This essay featured in the January 2023 edition of The Catalyst, The B Team's monthly newsletter. Learn more and subscribe to receive leadership insights, advocacy opportunities and conversations between business and civil society leaders exploring a better way of doing business for people and planet.
At The B Team, an important year is upon us: our 10-year anniversary. Co-founded by Jochen Zeitz and Sir Richard Branson, our global collective of business and civil society leaders came together in 2013, united in the belief that the private sector can, and must, redefine its responsibilities and metrics of success. Our founding members imagined a “Plan B” for business: concerted, positive action to position business as a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit.
Ten years on, we remain committed to change that begins “at home” in our own organizations. We also advocate for economic systems change, leveraging our collective voice where we believe we can help shift norms and make a meaningful difference.
The world is a decidedly more complicated place in 2023 than it was in 2013. We are living and leading through a polycrisis, making it harder to see or hear the good stuff happening around us. But big wins are underway that give me cause for stubborn optimism as The B Team steps into our anniversary year, determined to be 10 times bolder in our approach.
I’m not trying to project some naive hopefulness, believe me, but there are green shoots of progress that demand our attention — signals of hope that we can catalyze bold ambition and brave action in the critical years ahead. Future generations are counting on us — and they belong at the leadership table as decisions are made that will shape a future they stand to inherit.
With that, here are 10 reasons why I remain optimistic, while also clear eyed, about the challenges we face and the transformation needed to tackle them.
Leaders are awake to the interconnected crises of climate breakdown, nature loss and inequality. Backlash and intransigence abound, driven primarily by moneyed interests and those who cling to the old power playbook, but the reality of the challenges we face has fully sunk in. Responsible business leaders recognize the need to act boldly and collectively on behalf of the well-being of people and the planet. We must solve these crises together, or we will fail to solve each and every one of them.
The United States is investing in climate action at scale and catalyzing a race to the top. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law last August, represents the single largest effort to combat climate change in the nation’s history. I’m not interested in overstating America’s role in the world, but there’s no denying that US climate leadership today is truly transformative (and prompting expectation in Europe of similarly bold investment).
Innovation and adoption of renewable energy generation is occurring at a rapid pace. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof vividly captured this trend in an optimistic New Year’s Eve column. Here’s just one example: “Solar power capacity around the world is on track to roughly triple over the next five years and overtake coal as the leading source of power globally.” Let’s double down on this progress.
With Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine as backdrop, the economic and geopolitical benefits of the clean energy transition are plain to see. The rising affordability of renewable energy and emerging clean energy technologies is something we cannot ignore, particularly amid a geopolitical crisis, cost-of-living struggles and looming global recession. A just transition to clean energy will not happen overnight, but Putin’s war has strengthened international resolve: the exploitation of oil and gas as tools of war must no longer be tolerated.
Negotiators secured a "Paris Agreement for nature" at CBD COP15, the UN biodiversity conference in Montréal in December. This is a really big deal. The final language lacked the bold ambition that many, including myself, craved, but there’s no denying the historic nature of the agreement. Political and business leaders are focused on the interconnectedness of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss — and what must be done to avert global catastrophe.
The justice, equity and intergenerational dimensions of climate change are increasingly understood, and increasingly in the spotlight. Al Gore offered passionate remarks in Davos last week, highlighting the injustice of saddling future generations with an uncertain future: “There’s another divide between those who are old enough to be in positions of power and the young people of this world. Young people around the world are looking at what we’re doing. There’s a lot of ‘blah, blah, blah’ as Greta [Thunberg] says. We are still failing badly.” Gore’s words are a bitter pill to swallow, but he’s not wrong — and it’s a positive development that leaders of his stature are giving space to the fears and frustrations of young people. At The B Team, we are bringing youth leaders to the table through intergenerational dialogue and design. It is my belief that today’s CEOs and policymakers must go beyond listening, beyond box-checking and meaningfully involve young people in the decisions that will impact and shape their future.
The future of work is here, and worker well-being is front and center. If you’re like me, you’ve grown weary of the conveyor belt of “future of work” thought pieces that populate business media outlets and LinkedIn feeds. But the truth is progress is afoot, shaped in part by the global disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, we are still grappling with the profound ways in which artificial intelligence is impacting business operations, job security and the modern workplace. And yes, mass layoffs in tech, finance and elsewhere are dominating recent headlines. But at the macro level, I perceive a big shift toward placing humanity at the heart of business purpose. More and more, business leaders are prioritizing flexibility and wellness resources for workers. A new report from Deloitte affirms that workers are assuming “greater influence and accountability for organizational and societal outcomes.”
New workplace norms are being shaped by greater participation from women leaders, people of color and the next generation, who imbue a deeper sense of humanity into corporate leadership. For the first time, more than 10% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. Progress is slow — painfully slow — but the corporate world is catching on: Gender-balanced leadership accelerates innovation, reduces risk and improves business performance. More broadly, the rise of women, people of color and next generation professionals in C-suites and board rooms is driving a shift toward workplace cultures that emphasize purpose and principles, promote autonomy and elevate the role of critical “soft skills” — creativity, teamwork, compassion — in the workplace.
We are “righting the rules” at speed and scale, raising the bar on corporate governance for a future built on transparency, trust and accountability. Responsible business is about measuring things that matter, and CEOs and investors are uniting behind common standards for sustainability. B Team leader Emmanuel Faber is carrying the torch as the inaugural chair of the International Sustainability Standards Board, which is developing a global baseline for sustainability disclosure standards. Launched at COP26 in Glasgow, the ISSB is providing investors with decision-useful information about companies’ sustainability risks and opportunities.
The ESG backlash is a rising political force, but it rings hollow to business leaders. Politics tends to consume these days; thankfully, more and more business leaders are ignoring the noise and leading responsibly. Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey hit the nail on the head in Alan Murray’s CEO Daily on Monday: “If ESG becomes toxic as a phrase, which it basically has in the U.S., it doesn’t matter to me. I’m just going to stop saying ‘ESG.’ But the idea that for my basic product, I want to be water positive, I want to have a circular economy on my packaging and I want to grow our business with less sugar — you can call it anything you like, but no one with common sense says those are bad ideas."
The greatest transformation of our lifetimes is underway. This moment demands leadership that is inclusive, transparent, urgent and boldly collaborative. Business leaders: you can choose to be at the tip of the spear of needed, positive change, or you can embrace change as an early adopter. Or you can be left behind. The old maxim applies today, more than ever: Adapt or die. Here’s a useful, if unsettling, reminder: Only 49 companies from the original Fortune 500 list (in 1955) remain.
Positive change is afoot, and business leaders are reevaluating the priorities most dear to them. Let’s commit ourselves to measuring what truly matters and consciously create sustainable value for all stakeholders. Let’s also commit to bringing the next generation of leaders to the design and decision-making tables — not only to give space for their voices, but to embrace their value and values as we co-create the future we need and they deserve.
In 2023, who we choose to be will have consequences for generations to come.