Porter Novelli

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When something goes wrong it’s only natural to seek out the cause of the problem. The moment a crisis hits a whistle is blown and the stopwatch starts ticking – the race to place the blame is on.

Sometimes the seduction of finding a scapegoat or a sacrificial lamb is strongest when the enemy is hidden from view. In situations where there is no obvious rival, friendly fire becomes the norm.

Undoubtedly, the human race should accept varied portions of responsibility for climate change. Yet, anger directed at big businesses often seems to stifle the conversation around sustainability.

Of course, all companies must shoulder the environmental consequences of their activities, but in order to play a proactive part in the fight for sustainability they must be encouraged to speak up. Business leaders should be spoken to as teammates, not as opponents who are blissfully unencumbered by environmental concerns.

If we don’t pick up the pace, the battle against climate change will be lost and generations to come may face horrific social, economic, and environmental consequences. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, recently said that the next fifteen years are pivotal for increasing the sense of urgency in public discourse around climate change.

This shift will not happen if the debate remains off-limits to those who are key in making a difference. Too often, the voice of big business is ignored, overlooked, or undermined because it is automatically associated with a one-dimensional pursuit of commercial gain.

A few weeks ago at The Economist Sustainability Summit 2016, Brett Begemann, President and Chief Operating Officer of Monsanto, was given the opportunity to present his views. He said when it comes to fighting climate change, we are all too busy shouting at each other from the mountaintops when what we need to do is climb down and talk in the valleys.

As a huge multinational corporation often criticized for its environmental policies – even called the ‘World’s Most Evil Corporation’ – Monsanto is an excellent example of a company that could be pushed away from participating in ethical debate by falling victim to the blame game around sustainability. Indeed, before I had spent time dwelling on the topic, I must admit I was slightly surprised to see Monsanto talking about sustainability on such a high-profile platform.

Yes, human instinct drives us to confront a common enemy – but the blanket mistrust and determined hostility directed at corporations when discussing the importance of sustainability is counterproductive. This divisive ‘us and them’ mentality is dangerous. It risks driving business leaders into lonely corners of self-preservation, encouraging them to look inwards rather than accepting outside help from NGOs.

David Nussbaum, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, uses his background as a Finance Director in the private sector to prove that it is possible to break down perceived barriers. Partnering with companies to improve their sustainable practises, recently adding Syngenta and IKEA to its books, his organization demonstrates the feasibility and value of such partnerships.

By 2050, we will have to feed a global population of approximately 9 billion people in a sustainable way. On this point there is no room for discussion; sustainability must become the status quo if we want to avoid an unprecedented global food shortage.

We must all champion continued communication if progress is to be made at the required rate. Together we can coax business leaders to speak publicly about the social responsibilities that are the by-products of their commercial success.

Disclaimer: Porter Novelli was the Official Public Relations Partner of The Economist Sustainability Summit 2016.