Vision 2050: A transformative call for all companies

Anna Triponel

March 21, 2021

A decade after members of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development launched its “Vision 2050” defining goals for the well-being of people and planet, it is clear that we haven’t yet moved past what the WBCSD calls the “turbulent teens” between 2010 and 2020. To move into “transformation time”—in which hard-won ideas and relationships would transform our businesses, economies and societies at scale—40 global companies across sectors have redefined the path to Vision 2050.

In short:

  • To tackle our unprecedented challenges (a climate emergency, nature in crisis and mounting inequality), we need to change the systems that have created these challenges
  • The changes made must be so profound that we can legitimately call them a transformation. There are nine transformation pathways that need to take place (in the areas of energy, transportation & mobility, living spaces, products & materials, financial products & services, connectivity, health & wellbeing, water & sanitation and food). Each of these pathways entail action areas for business to integrate the transformations in their corporate strategy, business operations and impact on society
  • This transformation in turn requires three shifts in strategic business mindsets: (1) reinventing capitalism to reward true value creation, not value extraction, (2) building long-term resilience and (3) taking a regenerative approach to business sustainability
  • These transformations are the only way we can reach a shared vision of a world in which more than nine billion people live well, within planetary boundaries, by 2050

We are still in the “turbulent teens”—what comes next?

  • In 2010, WBCSD initially introduced its vision for 2050 through a “collaborative effort by 29 WBCSD member companies from 14 industries, reflecting insights from more than 200 additional companies and external stakeholders in 20 countries.”
  • “The report outlined a pathway to achieve Vision 2050 that included two timeframes for action. 2010-2020 would be the “turbulent teens”, a formative period of dynamism and energy during which new ideas and approaches would emerge, compete and evolve, ultimately paving the way for “transformation time” from 2020-2050 – in which hard-won ideas and relationships would transform our businesses, economies and societies at scale.”
  • However, “[t]en years on, it is clear that the turbulent teens aren’t over. Transformation is eluding us. While many of the building blocks now exist, in the form of frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, change is not happening at the speed or scale required. As unprecedented global risks continue to build and we approach key ecological and social tipping points, we have a unique but rapidly closing window of opportunity for action over the course of the next decade. There is momentum to build on, but we must accelerate our efforts.”

Vision 2050 in 2021 and Beyond

  • Now, a decade later, 40 WBCSD member companies have revisited the initial 2050 goals set out in 2010 (see the full list of companies on page 5 of the report).
  • The report is based on “guidance from an external review committee of leading global thinkers, plus engagements with a wide range of stakeholders from throughout WBCSD’s global network.”
  • It establishes a “rearticulation” of a shared vision for 2050; outlines nine transformation pathways to achieve systems change; identifies foundational mindset shifts to underpin the systems transformations; and the “keys to understanding and unlocking transformation.”

We summarise the key points of the framework below (but we definitely recommend reading the full report which is a gold mine of information – and see also the newly launched Vision 2050: Time to Transform website here.)

Core Foundations of Vision 2050

Business leader align behind a shared vision of a world in which 9+ billion people can live well, within planetary boundaries, by mid-century

  1. People living well…

“By 2050, we envision a society in which:

  • People are free and equal in dignity and rights
  • There is health and happiness for all
  • Communities are thriving and connected
  • No one is left behind
  • People have access to a world of opportunities and aspirations”
  1. …And living within planetary boundaries

“By 2050, we envision a world in which:

  • Global warming is stabilized at no more than +1.5°c and clean air is available for everyone
  • The biosphere is protected and restored
  • Healthy land and soils are stewarded in an equitable and sustainable way
  • The oceans and cryosphere are protected and restored
  • The freshwater cycle is safeguarded, and clean water is available for all
  • Land, oceans, waterways and coastlines are free from waste and pollution
  • Natural resources are consumed sustainably
  • Nature is valued”

Taking Action to Achieve Vision 2050

  • “To achieve Vision 2050, business, government and civil society must change the systems that have created the challenges we now face – and change them so profoundly that we can legitimately call it transformation.”
  • The report outlines nine systems transformation pathways to achieve Vision 2050, summarised in the below diagram (Detailed goals and targets for each pathway, along with Business Action Areas, can be found in the report starting on page 26):

What is needed to achieve systems transformation?

Three “mindset shifts” are needed to achieve systems transformation:

  • Reinvention: “Reinvention means recognizing that our current system of capitalism is producing outcomes that are unsustainable. Generating long-term returns requires a transformed model of capitalism that rewards true value creation, rather than value extraction.” “True value, a concept developed in the original Vision 2050, is where social and environmental costs and benefits are internalized and reflected in the relative price of goods and services, and in companies’ P&L statements, costs of capital and market valuations.”
  • Resilience: “Resilience means enhancing business’ capacity to anticipate, embrace, and adapt to changes and disruptions in order to safeguard its long-term success.”
  • Regeneration: “Regeneration means moving beyond a “doing no harm” mindset to one in which we build the capacity of our social and environmental systems to heal and thrive.”

Moving past barriers to systems transformation

  • The report outlines a series of obstacles and trends that have kept us from accelerating progress on Vision 2050 and will continue to confound true transformation without a fresh approach:

So what can be done to move past these barriers?  WBCSD find that macrotrends, innovations and enablers combine to bring about transformation of systems:

When looking at transformation and its enablers, the report identifies “four important areas of interaction between business and the outside world: areas where business influence can help to create and shape markets, drive behavioral shifts and realize systemic change”:

  1. Innovation & Technology
  2. “Keeping social and environmental goals and outcomes top-of-mind throughout the innovation process”
  3. “Opening innovation up to make entire supply chains, industries and systems more sustainable and resilient”
  4. “Establishing effective technology governance mechanisms”
  5. “Getting people ready to work with new technologies”
  6. Finance & Investment
  7. “Understanding, developing, and utilizing sustainable funding opportunities”
  8. “Engaging with investors and providing them with the data they need to make informed decisions”
  9. “Advocating changes to the rules of the financial system”
  10. “Redirecting internal cash flows to more sustainable outcomes”
  11. Individuals & Consumption
  12. “Shaping cultural norms and aspirations about sustainability”
  13. “Making all choices good choices”
  14. “Supporting reduced waste and increased circularity”
  15. “Empowering people to fulfill their potential as agents of positive change”
  16. Policy & Regulation
  17. “Exceeding minimum standards”
  18. “Aligning all policy influence activities to corporate purpose statements and sustainability goals” (including on climate change, protecting nature, transitioning towards a circular economy, tackling inequality, and reinventing capitalism)
  19. “Becoming strategic partners in the policymaking process”
  20. “Using the innovative capacity of business to generate new policy ideas”

Read the full report here:  World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Vision 2050: Time to Transform (March 2021)

“Our world is facing three pressing global challenges: the climate emergency, the loss of nature and growing inequality. Each of them, on its own, can endanger the safe operating space for humanity and the planet, as well as the license to operate for business. And if there is one thing that we have all learned from the COVID pandemic, it is how interconnected these challenges are. We need a long-term vision that we can all rally behind: 9+ billion people living well, within planetary boundaries, by mid-century. Achieving this relatively simply worded vision requires a wholesale transformation of everything we have grown up with: energy needs to decarbonize; materials need to go circular; food needs to be produced sustainably and equitably and provide healthy diets.”                        

Peter Bakker, President and CEO, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Vision 2050: Time to Transform (March 2021)

“Historically, business has treated these enablers [of systems transformation—Innovation & technology, Finance & Investment, Individuals & Consumption, and Policy & Regulation] as areas it is influenced by, rather than acknowledging extensive – and often active – interdependence. Business can choose which technologies to unleash or embrace. Business influences demand just as much as demand influences business. Business can be more actively invested in creating new markets. And business has long sought to influence the policy environment it operates within. It is time to stop thinking about the way these areas constrain business, and instead focus on the influence that business can bring to bear on these enablers in support of transformation.”                      

World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Vision 2050: Time to Transform (March 2021)

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