THOUGHT LEADERS : Innovate or Fall Behind

In the latest great philosophical and scientific debate, the bulk of the New Zealand public have finally admitted that climate change is happening. But rather than accepting this and moving forward on how we address it, some are trying every trick in the book to actually avoid having anything to do with it.
The former climate change deniers are now taking two main approaches. One is that we shouldn’t try and stop it, but adapt to it. The other is that yes we should do something, but only after everyone else has done something first.
Climate change is happening. Human activity is probably not the only cause, but it’s certainly factor. The majority of world scientists agree, just look at the Millennium Ecosystem report, and more and more evidence is emerging all the time. We’re starting to feel the impact of it – and if projections are right this will get significantly worse.
There will always be some scientists who disagree, and some evidence they can point to. The world is like that, things aren’t clean and simple and 100 percent right or wrong.
Those who have tried to deny climate change is happening are by and large those who are now saying we shouldn’t do anything about it – at all, or at least not yet.
So let’s address their two approaches.
Firstly adaptation. Of course we will have to adapt – we always have and will. Even if we stopped climate change tomorrow, there would still need to be adaptation.
So what would it look like? I suggest it would look like all the things followers of the status quo are inherently uncomfortable with – renewable green energy, better public transport infrastructure, sustainable housing, organic and locally grown foods, better and more sustainable design options, businesses that plan for the long term and build strong connections with stakeholders, emphasis on preventative health care rather than fixing people when they’re sick, more integrated and diverse communities.
Given this, there is no conflict between trying to prevent climate change and adaptation. The adaptation argument as presented by climate change deniers is actually code for doing nothing at all and is in fact terribly reactive. It means waiting for the problems to hit us – the spread of diseases, crops failing, major trading ports facing rising sea levels, more storms – and only then doing something. Sound sensible?
The global insurance industry doesn’t think so – that’s why it is changing how it views risk. I’d venture that any major trading port is considering how it would counter rising sea levels. This isn’t adaptation to something that has happened, it’s being prepared for the future – it’s looking at how you can be sustainable.
What about the ‘we should only do something after everyone else has’ argument, most recently put forward by the New Zealand Institute. What stunning bit of business advice. I bet if you paid consultant to come and provide strategic advice to your company, and they said just do what everyone else has done, after they’ve done it, you wouldn’t be paying their invoice.
Of course there are problems with doing things first, with being an early adopter. Of course there will be mistakes and dead ends. That’s what happens when you innovate. We hear time and time again that successful businesses are those that can make mistakes, learn from them, and change. New Zealand is heralded as nation of innovators, so how can this possibly sit comfortably with us?
What the New Zealand Institute is suggesting is that we should choose to be left behind in significant change in society and that we abandon business opportunity. We know New Zealand will not succeed in the international market place by being mass commodity producer targeting the lowest cost markets. We know we need to innovate, find niche markets, brand ourselves, and highlight our unique selling points, protect and build on our ‘clean green’ image.
It’s time we stopped viewing the climate change challenge as cost. The Stern Report provides the economic argument that early action saves in the long run, but more it provides global market opportunities for low-carbon technologies and should be an inspiration to our businesses. Yes it will cost money to change. But it’s an investment in our future, both in its own right and as massive business opportunity.
The New Zealand Institute is representing the ‘business as usual’ viewpoint in this debate. Smart businesses are taking different approach. The Sustainable Business Network has experienced significant growth in the past year. More and more businesses are choosing to go carbon neutral, adopt environmental accreditation and practices, and design sustainable products. More and more are working with their communities.
These are not minor ‘lifestyle’ and ‘liberal’ businesses either. They are some of our largest companies, as well as our smallest. They come from all sectors of the economy.
These businesses are not choosing to get left behind. They are choosing to face climate change and the sustainability challenge by not following only once everyone else has done something, but by innovating, changing their practices, and seeking new business opportunities.
This is the real future for New Zealand business and our country.

Rachel Brown is chief executive of Sustainable Business Network.

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