law. Potential investors will likely still be able to ask for special permission – and possibly receive it – to invest in Cuba, even if the sanctions regime is somehow tightened. Regardless of whether you are drawn to invest based on an altruistic desire to stimulate the private sector and civil society on the island, or to see someone realize their dreams, or to improve lives, or the chance to realize a return on your investment, or (likely) some combination of these motives, it will be a good idea to call or write to the helpful professionals at OFAC, and to ask for their best advice on how to proceed. Thanks to Kevin Fandl for consulting on this post, and to Luis Manuel AlcaldeLarry Catá Backer, Pedro Freyre, and Emilio Morales for consulting on the original article linked above. Pictured below: Rodolfo, successful Cuban entrepreneur, and his partner with the author in Havana in 2016. Here is a quick sketch of the secrets to his success published last year.

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Roger Babson’s Founding Principles: Key to Sustaining into a Second Century

Written with the encouragement and endorsement of Prof. JB Kassarjian.

This Founder’s Day, with just three years to go before Babson College’s Centennial, it is appropriate to consider Roger Babson’s convictions and motivations for founding our school, as summarized in a profile published in a 1930 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

Short version: (1) the Seer of Wellesley Hills likely would have endorsed our current undergraduate learning goals and graduate learning goals, (2) his founding motivation – his belief in the dire need for infusing business leaders with a sense of ethics and societal responsibility – resonates now, as does (3) his observation that measurement and reporting data can play a role in saving the world. The whole 3-page article is worth a read. Here are quotes and gleanings to prove our points:

Babson College was “his greatest enthusiasm” – on par, the author suggests, to having a son.

Why did he found our school? “What America needed, he decided… was men trained for the responsibility of wealth, and so he founded a school like no other in the country.” His father Nathaniel had judged Harvard, Amherst, and Williams to have been “breeding-places for idleness” (Roger had been allowed to attend that other Boston area school with a beaver for a mascot, MIT).

What were the roots of his values, and what were they? “He comes of New England stock, and is a sternly religious person who makes a clear distinction between investment and speculation. His forebears, knowing that the Lord would frown if profits came too quickly, found satisfaction in toiling for a living. Mr. Babson feels the same way. This leads him to make rigid distinctions between speculation and investment, and to exhort his clients against purchases on margin.”

Given these strong religious feelings (he said “there is an excess of everything except religion” in the United States, and several of his authored books concerned religion or morality), it is especially interesting that Roger Babson founded an educational institution for scions of “Captains of Industry, of millionaires. They will control the destinies of thousands of employees.”

What was his vision for the world? “Roger Babson has often dreamed of a world in which there would be no war, no bitter contrast between affluence and poverty, no labor disputes.” He also had a theory as to whom to blame for disputes with employees. “He felt that labor disputes were the result of bad management on the part of capital, and he pondered several solutions. One was to prevent the ownership of great industries from passing by inheritance to sons utterly unqualified to run them. He went so far as to question all inheritances.”

The author of the profile, Henry F. Pringle, allows himself to editorialize at one point, writing that “Roger Babson has often been strangely radical in his utterances on capital and labor,” and (presumably) Pringle imagines that “[t]here was a sulphurous odor of socialism in the air” when Babson testified before a federal industrial commission. “He said bluntly that too many industries were controlled by bankers indifferent to the needs of the wage-earner. They were interested only in dividends. Finally, one nervous commissioner asked him whether this was not sheer socialism.”

Babson’s answer to the question of whether his concerns for societal and employee well-being smacked of socialism are worth remembering: “‘When a man is asked for a definition of a gentleman,’ Mr. Babson replied, ‘he gives one that will include himself. When asked for a definition of socialism he gives one that will exclude himself.’”

Roger Babson felt sympathy for investors; he “pride[d] himself that he represents the buyer of securities, while the vast machinery of Wall Street is organized for the benefit of those who sell.” He also warned that “bank mergers may be carried too far and subject America to new perils.”

Especially interesting for those of who are fans of data, birds, and conservation, Roger Babson was convinced that “statistics could prevent international complications” (indeed, he started earning his fortune by providing statistical services to investors) and was an ornithologist in later years who created two bird sanctuaries.

A final two quotes about Roger Babson seem worthy of highlighting. First, “[u]tility, rather than form, interests him,” and, finally, “in his late twenties, he became a salesman, and traces of the art still linger. Thus he is never at a loss for words. Thus he is not unwilling to look back across the years and relate the story of his achievements.”

May we, as we look past the finish line of 100 years and plan for sustaining Babson’s legacy into a second century, likewise celebrate our successes in living up to our founder’s aspirations for “his greatest enthusiasm.”

The author wishes to thank our colleagues in the Economics Division for leaving a photocopy of the quoted profile pinned on a bulletin board in their cozy retreat in the woods. The full article may be found on pages 23-25 of the February 15, 1930 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

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City Sustainability Reporting: An Essential Best Practice

U.S. and Chinese mayors are discussing climate action this week. One idea sure to come up: sustainability reporting. In fact, cities should disclose sustainability data as a minimum legal expectati…

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City Sustainability Reporting: An Essential Best Practice

U.S. and Chinese mayors are discussing climate action this week. One idea sure to come up: sustainability reporting. In fact, cities should disclose sustainability data as a minimum legal expectation if they want to be part of the roughly $3.7 trillion U.S. market in municipal securities.

Boston, Massachusetts and Warsaw, Poland are among the many cities making a wide range of city data very accessible – including statistics on energy and water use and recycling. Whether you care about efficiency, education, prosperity, safety, or health, isn’t it desirable to be able to check your community’s stats and trends?

This is especially true when it comes to environmental impacts. The idea of getting to #NetZero harm – the practically self-evident idea that humanity has to neutralize its negative effects on the climate and ecosystems – is finally getting traction. Eliminating environmental harms requires better efficiency and begets innovation, and can lead to prosperity and improvement in well-being. Cities – foremost among them coastal cities – have much to lose and much to gain from unmitigated climate chaos, and therefore have to be champions for better measurement and tracking of environmental data. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it and you can’t fix it,” as former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has summarized.

Even for the most strictly short-sighted, financially-motivated, and narrowly self-interested among us, awareness of the long-term viability of a city is something that a reasonable investor should expect when purchasing municipal securities, as explained in City Sustainability Reporting: An Emerging & Desirable Legal Necessity (soon to be published by Pace Environmental Law Review).

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Scalia: big gov’t liberal interpreter of Constitution gone; real conservative pragmatism now may have a chance.

Unusual and unnecessary written commentary issued prior to hearing arguments in landmark cases. Alleged vulgar gesticulations on the steps of a church. “Quack quack” as a closing comment when defending his controversial refusal to recuse himself from a case involving his duck-hunting buddy, Dick Cheney, and transparency and corruption. By all accounts Antonin Scalia enjoyed riling folks with different views.

There was plenty with which to disagree. First, he supported using federal power to override state power. Example: Bush v. Gore exposed Scalia’s willingness to flip-flop on his long-professed commitment to federalism and to, from the bench in DC, override a state supreme court ruling on a matter of state law – a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution (Art II, Sec 1, Cl 2). Remember? 585 law professors signed a full-page denunciation of Bush v. Gore in the New York Times.

Next, he was a liberal interpreter of the U.S. Constitution. In a 2008 Second Amendment case his rationale for disregarding text of the Constitution prevailed. He was not a strict constructionist. Well, few USSC justices ever have been, really: the power of the Supreme Court to tell elected representatives when they are out-of-bounds is based on the Court’s own decision in Marbury v. Madison). Yes, the power to interpret the Constitution is based on an interpretation of the Constitution. “Strict constructionist Supreme Court justice” is a therefore a bit of an oxymoron. They all interpret. Scalia interpreted a lot.

Finally, as explained in this journal article, Scalia did not favor devolving power from big federal government bureaucracy to citizens. Congress passed environmental protection laws specifically allowing citizens to sue – not to collect damages, but to fight for their health and security by upholding the law. Scalia’s open and visceral anti-environmental emotions drove him to write an article imagining – and when in power, to implement – a creative new vision of standing requirements. This created roadblocks to citizens enforcing environmental laws that are a matter of life-and-death. The irony? Citizen enforcement is cheaper (to the taxpayer), more democratic, and allows for LESS pervasive and permanent federal bureaucracy to monitor, regulate, and enforce environmental, health, and safety rules.

To sum-up: do you want to breathe? Drink water? Pay lower taxes and have more power as a citizen to fight for your health, safety, and security, within a predictable system, consistent with the U.S. Constitution? Then Scalia’s legacy is not one to embrace.
What will come next? Among other things, a major decision – an unprecedented attempted interference by the Court – involving obsolete 18th Century technology and mass death, suffering, disease, and national security. Now is the time for traditional American pragmatism, not ideology, from whomever is nominated and confirmed as a replacement. The new SCOTUS justice will help decide the safety of the air we breathe, among other weighty cases affecting generations to come.

It’s a time for real conservatism in a Supreme Court nominee: conserving democratic functioning, conserving Constitutional structures, conserving constructive federalism, and, in the spirit of (old-school) Republican Teddy Roosevelt, conserving environmental life-and-spiritual support systems. Disrupting these traditions is not pro-life, pro-Constitution, nor pro-business.

It’s also a time for conserving decorum and dignity. It used to be uncontroversial to suggest that a justice on the highest court have a consensus-building and calming disposition and cool predictability in the application of the law to disputes. In two decades of working with businesspeople and entrepreneurs, I’ve never met one (of any party) who would dispute that these are virtues they value from someone adjudicating a dispute of any kind.

To sum-up, a big government liberal interpreter of our laws (who clearly delighted in antagonizing others) is gone. It’s a chance for pragmatism and cool-headedness to prevail on upcoming decisions. Not to delight in the passing of a fellow being, but if you’re also fairly traditional in that you are pro-prosperity, pro-predictability, and pro-law-and-order, we should look with optimism to what comes next.

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Warsaw’s Latest Sustainability Report: thanks to those who made it happen (and why every city should do something like this)

Warsaw – capital of Poland and home to +1.7 million residents – recently published its latest sustainability report (a press release, executive summary, and the entire Warsaw Sustainability Report are available in English and in Polish / po Polsku).

The significance of this in the greater global trend of city sustainability reporting was explained in Cities Today. Benefits of such reports have been summarized well by the ISO. Warsaw’s report is intended as a pragmatic, apolitical summary of economic, societal, and environmental health and related goals, policies, and the areas of stakeholders concern as measured in surveys and open fora. Ahead of the COP21 summit in Paris, we should be asking why every city is not doing something so imminently reasonable? How can we manage well what we don’t measure?

fot. Michał Ozdoba - Photographer http://www.facebook.com/michalozdobaphotographer

Members of Warsaw’s most recent sustainability reporting team, clockwise from top left: Adam Sulkowski, Joanna Wakulinska, Magdalena Obłoza, Leszek Drogosz, Joanna Gajda, Liliana Anam, Magdalena Kraszewska. Photo credit: Michał Ozdoba

Huge congratulations are due to a fantastic team of graduate students: Joanna Gajda, Alicja Marcinek, Magdalena Obłoza, Magda Skrocka-Kołodziejska, and Joanna Wakulińska taking a course in CSR management at Collegium Civitas with Liliana Anam, manager at CSRInfo. They worked tirelessly with a team at Warsaw City Hall led by Director of Infrastructure Leszek Drogosz to research, condense, format, and verify data about material concerns of residents. Thanks to Magdalena Kraszewska as well for her coordination. Finally, I’d be remiss not to thank the Warsaw University of Life Sciences and the Polish-American Fulbright Commission for their making my participation possible!

Warsaw’s latest sustainability report cross-references both the predominant global standard, the Global Reporting Initiative, and the new ISO standard for city sustainability reporting.

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“Taking the blinders off our beasts”

Since about 2005 I’ve kicked around this phrase: “Sustainability reporting is like taking the blinders off our great beasts – helping our institutions see that eliminating harms and improving societal and environmental conditions is actually in their own interest.” It took (what I perceived to be) a positive reaction from one of the respected authorities at the Boston Security Analysts Society‘s recent conference on sustainable investing to get me to “put this out there.”

This analogy is an apt one. Maybe it’s even useful. Consider using it the next time we’re asked: “what, really, is the ultimate goal you hope to achieve with sustainability reporting?” Here’s why you might like it:

Under law, an old and accepted idea is that an organization is treated as a single person – a concept that dates back at least to Roman times and facilitates things like contracting (i.e., an agreement can be made with an organization that may outlast any single human representative; of course, treating a corporation as a person in every context – e.g., constitutional or campaign finance law in the U.S. – may not be desirable).

Yet clearly, whether we consider public entities or private corporations, due to their vast size and power and durability, and despite management’s best efforts to steer them well, they can have an unwieldy tendency to sometimes trample over other interests and do harm – the analogy of an enormously industrious (but potentially lumbering and damaging) beast therefore comes to mind as a more appropriate metaphor.

The blinders in our analogy above – especially in the case of for-profit corporations – is the legal mandate of “putting the interests of the corporation and shareholders first” and the duty to report financial results quarterly and annually. Disciplined focus is a virtue. But it can make the best of us (willfully or unintentionally) blind to side effects of our actions, especially if negative side effects are diffuse and felt over longer periods of time.

When we consider Enron, Lehman Brothers, BP, Monsanto, or VW, or any of the plethora of examples of harmful and costly corporate malfeasance or negligence, it’s clear that actually what you don’t know (or fail to monitor and control) can kill. Or at least cost billions of dollars. Or lead to your own organization’s collapse. Or to creating an enormous economic, environmental, or societal hazard.

Sustainability reporting functions as “taking the blinders off the beast” because the practice encourages an organization and its leaders to find out what matters to all those upon whom it has an effect and to consider the environmental, societal, and economic side effects of its functioning, in addition to evaluating and describing its governance.

By systematically and regularly quantifying those side effects and publishing performance metrics and plans for their improvement, the ultimate aim is to help the organization eliminate negative side effects, and ultimately to even see that its best profit-making opportunities may be related to solving problems.

So, to paraphrase the quote above and re-cap: sustainability reporting is like “taking the blinders off our beasts to help them see their long-term success as aligned with solving problems and improving societal and environmental conditions.” Please feel free to comment if you agree, disagree, or would restate this. Thanks!

 

 

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