On June 23, 2015 the room on the 60th floor of the Chase building in the heart of Wall Street was packed with over four hundred international academics, business leaders, government officials, deans, and participants from institutions of higher education and civil society. Katrin Muff, Dean of the Business School of Lausanne, Switzerland, stood in front of the expectant audience.
"Close your eyes for a moment", she invited in a calm voice. "Sit comfortably in your chair and notice your feet on the floor. Now take a mental trip into the future, and imagine that the Sustainable Development Goals have just been achieved. Imagine that you are waking up on that future day. Where are you? What do you feel? What do you see? What are your children or grandchildren doing?"
Back in the year 2000, the United Nations created the Global Compact, identifying a set of goals called the Millennium Development Goals, and aiming to achieve them by 2015. Governments and corporations pledged to work towards those goals, to reduce poverty, address clean water and sanitation challenges, human rights and several other serious challenges of our planet. "Reducing poverty by half ended up not being a good enough goal", said Thomas Gass, United Nations' Assistant Secretary-General, indicating that while the Millennium Development Goals set us up to choose who are in the half to be cared for, the new 2015 Sustainable Development Goals aim higher: "a world that works for all". "We have to set our goals not at 50 percent, but at 100 percent", he said. "If one group is left behind it's not sustainable."
While the Millennium Goals seemed ambitious, there are 216 million fewer hungry people in the world today than in the 1990s -- and nearly 100 million fewer in just the last three years. Of 129 countries monitored, 72 have cut their undernourishment rates in half, on target with the 2015 Millennium Development Goal set by the Food and Agriculture Organization. As Dan LeClair, CEO of the certifying agency AACSB indicated, "we have to set aspirational standards."
Chuck Fowler, Director and Chairman of Fairmount Santrol, and proponent of Business as Agent of World Benefit shared how his mining company sequestered 103 percent of their own CO2 emissions in 2013. The host, Lian Xinjun, CEO of the Chinese investment group Fosun, (who bought the Chase One Plaza building), highlighted how his company was clear on their global social responsibility, which is substantial considering their US$ 80 billion overseas investments in 2014. "We allocate US$ 60 million to support education for the underprivileged, we want to support young entrepreneurs creating innovative businesses that improve quality of life. Our focus is health and happiness," he added, "and our aim is to open 300,00 more hospital beds in China. Warren Buffet is our model."
Eighty percent of students in the U.S. wouldn't work in a corporation whose values they don't share, indicated Alfons Sauquet, President of the Academy of Business in Society, a global network of over 100 multinational companies and business schools working towards a sustainable future. "In IKEA we created the 100 percent rule", stated Greg Priest, Head of Sustainability Policy at IKEA. "It's not about reducing the impact, because if we continue we won't exist in 30 years. We focus on the positive impact we can and must make through our business. If you set a goal for 90 percent, people will find the 10 percent. Our 100 percent rule is difficult - but it drives innovation. We think of the future, and know that we need radical changes, a change in our mindset."
In line with the focus on positive impact, the creation of the Flourish Prizes was announced at the Global Forum. The Prizes will showcase and reward businesses innovations that are profitable while meeting some of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Global Forum, organized by the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative, was followed by the General Assembly at the UN Headquarters, where over a thousand participants listened to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon observing that business and sustainability agenda are converging, and "not through charity, but as a pipeline thriving in responsible business." The proof is to be seen in many places, not least in the US$ 53 trillion in assets abiding by the Principles for Responsible Investment, or in the publicly stated aim for 100 percent of renewable energies by 2020, and 0 percent deforestation goal, shared by Nestle's CEO Paul Bulcke.
"Individuals move mountains when collaborating", said Georg Kell, Director of the Global Compact. "We cannot stand by and wait for things to happen". And Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, added: "This is our moment to change the course. And yes, it always seems impossible."
I thought of the visioning exercise that the Dean of the Business School in Lausanne invited us to. It may be possible, if we can dream it. Imagine.