Burkhard Gnärig

14 April, 2015

Pioneers in civil society, business and politics have to work together

During the latest WEF in Davos I participated in a meeting of heads of leading international civil society organisations (CSOs) and business discussing “Sustainable Development & Climate CollaborateJustice: Working together to advance the Post-2015 Agenda”. On the civil society side we counted about 15 CEOs from organisations such as Amnesty International, the Red Cross and Plan. Business was represented only by a handful of CEOs while some companies had sent their leaders of Corporate Social Responsibility – their CEOs probably in one of the hotels nearby, engaged in meetings they considered more important. Our discussion showed that progressive voices in business and civil society leaders feel similar degrees of urgency in addressing climate change and poverty and that they have similar expectations concerning the outcomes of the UN negotiation processes on Post-2015 and Climate.

This was a good first step towards better cooperation but clearly not enough given the challenges we face: accelerating climate change on the one hand and desperate poverty and rising inequality on the other threaten the foundations of our civilization and possibly our future existence. Therefore we need to turn our growing sense of urgency into bold and transformative action. There are two dimensions in which we have to act: We have to make sure that the UN negotiations on climate and development produce an ambitious and binding transformation agenda for the global community. But even more importantly from my perspective: we have to start doing what we know is necessary.

We need more courageous pioneers in all sectors not only demanding transformation from others but starting their own transformation today. Business needs to shift to sustainable production delivering sustainable goods and services. Parliaments need to create the legal frameworks for fair, equitable and sustainable societies and Governments need to run countries based on these values. However, this is easier said than done. Companies often argue that consumers will not purchase sustainable products or services. Political parties state that their voters would not support more transformative policies. While these arguments are often misused to defend inaction, they cannot be discarded all together. Generally sustainable goods and services have a very small share in most markets still dominated by unsustainable ones. The average consumer values a low price and other qualities higher than sustainability. Similarly, voters often punish rather than reward sustainability policies; for instance, the proposal of one voluntary “veggie day” a week by a member of the German Green Party cost the party dearly in the last elections.

Only if we can convince the average consumer and the average citizen to prioritise sustainability and social justice in their lifestyles, consumption and political choice will we be able to conduct the necessary transformation of our societies. And these are the fields where I believe the With whom Alliancespioneers in civil society, business and politics have to work together. For CSOs this means they have to leave their comfortable position of “us and them” which allows CSOs to criticise governments and business for what they do or don’t do without getting involved themselves. If we wish to actively promote the transformation of our societies we need to find pioneers in business and politics and partner with these in order to advance consumers’ and voters’ perception of the need for transformation and their preparedness to change their own behaviour as a consequence.

In concrete terms this means that CSOs that often loudly condemn bad politics and bad business behaviour need to be equally strong in endorsing political parties that devise transformative policies and business that embark on courageous changes towards sustainability. There are a few, but still very rare, examples in which CSOs and business have worked together in bringing about positive change, for example the cooperation of Greenpeace and Coca-Cola on HFC free refrigerators. We need many more – and more ambitious – cooperation of this type. Companies that are prepared to accept the considerable risks of pioneering more sustainable approaches, and political actors risking to loose voters when supporting pioneering policies need CSOs’ support in convincing consumers and citizens to behave more sustainably. CSOs that are serious about driving the transformation towards “Sustainable Development & Climate Justice” need to leave their comfort zone and offer their help.

  1. Robert Glasser27 April, 2015

    Thanks Burkhard. I very much agree with the points you make. You note that “Only if we can convince the average consumer and the average citizen to prioritise sustainability and social justice in their lifestyles, consumption and political choice will we be able to conduct the necessary transformation of our societies”. Well, although I think we are making progress in terms of public awareness of the extent of the climate change challenge, we still have a long way to go–particularly in the face of well-organised disinformation campaigns from climate change deniers.

    Just this morning I had an email from a colleague and friend who is technically literate, sophisticated and engaged in following policy discussions. He had attached an article written by a climate change denier who had clearly chosen to misinterpret the results of a recent legitimate piece of scientific research to undermine support for climate action. As my friend wrote in his email:

    “I continue to be confused by this issue of Climate Change. It would appear that recent official studies question the whole premise and that the wording of the conclusion is attempting not to piss off / embarrass those that say that Climate Change is happening. What should we believe? Do you have other sources on this?

    I don’t know what to think…”

    This is what we are up against!

    1. Rhianon Bader3 August, 2015

      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your comment and anecdote. One of the challenges about working deep in aid/development is that we often forget that most people in the world are busy with other jobs/interests and are rarely thinking about issues such as climate change or sustainability. And it’s really no wonder that they don’t want to think about it. It will certainly require a lot of work and coordinated efforts from CSOs/governments/businesses to change the habits of consumption worldwide.

      Rhianon Bader (Communications Coordinator, Disrupt&Innovate)

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