The Blog

Video Message to the Accounting 4 Sustainability (A4S) Event at the Rio+20 Summit

We are sailing headlong into the sorts of storms that are the stuff of nightmares. All of our science is telling us that this is so; our economies are already reflecting the symptoms, so this is not a time when we can shy away from the enormous challenges we face. The door is closing faster than we think on our opportunity to develop a new economic framework that puts nature's own ingenious economy and social well-being at the heart of our thinking. It is no exaggeration to say that our world really does depend upon what you may decide today.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am only sorry that circumstances prevent me from being with you today, but such is the importance of the task you are discussing, I wanted to help launch this event - even if it has to be in such a disembodied fashion!

I notice, by the way, that this is described as a 'side event' during the United Nations conference. I'm afraid I cannot help thinking that for far too long the entire issue of forging a truly sustainable economic model has been something of a 'side event.'

The main focus of our attention remains elsewhere - on the short-term maximisation of output and profit, regardless of the long-term consequences for the Earth and those who come after us. The trouble is, when once we might have imagined those consequences lie a long way off, there is now plenty of evidence to suggest that they are not very far away at all and, what is more, that they will be dire, if we do not change our course.

To that end, for what it is worth, I have felt for many years that the globally accepted ways of measuring success - whether in terms of profit, or G.D.P. - are not providing the correct information and signals for governments, businesses and other organisations to take the right decisions, given the immense and unprecedented challenges we face in the twenty-first century. It is clear to me that if we are to create the sustainable economy we so urgently need - one that provides a better life for all whilst also preserving the planet's Natural Capital from which we can draw an income - we need new ways to define and measure success for businesses, governments and the global community.

I have been particularly concerned about the narrow focus of decision-making and reporting by the business community. It is precisely the reason I created my Accounting for Sustainability Project in 2004, which has helped bring you here today. It has been working with business and governments to help embed sustainability into a whole series of organisations' D.N.A.

I must say, I was very interested recently to read an observation by the environmentalist and author, Paul Hawken, who has done much to stress the relationship between business and the natural environment. He argues that what we are currently doing is "stealing the future to sell it in the present" and then calling what we make "G.D.P."

He highlights very succinctly the limitations of using just one indicator of economic prosperity to measure the value of human endeavour. Without widening the scope of our measuring systems and without repositioning our fundamental goals, I trust you can see that we are in danger of remaining blind to the growing economic impact we are having on the Earth's natural systems and, thereby, on our communities.

If we are to improve our vision, we simply must have better information about the value of the Earth's eco-systems to the economy and society as a whole, as well as the social, environmental and economic costs of what we do - and, for that matter, what we don't do.

Without this, we operate with only a tiny fraction of the information we need and this leads to the impression that we must choose between promoting economic growth, protecting the environment, or developing human happiness and well-being. Such an impression would be shown as a false choice if environmental sustainability and social well-being were appropriately included in our measures of economic success.

The challenge is to produce a framework that works on all levels - at global, national and corporate levels. I need hardly say how encouraged I am that real progress is being made on all three, some led by many of our panellists today.

The purpose of this event, therefore, is to consider how we may create a new frame of reference which deepens our understanding of the picture as a whole - one that is fit for the purpose of taking important decisions in the twenty-first century.

As I see it, there is a grave danger that despite good work being done at all three levels, progress to create a more sustainable form of development the world over could still be held back by a lack of co-ordination. Goals of sustainable development at the global level are unlikely to be achieved if they are not reflected in national performance measures and, in turn, on the ground at corporate level. In other words, despite all of the cogs in the machine turning in the same and preferred direction, if the gearing between the cogs is not sufficiently coordinated, then the running of the machine as a whole will not be smooth. It may not even move at all.

So what you need to consider today, if I may be so bold, is what will link the cogs together? How might we devise a means of linking all three levels - the global, the national and the corporate - so that they do not jar with each other and do not cancel out what good work they may be individually capable of achieving?

I can only urge those of you working in this area to join the working group, which was initially formed at a meeting I hosted in London last month, to discuss how the processes at the global, national and corporate level can be aligned such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I cannot stress to you enough how important this is - we are sailing headlong into the sorts of storms that are the stuff of nightmares. All of our science is telling us that this is so; our economies are already reflecting the symptoms, so this is not a time when we can shy away from the enormous challenges we face. The door is closing faster than we think on our opportunity to develop a new economic framework that puts nature's own ingenious economy and social well-being at the heart of our thinking. It is no exaggeration to say that our world really does depend upon what you may decide today.