Sustainable development needs China

Jonathon Porritt was appointed chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission by Tony Blair in 2000 to drive forward the government’s sustainable development agenda. Here he talks to Matt Perrement about his work and ideas.

Today, it’s as though the whole world knows about sustainability. Civil society, governments, and large sections of the business community, all talk in terms of “sustainability” – a word now co-opted to so many other agendas that it risks being stripped of all real meaning.

“I blame Brundtland,” begins Porritt, taking me all the way back to the 1987 Brundtland report – written for the United Nations – which defined sustainable development as ’development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ If only she’d titled it sustainable economic development, rather than just sustainable development, which far too many people think of as another way of talking about the environment.”

But there’s still no alternative to ensuring that all future economic development, whether in the UK, China or anywhere else, is as sustainable as possible – from both an environmental and a social justice perspective, he adds.

 “It’s about changing the manner in which we create wealth. It’s to do with making fundamental changes to the economic system.”

Economic systems (and the need to reform them) underpin a lot of what Porritt has to say. To demonstrate that point, his latest book – “Capitalism As If The World Matters” – introduces “sustainable capitalism” into the cauldron of ideas.

“Capitalism really is the only show in town,” explains Porritt, “and it’s here to stay. Therefore we have to work with the system we have,” adding that more radical green demands, such as tougher targets for renewable energy, are undeliverable. But he insists that the principles of profit are reconcilable with environmental virtue through what he calls “solutions-based partnerships” and “working with the grain of human nature rather than against it” – principles he has espoused since the early 1990s after his departure from front-line campaign work for the environmental NGO Friends of the Earth.

The flesh and blood of Porritt’s new optimism is Forum for the Future, a non-profit organisation that he co-founded in 1996 to work with the corporate world (and others) towards precisely that goal – balancing profit with sustainability.

One decade on, Forum for the Future describes itself as “the UK’s leading sustainable development charity”, with 70 staff and more than 100 partner organizations, including such companies as BP, Unilever, BAA, ICI and BT. Many of their partners have recently been criticised by environmentalists for a variety of misdemeanors. So what is the value of engagement?

According to Porritt, “All of these companies are on a journey. For instance Unilever has spent years developing its approach to sustainable agriculture, and this is now working through their brands. Greater consideration is now given to where ingredients are sourced and how they are moved around the world.   

Despite his optimism, Porritt acknowledges that the process is slow.  “There is still a long way to go for most of our partners,” he confesses and is reluctant to single out any company for praise.  “On a scale of 1-10 [one being poor and ten being excellent] most of our partners are at about three; but without the benefit of engagement it would be even lower.”

Porritt also retains his enthusiasm for grass-roots activism, which he believes still has an important part to play in the wider environmental movement. “I left Friends of the Earth because I wanted a life-style change, not because I became disillusioned with it,” he says. The role, he said, consumed his life and left him little time for personal life.

Engagement, rather than opposition, will stand Porritt in good stead in China, where the government is circumspect about the role of civil society.  Corporate social responsibility, on the other hand, has official approval. The Forum’s work in the UK can, at least in broad terms, claim to influence the latter agenda.

“Without China on board – 20% of the world’s population – the whole vision of sustainable development will fall flat on its face,” says Porritt, who visits Hong Kong and Beijing in a whistle-stop tour that begins on Monday.

“I will be wearing three hats while I’m there – one to carry out engagements on behalf of the British government’s UK-China Sustainable Development Dialogue, another to promote the work of the The Prince of Wales’s Business and Environment Programme, which runs senior executives’ seminars in Cambridge, Salzburg, South Africa and the USA, and lastly to do some work in Hong Kong with the Swire Group (whose companies include Cathay Pacific) on climate change and corporate sustainability. It’s going to be busy!“

Homepage photo by © Rob Welham

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of the Forum for the Future, Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, Co-Director of The Prince of Wales’s Business and the Environment Programme and a Non-executive Director of Wessex Water. Jonathon is also author of “Capitalism As If The World Matters”, which was published in November 2005 (Earthscan), and received a CBE in January 2000 for services to environmental protection.