20 years of sustainable business - Alistair Davis

4 Jun 2019
SBC Advisory Board Chair Alistair Davis, CEO Toyota New Zealand

Formed in May 1999, the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development (now SBC) was a coalition of leading businesses with a shared commitment to sustainable development. Alistair Davis reflects on what has been achieved in the last 20 years and what we need to do in the next 20 years.

Alistair Davis, CEO, Toyota New Zealand and SBC Advisory Board Chair

What have you seen in business sustainability in the last 20 years?

I think it’s come a long way, a remarkably long way. When I think back to when the Business Council for Sustainable Development started 20 years ago, I wasn’t directly involved but my boss Bob Field was one of the Founding Members. He was the boss of Toyota at that stage.

There was quite a lot of resistance. There were some passionate organisations that wanted to be involved in this sustainability movement and there was lots of stuff happening overseas. But there was a lot of disinterest as well. And through those early years there was a lot of tension about how far do you want to push on things? Because we all understand now that everybody’s on a journey, but in those early days there was a sense in which anybody who wasn’t pure and clean would kind of be a bit paranoid about where are we going with this, and when we got into the business of lobbying governments and wrestling with issues like the emissions trading scheme, there was a lot of angst. And it was a difficult first decade.

The second decade, it’s been like we’ve moved on a trajectory from going slow up to really fast. And I think sustainability has moved dramatically into the mainstream.

If you take just the example of our membership which has gone from sort of in the forties to well over a hundred now, dramatic change. You think about the standards of reporting. There were hardly any companies who reported on their sustainability footprint or had any transparency about what they were doing wrong and what the countermeasures were to fix things and so on.

Now it’s almost like a minimum requirement from the stock exchange, institutional investors want that kind of information. It’s a huge shift.

What role has the Sustainable Business Council played?

There’s a lot of people playing in this space of trying to make people think more about the long term sustainable impacts that they have. But in terms of the business environment in New Zealand, I think we’ve been a significant voice, and the fact that we merged into BusinessNZ almost 10 years ago, that’s helped the whole process, because it’s now a key part of what BusinessNZ stands for. And that’s the biggest of the business groups in New Zealand and it’s been a success story because of that merger.

What role has the media played?

If I think back over 20 years, there were a few lone voices calling in the wilderness, people like Rod Oram for example, and gradually the momentum of voices in that space has got stronger and stronger.

Where we reached a real turning point with Stuff coming out and saying we are going to say that we endorse the idea that climate change is happening, that it’s manmade, we’re going to consistently run a series of articles that are trying to elucidate the facts of situations, the strategies that individuals, that businesses, that politicians should be taking to address those issues.

The Stuff process has been a really important ingredient of bringing it mainstream. If you go back, it’s only a little more than a decade ago since Gareth Morgan wrote a book debating whether or not climate change was real. The fact that we’ve now got one of the major newspaper chains in the country, or news agencies in the country running just all the time, continuous stories. And ok, that’s mainly on climate change issues, but the fact that sustainability is so mainstream, it’s a continuous cycle of news going through, that’s really great.

What do you think we will see in the next 20 years?

We’re now facing a new set of challenges. I think, reflecting back on the last 20 years, we’ve moved sustainability from a very niche part of what business is about to being mainstream. So that battle has been won. All the individual parts of it are not won, like climate change is going to be a major issue for the next 50 years and dealing with the effects of it for the next maybe, 200, 300 years.

But we’ve moved sustainability into the mainstream. I think now what needs to happen is to move our thinking beyond just trying to avoid doing harm, to what are some of the regeneration things we need to do. How do we help business contribute to thriving communities, to helping the planet thrive, helping the whole ecosystem thrive.

I think there’s some massive challenges ahead that business needs to wrestle with. It’s about setting a new horizon of what are the issues we need to be facing. If I just pick on the issues of inequality, of global trade, of the future of work with AI and robotics and stuff. Of the distrust that people now have in business where, go back before the global financial crisis, people generally trusted business to do the right thing. Today, there’s not quite so much of that trust. It’s been eroded away by bad actions by banks in Australia, by some car companies, notably not Toyota, in terms of emissions cheating. It’s been eroded away by the Facebooks and the Googles and so on, selling data without people really realising what they’d signed up for. Business needs to restore trust, and that’s going to mean we have to tackle some big systemic issues that we’ve kind of just left to one side up until now. So, I think the next 20, 30 years is new horizons that we’re going to have to wrestle with.

On behalf of the work of sustainability in New Zealand, I would have to say thank you for your support. When we merged into Business New Zealand our focus was very much on not wanting to do policy, it was about what practically can we do to help members and help the cause of sustainability. And members have been very loyal supporting that with their money and their contributions. So I say thank you and here’s to the next 20 years.