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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


27 August 2021 - In the third of our quarterly blogs, Alice Spencer, Programme Director and Global Lead for HRH The Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme (BSP), explores the significance of the international focus of our programmes to start a conversation about why now, more than ever, global action must occur.

In February 2020 I arrived in Melbourne for the annual delivery of our open programmes, dancing a very fine line between Australia’s catastrophic ‘Black Summer’ bushfires and rippling concerns of a pandemic, which was yet to be labelled as such.

Every year, we deliver the BSP in key, strategic parts of the world and each programme has a unique identity that is tailored to the regional context, working closely with delivery partners and resident experts in Cambridge, Cape Town, Melbourne and, in 2022, Singapore. The programmes are shaped to the lived experience of senior delegates in incredibly unique cultural, political and geographic and contexts. Arriving in Australia, it was clear for example that our conversations around climate change mitigation and, unfortunately, adaptation and recovery would be elevated that year.

However, as a global community of leaders from different sectors, operating in such diverse contexts, we convene around common themes that are locally conscious yet internationally significant. After all, the role of multinational businesses in responding to the most pressing global challenges that unite us needs to contribute to systemic action that is as international as they are. It is no longer ‘good enough’ to be a Western based organisation with a renewed sense of purpose and commitments to improve outcomes within the immediate footprint of operations. To survive and thrive, business must influence the wider system, proactively anticipating, responding to and shaping their operating context, across and beyond supply chains and spheres of influence.


Stepping back to move forwards

“People often ask, "What is the single most important environmental population problem facing the world today?" A flip answer would be, "The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!”

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

While business leaders arrive to our programmes increasingly aware, and experiencing the impact, of the changing global context, we take time to deeply understand systems level pressures and trends based on the latest science and thought leadership. These are the critical challenges that bind us together, wherever we are in the world, and that we consider when exploring how to lead businesses fit for the 21st Century.

How business operates will invariably change and it’s important to ask the big questions during our seminars to highlight the risks and opportunities that business face in remaining relevant on an international stage.

For example, what is your strategy to win the war for talent in a rapdily ageing world? What is your unique contribution to the sustainable lives of 9 billion people? How will your business become carbon negative while ensuring it is nature positive? Does your business model consider the future of consumerism in a circular economy? Are you in the city building business, and if so what does a sustainable city of the future look like? Are your targets based on historic trends and successes or science based reality? Does your business have a refugee policy?

Our insight from the last 30 years at CISL and 27 years of the BSP indicates that leading businesses proactively shape the future, whether that’s in how they treat their local community or the impacts of how they produce goods and services, and those that have a greater contribution in creating stable, vibrant societies are more likely to deliver predictable commercial growth.


A shock to the system

“If anything, the Covid-19 crisis has served as a powerful reminder of the vital, inseparable and inter-connected relationships within human societies, as well as between humans and the natural world.”

HRH The Prince of Wales, Royal Founding Patron of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

In the same way the Australian bushfires elevated our conversations about the immediate threat of a changing climate, the pandemic highlighted our fragility yet connectedness as a global population, coming together with different responses to a shared, systems level shock. The thin veneer our global geo-politics and supply chains has been peeled back, exposing our dependencies on faraway places for our day to day livelihoods.

Covid has also highlighted the long held and fundamental flaws of the free market economy; one that sees some lining up in European countries to receive a third dose of the vaccine, while less than 2% of Africans have received the first. In addition Oxfam reported that during the pandemic, billionaires saw their wealth increase by $3.9 trillion between March and December 2020, a collective increase that could pay for the entire world's vaccinations and prevent anyone from falling into poverty.

Most recently, the insurgent takeover in Afghanistan while creating an immediate humanitarian crisis, also highlights a wider message about the uncertainty of Western economic rule of global markets and imperial exploitation.

The fragility of globalisation has yet again come into question, and at a time when there unprecedented need for global collective action in tackling the climate crisis, reversing biodiversity loss and creating safe, equitable societies, there is a parallel rush to reinforce national borders and protect self-interest. A global tragedy of the commons of sorts that poses the ultimate challenge for policy makers and business leaders.

However, the transition from today’s economy to tomorrow’s sustainable economy will happen. In some geographies and sectors the transition will be planned, while in other areas of the global economy it will be poorly managed and generate a more seismic shock. Some organisations will fail, while others will prosper.


No one is safe until everyone is safe

“In the long term, no country, business nor individual can win in a world that loses.”

Jean-Laurent Bonnafé, Chief Executive Officer, BNP Paribas

In 2017 a powerful narrative emerged from the international leaders who form the Business and Sustainable Development Commission that identified a US£12tn opportunity in delivering the Sustainable Development Goals, with many major market opportunities in agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and wellbeing.

While global challenges being presented as commercial opportunities is essential in promoting the business case for sustainability, tapping into the trillions is by no means an easy pathway for many organisations, particularly those with a largely European HQ mind-set tasked with carving out new markets in places and with people they have never typically worked with.

“Sustainability can only be achieved if there is genuine benefit to – and buy-in from – people and communities across the world. This fundamental paradigm shift needs to be embedded across business, finance and government and can turbocharge collaboration and innovation.”

Clare Shine, Director and CEO, CISL

This is particularly true in low and middle income economy countries, as global organisations are increasingly looking to achieve positive social and environmental impact where it is needed the most, but without the practical tools and capabilities of unlocking opportunities in markets with high up-front costs, low margins, different legislative requirements, diverse regional priorities and drivers and Western economy standards that render them uncompetitive.

In the finance sector, there is a lot of money in Northern Europe chasing green investments in low and middle income economies which can lead to over-pricing because there are not enough projects to fund. This creates barriers that add to the risks of investing in new and unknown markets.

There is also a question about who ‘everyone’ is and that routes to being safe will be incredibly different. The white, privileged may be in countries tracking toward net zero, for example, but the cost is often cheap labour to fabricate renewable energy infrastructure for import. As journalist James Bleek reported, the ‘immense utopian project to decarbonise human activity forges ahead’ but it is a global capitalist-consumerist project where the rich get richer and equitable progress hinges on systems change, focusing on the global picture not just country by country target setting at the expense of those less privileged. In this context, ‘everyone’ should truly mean everyone, with multinational organisations safeguarding the livelihoods for all rather than moving the problem from one geography to another.


Forward with global optimism

“It’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

Charles Darwin

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Agreement are important commitments that prove it is possible for countries to come together and agree on clearly defined, global outcomes with a timeline and framework for action.

This, combined with increasing pressure from regulators, investors, consumers and competitors, means business is entering an era where bold moves are rewarded and the business landscape is fertile ground for creative action that delivers on our global goals.

We are often asked on our programmes to point at case studies of organisations that, from our perspective, are ahead of the curve, leading change and good examples to emulate. While sustainability does provide a lens for individuals to challenge the assumptions of the existing business model and unlock new sources of value with fresh thinking, replicating existing leading practice is not always an adequate response. Increasingly we use case studies to provide some inspiration but otherwise encourage our delegates to step into the unknown, defining their own levels of ambition and not being constrained by what has been done before.

To create the scale and pace of change required to be truly sustainable, in a world where the revenue of our largest businesses can dwarf GDP of entire nations, business leaders should not assume historic barriers are still in place, that maverick thinking will not be rewarded by investors and that being brave, getting out there and breaking things will not produce new forms of value.

This emerging freedom, born of necessity, to do things differently and reinvent the way we live and work is truly cause for optimism as we collectively begin to visualise, reimagine and design our shared future within the productive boundaries of our finite planetary home.


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 3,200 alumni from more than 1,500 organisations, we celebrate 26 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 2021 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 (2021) 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.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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