Interview with Geoff Kendall, Co-founder, CEO of Future-Fit Business and speaker at SB’15 Barcelona

Geoff-Kendall

What is Future-Fit Business? What is its origin?

We think of a future-fit business as one that can prosper on an ever more crowded and resource-constrained planet, while helping – rather than hindering – progress toward a flourishing future. Everyone would probably agree that this is a sensible thing to aim for. But the big question is: how would we know a future-fit business if we saw one?

My co-founders and I realised there was no answer for this. And that’s why we started work on the Future-Fit Business Benchmark.

When it comes to corporate sustainability, you speak of a big gap between awareness and action. Could you explain a little more why this has become a problem? Is being aware of the problem not the first step towards the solution?

Awareness is indeed the first step towards action, but given the urgency and scale of the problems we as a society face, we need to be thinking way beyond the first step!

Very few companies are acting with sufficient urgency. Part of the challenge is that society’s problems can seem too big or abstract or far away for any one company to address. That’s why we need to help business leaders understand what they can – and must – do, and why.

We believe strongly in the relationship between sustainability and business, but how can you convince the stragglers? What kind of direct business benefits does sustainable performance have?

It’s really quite simple: companies don’t exist in a vacuum. They rely on a functioning economy, which in turn must be underpinned by a healthy society.

Our traditional business models have placed tremendous strain on the natural processes that society depends upon: so much so, in fact, that we’re seriously damaging Earth’s life support systems. And when that happens, society suffers, and so does the economy. So doing everything possible to ensure that business activity does not undermine societal wellbeing is just good sense.

Any so-called business leaders who only consider ‘being sustainable’ if they can see a short-term profit in it are missing the point.

Governments have been too slow to respond to the systemic challenges we face, but they will catch up eventually. And on issues as diverse as greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity and fair taxation, when new legislation does finally arrive, any company that has been failing to prepare itself will likely fail quickly. In contrast, any business that has taken steps to make itself future-fit has a good chance of becoming even more profitable.

Why have you decided to use the term “flourishing” instead of “growth”? How does a company flourish?

“Growth” can be a problematic term, because a lot of people think of it only in the sense of something ‘getting bigger’. The reality is more nuanced: some types of growth are good (e.g. growth in opportunity), but others are not (e.g. growth in the use of fossil fuels). So we avoid the term. Instead our vision is of a future in which everyone on Earth can live rewarding lives and fulfil their potential. That’s what we mean by “flourishing”.

How is a business “future-fit”?

To be future-fit a company needs to reach or exceed a number of future-fit goals – minimum thresholds of social and environmental performance, as dictated by science. If a company has not reached every goal, it isn’t doing its fair share to ensure the possibility that humanity can flourish on our finite planet forever.

Why do you think there is a need for a “Future-Fit Business Benchmark”?

Anyone who works in the sustainability space as heard of the “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental and social performance. But if you think about it, the economic dimension is the only one where we really know what to aim for: companies must make more money than they spend. This is the “breakeven point” that marks the difference between being ‘less bad’ (losing money) and being ‘good’ (making a profit).

Until we know what to aim for on the environmental and social dimensions, how can we measure how well a company is doing? What is the minimum any company needs to do in the long-term if it is to help – rather than hinder – society’s progress toward a flourishing future?

That’s why we need the Future-Fit Business Benchmark: to define what the goal line is. Until we do that, it’s not surprising that companies struggle to understand where they need to focus, and why.

We have many indicators to measure how well a business works, the benefits it receives, the return on investment… But how can a company measure how sustainable it is? Indeed, how can a company measure the benefits of being more sustainable, or for example the positive impact caused by their actions?

That’s exactly what the Future-Fit Business Benchmark seeks to address! 🙂

This is an open source project and we would welcome feedback on where we are up to so far. Our first public draft is available for comment at futurefitbusiness.org.

You say that corporate sustainability is usually measured in one of three ways: relative to a baseline year; relative to peers (best practice); or relative to the company’s own short-term targets. Are these three ways incorrect or insufficient? “Best practice” versus “necessary practice” especially caught our attention: why is this important?

Understanding what current best practice is can be useful – but only to a point. It helps companies see how they are performing relative to their peers, but on many social and environmental issues, today’s best practice is a lot worse than the minimum level of performance we need to attain if we are to stop degrading the social and natural capital we depend upon. So “best practice” is still really bad!

The danger with metrics that focus only on best practice is that you spend all your time worrying what other companies are doing, and none of your time focusing on where you need to be. That’s why we need a new kind of metric, to keep companies focused on the destination, by enabling them to measure the gap between current performance and necessary performance.

You define future-fit performance via a collection of goals. How should a company begin to address these goals? And which are, in your opinion, the ones to address first?

The first thing any company needs to do is look at every future-fit goal in turn, and to think about whether each one seems possible. If it seems like a particular goal could never be achieved, then it’s probably because to reach it would require a radical change to the company’s current business model. It’s these ‘impossible’ goals that the company should focus on, because they are the ones most likely to pose the biggest risks – and opportunities – in the future.

But this is something every company must think about for itself: a future-fit goal that might seem easy to one company might seem impossible to another, because every business is different.

How do you measure the current state of a company vs. how it should be? For example, could a company using your tools to say that it is 75% toward the goal of using only recycled or sustainably-produced materials?

That is certainly our intention, yes. We are currently developing the key performance indicators that will allow progress toward each future-fit goal to be measured in numerical terms. Some of these are very complex, but we intend to publish a full suite of KPIs – one for each future-fit goal – later this year.

Why do you think events such as Sustainable Brands Barcelona are important?

Sustainable Brands brings together people who want to make a difference, to both their organisations and the world as a whole. The potential for learning is huge when you bring together people with the same aims but from very different contexts, and that’s what Sustainable Brands enables. It is great to see the event coming to Barcelona, because making ideas ‘work’ in practice – even the biggest and best of them – depends upon understanding the regional context. This is a unique opportunity for brands in Spain and Europe-wide to learn how to take their sustainability work to the next level.

What would you like to see as an outcome of this international event, and what result do you want most?

I hope to see all attendees challenging themselves to explore the biggest, boldest, and best contribution they can make to help us make progress toward a flourishing future. And I would love to hear from anyone who would like to use – and help us develop – the Future-Fit Business Benchmark! 🙂