The foundations for sustainable development in Canada and globally have been laid. The federal government’s draft 2016-2019 Federal Sustainable Development Strategy outlines action to create a sustainable economy, protect the environment and enhance Canadians’ well-being for the next three years.
It aims to engage Canadians on their views about what a sustainable Canada looks like, what environmental sustainability targets we should aim for, and how we can best measure and report on them.
On a global scale, the United Nations has gone even further. At the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030.
Of course, many Canadian businesses adopted sustainable business practices years ago and several are world leaders in what they do. For example, nine Canadian companies are on the latest list of the 100 most sustainable companies in the world.
The annual Global 100 list is compiled by Toronto-based media and research company Corporate Knights, which ranks big firms based on their environmental and corporate governance performance.
Nancy Wright, COO of Globe Series, whose most recent conference in Vancouver earlier this year focused on sustainability and innovation, says sustainable business practices help mitigate risk, satisfy stakeholders, and increase employee engagement and retention.
“S&P 500 companies that build sustainability into their core strategies are outperforming those that fail to show leadership,” she says. “It’s not just about switching to renewables and decreasing energy load, though. It’s a core suite of leadership strategies that result in a high-performing company.”
But as admirable as these achievements of Canada’s sustainability leaders may be, Tima Bansal, Ivey Business School’s Canada Research Chair in Business Sustainability, believes Canada as a whole has a lot more work to do to improve its overall sustainability performance.
“Canada’s ecological footprint is fifth worst in the world. Now, you could say that this position reflects individual’s performance and not businesses, but it’s business that fulfills individual’s resource needs,” she says.
Dr. Bansal adds while it’s difficult to know how sustainable Canadian businesses are as a whole, the data indicate that Canadians themselves are not.
“There a misperception. Because we have so much bio-capacity and so much land that we believe we’re green, but we’re not,” she adds. “Having said that, I think Canadian businesses and Canadians care about these issues, even though we don’t act as responsibly as we might think, and that means we have a great opportunity to improve.”
Ms. Wright says Canada’s ranking on the global sustainability scale depends of what’s measured.
“We don’t rank well for greenhouse gas emissions or CO2 emissions from energy production, and we’re not particularly energy or water efficient thanks to our abundance of natural resources,” she says. “We simply have not had to conserve resources like other countries in Europe, for example.
However, Ms. Wright says there’s a definite case for implementing government policy and incentives, and catalyzing innovation to reduce emissions in the oil sands and other heavy emitting industries and ultimately switch away from the use of fossil fuels.
Canada may have a long way to go to improve, but Dr. Bansal believes that Canadian businesses can be at the frontier of sustainable change. However, she cautions that there’s no silver bullet to achieve sustainability quickly and easily.
“The challenge is that we don’t really know what sustainability entails,” says Dr. Bansal. “In simple terms it means we must ensure that the needs of future generations are not compromised by meeting the needs of present generations. But it’s complex. There are lots of moving parts and no simple answers. But this gives Canada the opportunity to take lead the innovations that will lead global change.”
For Ms. Wright, a defining business challenge of the 21st Century will be unlocking the ingenuity of industry, governments, cities and communities to finance new, advanced, and more resilient infrastructure, promoting ultra-low environmental impact for sustained, equitable and diversified economic growth.
“Addressing this challenge requires a huge influx of capital, utilizing new and creative investment sources and mechanisms,” she says. “Governments can’t do it alone, so finding these innovative financing mechanisms is key to not only a vastly reduced emissions profile for Canada, but for creating high quality jobs for decades to come.”
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