Revolutionary Sustainability

Today sustainability is on everyone's lips, maybe too much, with the risk of wearing out the concept. But are we really committed to a path of sustainable development? Do we really realize the implications of this turning point? 

A new phase in the struggle for sustainability goals has begun, and it is much bloodier than the previous one. Emmanuel Faber, who had made Danone one of the leading companies in the sustainable economy, was pushed to resign for sacrificing the economic interests of large shareholder funds in favor of environmental and social goals. German bank DekaBank, accused of giving misleading information about whether it was actually achieving environmental goals to investors, was sued for greenwashing. Cases of litigation over the balancing of economic, environmental and social interests are multiplying. Sustainability is beginning to move a mountain of money, and the suave pomposity that has accompanied us up to now is giving way to a very tough fight. The stakes are high: to avert the risk that having made the word sustainability an imperative will turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. The work of activists, politicians and intellectuals has ensured that today there is no political program or business plan in which the word sustainability is not at the center. That's great, but the risk is that when you open the box on which the word sustainability is written, you will find it empty. If this were the case, we would lose all the transformative and generative force we need to face the next challenges. 

Those who care about sustainability as a guarantee of prosperity for future generations must prepare to be radical and sectarian, to prevent the principle from being diluted and transfigured to the point of uselessness.

Specifically, it means being willing to include the notion of profit in the sustainability debate.

The issue is not so much that of promoting sustainability but that of choosing between two possible outcomes: a mannered, reporting, conservative, homologating sustainability, or a generative, transformative, inclusive and revolutionary one. The outcome is not a foregone conclusion and, unfortunately, today the signs are in favor of the first hypothesis. An example can be found in the metrics by which companies and financiers have decided to measure themselves in the environmental and social fields: the ESG criteria. Criteria that, under the pressure of standardization and homologation exercised by large consulting firms and multinationals, are risking to become empty certifications that have little to do with the value transformation of the economy.

There are four major open questions. The first is that historically these criteria are unbalanced toward the environment and still weak on social and inequality issues. The second is that they care more about the global than the local and risk creating a dangerous underestimation of community interests. Third, that standardization will tend to make them perfect for large companies and invisible to small and medium-sized enterprises. Fourth, that the criteria are increasingly swallowed up by a utilitarian narrative that "there's money to be made with ESG," which we hope is true but a little too crude to be with a transformative idea of sustainability.

This is not to say that Esg principles are not true, but that an interpretation of them will be decisive. One of the largest public intervention programs since the postwar period, all inspired by sustainability principles, is about to begin. Policy won't have to obsessively repeat the word, but choose which sustainability it wants to promote.