Photo by Heather Craig/Survival Media

Posted in: thought leadership

15th October 2019

Realizing Our Ambition Requires Courage and Accountability

By Sharan Burrow, Paul Polman and Halla Tómasdóttir

“How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual...the eyes of all future generations are upon you. If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”

How dare you: three words that encompass the grave injustice of the inability of world leaders to act at the speed and scale the climate emergency requires.

As we gathered with private and public sector leaders at events surrounding the UN General Assembly, Greta Thunberg reminded us of who we really needed to be there for: future generations. Greta’s words cannot be forgotten. We say we are listening to her and that we understand, but what’s stopping us from ending business as usual? Greta’s urgent challenge should serve as a rallying cry to embrace the leadership we need to leave a better future for the next generation and beyond.

Just over one year ago, we stepped into our roles of Chair, Vice-Chair and CEO of The B Team. At the time, we knew the world needed holistic leadership aligned with the principles of sustainability, equality and accountability. We also knew that, with our B Team Leaders, we held both the power and the responsibility to lead by brave action and scale this new way forward in a world facing complex and interrelated challenges.

But, we are not facing the same world we were one year ago. Today, amidst rising temperatures, inequality and broken trust we are seeing the world demand not just courageous leadership, but also greater accountability. Leadership that only values shareholders or financial performance must be replaced by principled leadership that holds itself to a higher standard and to all stakeholders.

What we’re now seeing is the result of systems and leadership that have valued profits and shareholders above all else—ignoring accountability to all of humanity. Millions of youth climate activists are joining Greta and taking to the streets each week to demand we act responsibly in the face of the climate emergency. Current projections still leave us on average more than a hundred years away from reaching gender parity. Millions continue to fall victim to modern slavery—and even more were forced to flee their homes in the last year alone.

With unsustainable conditions worsening at an unprecedented pace, calls for systems change are growing louder. As The B Team, we’ve always aimed to end business as usual and raise the bar on corporate leadership. But this moment calls for us to be more ambitious—and accountable—than before.

When we gathered together just a few months ago, we committed to being five times bolder in our leadership. One-track commitments are no longer enough. We cannot take action on the climate crisis without addressing the crisis of inequality. And we cannot call for an end to inequality without acting on the corruption that has helped perpetuate these conditions.

As we gathered again in our annual general meeting, we pledged to be fives times stronger in holding our own feet to the fire. We’ve taken important steps in this direction over the years and, over the past few weeks, saw significant movement in our effort to meet—and surpass—this momentum.

We joined private and public sector leaders to discuss our shared responsibility in standing with refugees as we work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Under current leadership models, we’re leaving refugees behind in these efforts—and this only stands to worsen with climate change unjustly displacing those who have contributed least to its acceleration. If we fail to include them, we fail to reach the SDGs.

“Refugees should be welcome wherever they knock at the door. That’s why business stands with refugees, and that’s why we are calling for the right kinds of humane policies that will support integration and bring an end to further suffering,” B Team Co-Founder and Virgin Group Founder Sir Richard Branson stated at this event. We’re working to hold ourselves accountable for our actions in the face of this crisis—and calling on governments to do the same.

At the UN Climate Action Summit, we saw business take steps toward transformative climate action. B Team Leader and Allianz CEO Oliver Bäte led a group of 12 asset owners with USD 2.4 trillion in assets under management in committing to net-zero emissions by 2050—a target aligned with a pathway to 1.5°C warming—and helping companies within their portfolios to achieve the same goal. They join the 87 companies who also made this commitment.

And nine multinationals, including some of the world’s largest renewable energy producers, committed to the Business Pledge for Just Transition and Decent Jobs. They’ve pledged to create fair, decent and inclusive jobs for 230,000 of their direct employees and millions in their supply chains and to report periodically on these efforts.

“We urgently need to reset our system. Our system has reached its limits—and this goes beyond climate change. Global warming must be a wake up call to reinvent the system,” B Team Leader and Engie CEO Isabelle Kocher said when announcing ENGIE’s commitment to the Pledge.

Her thoughts are echoed by B Team Leader and Salesforce Co-CEO Marc Benioff who recently stated that, for business leaders, “we can no longer wash our hands of our responsibility for what people do with our products...And if our quest for greater profits leaves our world worse off than before, all we will have taught our children is the power of greed.”

They’re right. This moment calls for total economic transformation for the benefit of generations to come.

We’ve taken important steps in this direction, but we know we have our work cut out for us. We will continue to hold one another accountable in our ways of leading, but we also need to scale systemic transformation and this new leadership model well beyond our own ranks.

As The B Team, we’re working to build a thriving movement of leaders committed to the ambitious and accountable way of leading. We’re determined to help build an inclusive economy by 2030. To get there, we must embrace long-term value creation and reject short-termism. We must measure what matters—and people and the planet matter. There is no business to be done beyond planetary boundaries nor without a social contract. Last, but not least, we must agree that shareholder primacy has left us with a burning planet, low levels of trust and unsustainable levels of inequality.

In contributing to this movement, we cannot merely point the way forward. The path toward an inclusive economy will look different across sectors, regions and more. With our refreshed ambition in realizing this vision, we’re also refreshing our look in how we help guide the way forward.

We have no time to waste in getting there. Future generations are watching. Will we live up to their expectations?