System Change – The New Sustainability
June 2, 2022
System change is a large opportunity for the corporate and financial sectors. It soon will be an essential component of the most advanced corporate sustainability and responsible investing strategies.
These fields have become mainstream over the past 20 years. The global Sustainable/Responsible Investing (SRI) market is about $40 trillion. Corporate sustainability and SRI have provided many benefits to business and society. However, in spite of this good work, environmental and social conditions are declining rapidly in many areas. The invasion of Ukraine, climate change, political division and many other issues pose large and growing challenges. New sustainability approaches are needed to protect business, investors and society.
Current corporate sustainability and SRI largely are focused on helping companies to reduce negative impacts and address climate change and other problems. But these problems are symptoms. They cannot be resolved unless root causes are addressed. Flawed economic and political systems unintentionally compel businesses to degrade the environment and society. Companies often can increase profits by lowering negative impacts up to a point. Beyond this point, costs usually go up. If they continue to mitigate, they will put themselves out of business. This is a system problem, not a company problem.
Reductionist systems are the root causes of climate change and all other problems addressed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Improving them (system change) is the most important action needed to achieve the SDGs and sustainability.
System change is a critical business issue. Throughout history, all flawed human systems changed, usually by collapsing. Current systems compel companies to profit by harming the environment and society. This is not sustainable. System change is inevitable. Given rapidly growing global problems, it probably will occur soon.
The corporate and financial sectors have strong incentives to help evolve systems in ways that make responsible behavior the most profitable strategy. As the human economy expands in the finite Earth system, negative corporate impacts return more quickly to harm companies, often in the form of market rejection, lawsuits and reputation damage. Reducing impacts protects investors and companies. But most negative impacts only can be eliminated through system change.
The popular purpose-driven business approach models the higher-level thinking needed to evolve systems into sustainable forms. Under this approach, companies expand their focus from narrowly benefiting shareholders to broadly benefiting society. This is logical because they ultimately cannot prosper by degrading the environmental and social systems that enable business existence.
As it becomes clear that sustainability only is possible with system change, the most advanced corporate sustainability and SRI strategies will address it. Corporate system change leaders will attain the same benefits as current sustainability leaders. These include enhanced reputation and goodwill, improved stakeholder relations, increased market share, facilitated project development and market access, and enhanced workforce quality, all yielding increased profitability.
Effective system change requires a whole system framework and system change-focused investment approaches, such as Global System Change and System Change Investing (SCI), two concepts that my company advocates.
Global System Change
System change is getting increased attention in the corporate and financial sectors. A growing number of organizations provide system change-related services, such as helping to manage collaborative groups and develop government policy strategies. Whole system frameworks facilitate these services.
Global System Change is a whole system approach based on the interconnectedness of society. It provides the framework needed to develop the most advanced corporate and financial sector system change strategies. The approach provides a three-part system change roadmap for business and society. It describes sustainable society, the systemic changes needed to achieve it, and the actions required in all areas of society to bring about these changes.
Global System Change uses the laws of nature to identify the main characteristics of sustainable society. These laws have controlled all life on Earth for 3.8 billion years. They provide an objective reality framework for system change. They transcend human philosophies and biases, and thereby help society to move beyond debate into action.
The laws of nature are objective, observable requirements for a living system success at all levels. They include seeking balance not unlimited growth, producing no waste, and living on renewable resources. Abiding by these laws will completely determine the extent to which humanity survives and prospers on Earth.
The Global System Change roadmap identifies the most important systemic changes and actions. This provides a framework for developing effective corporate system change, sustainability, policy and collaboration strategies.
System Change Investing
SCI, which I developed in the early 2000s, is a new paradigm SRI approach. It largely shifts the focus from symptoms and company change to root causes and system change. The approach rates companies on system change performance and uses this research to guide investment decisions. SRI encouraged nearly all large companies to implement sustainability strategies. SCI uses the same mechanism to engage companies in system change.
SCI rating models range from introductory to full whole system. The Global System Change framework was used to guide a whole system SCI rating model. It is segmented into three categories – traditional ESG, mid-level system change (sector, stakeholder, environmental/social issue-level), and high-level system change (economic, political, social system-level).
Sample metric categories include system change strategy, business consciousness, public awareness and media campaigns, government influence activities, system change collaboration, addressing specific system flaws, supporting system change organizations and efforts, and system change results and benefits.
By focusing on root causes and system change, SCI provides greater sustainability benefits than conventional ESG approaches. This enables asset managers to attract new investment and position themselves as global SRI leaders.
SCI also can enhance investment returns. It assesses financially relevant systemic risks and opportunities that are not addressed by conventional ESG and financial analysis. More importantly, SCI ratings are strong indicators of superior management and stock market potential. System change is a complex management challenge. Companies that do well in this area are likely to outperform in other areas, and thereby earn superior returns.
SCI practically and profitably engages the corporate and financial sectors in the most important sustainability issue. It is one of the most powerful short-term system change strategies available to humanity.
It also is easy to implement. SCI expands current ESG analysis by adding a system change component. Financial institutions use enhanced ESG ratings to develop the same types of investment funds marketed through the same channels. The approach can be used with nearly all ESG strategies, including negative and positive screening, engagement, equity and debt, public and private, index, value and growth.
SCI will become a dominant form of SRI in the 21st Century and capture substantial share in the large and rapidly growing SRI market. System change is the new sustainability. It is essential for achieving the SDGs and protecting business, investors and society.
Frank Dixon is a sustainability and system change visionary, pioneer, innovator and leader. He saw 20 years ago that system change was the most important sustainability issue. As a result, he established Global System Change and developed the System Change Investing (SCI) approach. It provided the first model for rating companies on system change performance and integrating system change into corporate sustainability strategies. He also developed a true whole system approach to sustainability, described in the Global System Change books. It provides systemic solutions for all major areas of society. In the financial and corporate sectors, SCI offers the most advanced and effective sustainability strategies. Before writing the GSC books, Frank Dixon was the Managing Director of Research for the largest corporate sustainability research firm in the world (Innovest/MSCI). He developed ESG rating models and research processes that consistently provided superior investment returns. He advises companies, investors and governments, including Walmart and the US Environmental Protection Agency, on sustainability and system change. He has presented at many corporate and financial sector conferences around the world, and spoken at leading universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT and Cambridge.
Frank Dixon has an MBA from the Harvard Business School and is a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science.
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