Great Example of Canadian-Led Collaboration: Towards a Gold-standard Benchmark for Sustainable Business

gold-standardEvery so often in life you take part in a unique and transformational experience. On September 11th in Toronto, an inspiring group of individuals representing a who´s who of organizations working to help business achieve breakthrough sustainability performance came together to create such an experience.

They were invited to explore an issue of importance to all of us there, but that we knew could not be solved by any of us alone. It would require collaboration. Here is the issue in a nutshell:

  • Business’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance are of growing interest to investors and other decision-makers because it is becoming increasingly clear how material ESG performance is to financial performance.
  • There are ratings and ranking agencies that evaluate and share ESG performance that investors and decision-makers pay attention to.
  • The criteria used by raters and rankers are often not transparent and not based on scientific understanding of what is required for a sustainable society.
  • This leads to confusion and frustration by the businesses being evaluated, the investors and decision makers trying to evaluate performance, and in fact everyone on the planet who has a stake in business’ ESG performance.
gold_standard workshop

Bob Willard in Toronto, discussing the Gold Standard Benchmark for Sustainable Business

Imagine if…we were able to co-create with the scientific and business communities a set of transparent ESG criteria, indicators and benchmarks that defined a truly sustainable business; one that creates positive social, ecological and financial value. Furthermore, imagine if these criteria were used by raters and rankers to evaluate and share ESG performance so that investors could have a clear idea about who the best performing businesses were, and therefore, were better informed about where to place their capital. What could that mean? We think it could mean a lot.

This was the context for the “Towards a Gold-standard Benchmark for Sustainable Business” workshop on September 11th. The workshop included representatives of the MaRS Centre for Impact InvestingCorporate KnightsSustainAbilitySustainalyticsB Lab, the UN Global CompactCBSRThe Natural Step Canada,  GlobeScan,  KPMG,  The Sustainability AdvantageEdward James Consulting, amongst others. Here is what happened at the workshop:

  • The first stage was to check-in with ourselves about the importance of the issue to society at large, to each of us as individuals, and also for the organizations we represented. We were essentially trying to get at the heart of the “why” for collaboration.
  • The second was to discuss “what” a Gold-standard Benchmark for Sustainable Business could look like (i.e. how would we know a truly sustainable business if we saw one?). For this, a set of working notes were sent to the participants in advance that provided an early draft of what this could look like. As a group we discussed what was good (a lot!) what could be improved (a lot!).
  • This set the backdrop for the third stage, which was to explore “how” we could work together and who else needed to be engaged. Essentially, where would we go from here?

So, what did we take away from this workshop?

  • Excitement and enthusiasm! We are PUMPED about the possibilities. The synergies, enthusiasm and ideas that are already springing forth are tremendous. This is a story that we are proud to be a part of.
  • We have done great work (pat on back) and we have a lot to do (roll up sleeves). A couple of short-term emerging areas of action are to develop a proactive “engagement plan” to expand the circle of advocates and supporters, a further refinement and broad consultation for the Gold-standard Benchmark working draft, partnerships with raters and rankers to pilot the Benchmark, and a sustainable business model canvas to help businesses achieve Gold-standard performance. These are only the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, we also took away learning, learning and more learning about collaboration. Here are a few nuggets:

  • For social innovators, there comes a time when he or she just “can’t not” do something about the idea and issue. More than one of the participants felt like they had come to that place. This is when the magic happens.
  • At a certain moment, often after long periods of uncertainty, frustration, and confusion, the stars just seem to align and a pathway to change just seems to emerge. The right idea by the right people at the right time.
  • There is a lot of power in putting the issue in the centre. This is not about any single organization. It is about what we care about and how we can work together to address it. If people come together like this, it is not important who gets credit, just what needs to get done.

We are excited at the possibilities represented by the Gold-standard Benchmark for Sustainable Business and welcome your thoughts, ideas, and engagement. As always with these things we are learning as we move ahead and we look forward to sharing the next chapter in this story!

This article was originally published on the Natural Step Canada website
Pong Leung is a founding member of The Natural Step Canada. Before rejoining TNS in 2008, Pong was Program Director of the Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability graduate program at the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden.