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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

20 December 2021 - In the fourth of our quarterly blogs, Alice Spencer, Programme Director for HRH Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme (BSP), delves into the archives to explore how the conversation on business and sustainability has progressed since the first programme in 1994 and whether, as we approach a new year, there is cause for optimism.

At the end of another turbulent year, I was interested to explore whether this current sense of optimism that ‘the tide is turning’ reflects a real inflection point in our pursuit of a healthy, equitable and prosperous planet… or just more blah.

Fortunately, leading a 27 year old programme with deep archives has provided a unique and wonderful opportunity to look back at how far we have come and daring to imagine how far, and fast, we may go.

Since the Prince of Wales first convened 35 individuals at Madingley Hall in Cambridge in 1994, the BSP alumni community has grown to more than 7,000 senior leaders and the programme steadily expanded to Europe in 1997, South Africa in 2003, Australia in 2011 and periodically is delivered in the USA, Brazil, Columbia and Chile. This will continue in 2022 with our inaugural programme in Singapore.

Looking at the grainy images from our annual BSP reports, I thought about how the world has changed in the relatively short time since 1994. As a global community, our socio-ecological systems are catering for an additional 2 billion people and our ‘earth overshoot day’ (the day in which the reproductive capabilities of the planet are met, and after which we erode planetary capital) has been brought forward from October 9 1994 to July 29 2021. We have experienced all too keenly the rise of infectious diseases, the hottest decade on record and even heralded the collective realisation of our entry into a new geological epoch; the Anthropocene.

So as scientific projections become a lived reality, how has this changed the conversation among delegates and can we find reasons to be optimistic in stepping into the headwinds of 2022?


A deepening sense of responsibility and urgency

“The more senior business people there are thinking
strategically and creatively about fashioning a genuinely sustainable economy, the greater the likelihood there is of it coming about within the foreseeable future.”

HRH Prince of Wales, BSP Report, 1994

“We need a vast military-style campaign to marshal the strength of the global private sector. With trillions at its disposal – far beyond global G.D.P. and, with the greatest respect, beyond even the governments of the world’s leaders – it offers the only real prospect of achieving fundamental economic transition”

HRH Prince of Wales, COP26 Opening Ceremony, November, 2021


Delegates were stirred, shaken even, but definitely not in agreement! It was felt that the boundaries had to be set
much more modestly, with business doing more, but not
taking on the role of government, or local authorities or
other key agencies in society.”

BSP Report, 1994

“For anyone wanting to lead, rather than merely observe, the tsunami of change that the corporate world needs to unleash in the realm of sustainable business, I cannot recommend this course highly enough.”

Delegate, BSP November, 2021


During the first seminar in 1994, the summary report outlined that delegates “were sympathetic about the possibility of achieving convergence between profitability and sustainability” but generally sceptical about “the real significance of the whole sustainability debate.” The main message was that sustainability, at the time viewed as primarily environmental, was the responsibility of government.

The late 1990’s reports reflected a broadening of the topic to incorporate social aspects of sustainability and the wider impacts of unsustainable business practice, an exhausting prospect for delegates no doubt with the perception that all of the world’s problems were being combined and brought to their door. However, many started holding onto the language they did speak and the commercial gains to be secured from being ‘more eco-friendly’, as one delegate from Vaxuhall Motors Ltd said in 1998: “We can further the acceptance of sustainability by pushing hard for

‘win/win’ situations every day.”

In the 2000 report signals were emerging that delegates were becoming proficient in their understanding of global challenges, with a starting point “far beyond where it was at the beginning of that very first seminar… and shows the progress made in putting sustainable development on the corporate agenda.”

It is difficult to pinpoint when, but at some point in the last 10 years delegates stopped arriving to the programme requiring to be convinced of the commercial realities of doing business in a world in crisis. Leaders today feel a much greater sense of responsibility in being part of the historic, inherited problems and therefore having a role in breaking the cycle of perpetuating these in pursuit of future solutions. The days of solely ‘win-win solutions’ and ‘doing less bad’ seem to be truly resigned to the seminar’s history books, even if the ESG movement or ‘mirage’ more broadly appears to still be doing all that is possible to protect business as usual.


The narrative is changing


“So, I want to challenge the idea that the ‘S’ word is all about sacrifice. Yes, change is urgently needed and yes, we need to rewire the economy and leadership – but there’s too much focus on doom and gloom. We need fresh language and fresh messaging around what should be exciting and inspiring progress. The stories we tell about how we achieve sustainability really matter.”

Clare Shine, Director and CEO, CISL article


In the 2000s, an era began where businesses looked for the upside and opportunity which led to a lot of exciting innovations, good news stories and integration of sustainability into branding and corporate communications . In a 2014 interview, Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer for Nike, said that “sustainability is just innovation spelt differently” and new solutions that ‘delight’ customers, investors and management will accelerate our arrival into the future rather than incrementally stepping into it.

This was a big step forward, but often missed the need to engage areas of the business where there is no quick fix or good news story. Today, in our seminars and among the business community, a new era is emerging where we are dealing with the tough stuff; the fundamental purpose business and the real consequences of failure to drive transition, even in areas where the economics aren’t currently attractive. This era comes without the comfort of tried and tested, commercially viable solutions, but provides critical space to explore the true purpose and necessary transformation of business.

In the November seminar in Cambridge, delegates spoke with fluency about the cost of transformation and internalising externalities, in some cases already accounting for the true cost of doing business in their financial reports in anticipation of regulatory mandates to do so. We were able to engage at a much more fundamental level about the need for purpose-led business recognising that while delivering shareholder value remains the ultimate KPI for business, it will not deliver the transformation necessary to sustain our global community in the longterm.

This is one example of many in what I see as a step change in the level of practicality in conversations today. Delegates get the ‘why’ and the ‘what’, they are now hungry for ‘how’ and for honest discussions about the realities of implementation.

The pressure on business to act, and the narrowing of ‘wiggle room’, is accelerating. Externally, activists, particularly young people, have found their voice and people are beginning to listen and act. Just recently, eight Australian teenagers won a landmark case to block the expansion of a coal mine and although the case has been appealed by the government, if they win it will have ramifications for climate cases world-wide.

Activists are also moving swiftly from calling out fossil fuel companies and high emitters to questioning consumption patterns relating to food and retail in particular. They may not have been to business school yet to fully grasp the effort and cost involved in shifting business models, but it doesn’t matter. They have a vision for the future – their future – and if a business or political decision does not put us on a path to get there, they can be relentless in their pursuit of safeguarding their planetary inheritance.

Beyond the bounds of traditional business


“There is always some distance between knowledge of our global trends and a vision of what needs to be done to safeguard our futures, but that distance decreases each year; even if it is two steps forward and one step back. The learning journeys we curate at CISL will continue to meet delegates where they are, emboldening them to go further, faster.”

Blog January 2021 – Bridging the great divide between knowledge and action


In welcoming delegates to the BSP, I often draw on Porter’s Five Forces as a starting point to reflect on a time in the 1970s when the equation of ‘good business’ was more straightforward; remain competitive and ensure longterm profitability by paying attention to market forces. Today, business leaders are still required to maintain competitive and profitable but within a more complex landscape of system1ic risks, and the additional responsibility of addressing chronic challenges emerging from decades of liquidating social and environmental assets to grow the bottom line.

This, they cannot do alone and within the existing ‘business as usual’ paradigm. Some business leaders liken this to ‘flying the plane while you build it’, as they are tasked with maintaining commercial success within the current paradigm while working to change the paradigm itself.

An important entry to the game was first detected in the early 2000s, when the finance sector started appearing more frequently in the BSP reports amid a growing awareness that “changes in finance and financing suggest that the value and valuation of intangible assets among investors is increasing” (BSP report, 2000).

Since then, money has been on the move and an explosion of engagement from the finance sector with bankers, investors, asset managers, insurers all competing for space in the sustainable finance market. Simply put, companies need capital and change can be expensive but we have eroded social and environmental capital, and are already being sent the bill. Currently superior performance can deliver an upside, in future poor performance will become a cost.

One common thread across all programmes has been the level of sophistication in analysing global trends and seeking to find the business case for sustainable development. In 1998, delegates neatly summarised the challenge: “Growing numbers of people demanding an ever higher standard of living on a planet whose resources and life-supporting natural cycles are either shrinking or very poorly managed. It is on that shared analysis that the business case for sustainable development rests.”

These are rooms full of some of the world’s smartest people, so arguably it has never really been a lack of understanding or analysis that has created barriers but the capability and incentive to act.


Predicting the future by shaping it


“Despite the challenges, and the risks - of political, economic and social vulnerability - the group concluded that it was not a case of ‘should we risk it?’, but ‘dare we not?’”.

BSP Report, 1995


Reading through the archives, I am convinced that the mainstreaming of sustainability and rejection of ‘business as usual’ has reached a tipping point. The conversation is advancing such that this is no longer a debate about ‘sustainable business’ – it’s just good business. It may have taken almost 3 decades to reach this point, but we now have less than a decade to deliver on 2030 commitments so changes in the immediate future are likely to happen rapidly, disruptively and cumulatively as momentum swells and waves of innovation break.

I find reassurance in the fact that today, delegates are much more forthcoming in talking about dilemmas. Rather than defending the status quo they actively challenge it and seek guidance from peers across different sectors to view alternative pathways through a different lens. This is what we need; bold leadership and a willingness to call out and engage with tough choices, an era of radical accountability and meaningful transformation.

I would like to think positively about these foundational decades, rather than cynically disregarding efforts to date as ‘all talk, no action’. In seminars, I hear the frustration from leaders with a vision for the future but are limited by what is seemingly possible within traditional business models. They share the challenge that, ‘we are doing our best in a broken system’. We don’t wake up on a mission to elevate our atmospheric CO2 to dangerous levels, fuel gaping inequalities between and within communities, eradicate millions of species or disintegrate the coral reefs’. But the decisions leaders make individually have a cumulative impact and therefore these need to be consciously and relentlessly reinvented.

It’s now time to look forward and not limit ourselves by our imagination of what is possible today, because tomorrow is yet to be shaped. And we don’t have another 27 years to get this right.

Our series of The Prince of Wales's Business & Sustainability Programme (BSP) seminars, held around the world, have become a global benchmark for sustainability leadership education. With over 7000 alumni from more than 1,500 organisations, we celebrate 27 years of the programme this year.

The programme is designed to give senior executives the knowledge and techniques to address key sustainability challenges in a practical way.

Participants are encouraged to review their current business models and set a vision for what success looks like in the future, leaving the course with the inspiration, understanding and confidence to define and respond to pressing social, economic and environmental priorities.

Click here for further information about the BSP in 2022 and to apply.

About the author

Alice Spencer

Alice joined CISL in 2017 and is the global lead for CISL’s flagship HRH Prince of Wales’s Programme, delivered annually in Cambridge, Melbourne, Cape Town, Singapore (2022) and virtually. She is also responsible for developing and delivering customised executive education programmes for senior leaders and has significant ongoing programmes within the banking, manufacturing and retail sectors. Alice has experience of working with boards and oversees CISL’s programme for Non-Executive Directors in Australia, which equips delegates to engage with strategic business decisions to align sustainability and profitability.


Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


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