Australia: Come so far, got so far to go

By Andrew Petersen, CEO, Business Council for Sustainable Development Australia

Published: 19 May 2021
Type: News

Sydney, 19 May 2021: Next week the Business Council for Sustainable Development Australia turns 30 years young! 

Originally this organization was called the Environment Management Industry Association of Australia (yes, really!) on 27 May 1991 under the leadership of Dr John Cole, the same day Paul Keating challenged Bob Hawke for the Labor leadership.

Founded almost a year before the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, the timing of its creation coincided with calls for major national action to address the environment both directly and indirectly.

  • Australia had only just signed on to climate targets at an international conference in Toronto in 1990.
  • Australia had also signed onto the Madrid Protocol which banned mining in Antarctica and set aside the icy continent as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science. Amid the gloom about the future as global warming grips the planet, the historic achievement in 1991 shows what is possible when Australia pulls out all diplomatic stops to advance the global environmental good. 
  • It was the start of the decade that saw the emergence of Aboriginal rights as seen in the High Court’s Mabo decision that overturned terra nullius in 1992 and its Wik decision of 1996 that (surprisingly to some) showed native title and pastoral leases can co-exist.
  • Also, in 1991, the Federal Government announced that a new system known as the Superannuation Guarantee would require employers to make a superannuation contribution on behalf of their employees from 1 July 1992.

To say that much of the Australian business community was engaged, let alone felt that it had a positive role to play in championing solutions to these issues, would be a bit of a stretch. But in those early days, this organization focused on raising awareness in the business community about the value and credibility of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda and the role that the environment management industry played in building strategies to address it. This was very much an awareness-raising process, one company at a time. Indeed, the concept of a roundtable in those days was limited to organizing a banquet for the 12 members at a Chinese restaurant in Sussex Street in Sydney. 

Under John’s leadership much of EMIAA's work throughout the 1990s was supported by companies interested in promoting the Australian environment industry as a potential new growth sector; a new opportunity for Australia and Australians to create value (although that term wasn’t used back then) for jobs, and investment and growth centred on environmental protection and restoration, particularly throughout Asia. Moreover we began to get momentum with multi-national companies and began to work outside of Australia, including building relationships with other like-minded organizations in our region, including those in Indonesia and Singapore. The organization also gave practical advice to companies on export opportunities through an innovative partnership with - what is now - Austrade, to identify, support and encourage investment in the market development of green products and technologies across what has now became well known as the Indo-Pacific.

As we entered the new millennium new CEO, Fiona Wain, took over the reins, and in 2001 the organization changed its name to Environment Business Australia to reflect a broader agenda and lay the groundwork for a more forward-thinking voice on the role of business in the Australian political landscape. Driven by this sometimes controversial and always energized CEO, EBA: 

  • Initiated a strategic plan in 2001 to expand the business debate about the need for smart policies and regulations that would put a price on the environmental and social consequences of unsustainable production, and
  • Developed and collaborated with key industry associations to establish Australia’s first national environmental conference and exhibition platform, called Eco-Forum; and
  • In a first for business NGOs, organized for their members to attend international climate and environmental conferences, including the UN climate conferences (and have done so ever since 1999) and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, to champion Australia’s business environmental and social leadership. This was unheard of at the time, Yet today it is standard practice of many industry associations.

By 2005, when we changed our name, yet again, to Sustainable Business Australia we had already moved to a platform of concerted advocacy and consensus building for the business case for environmental measurement, reporting and valuation – whether soil, water or carbon – as an economic imperative to address the externalities of market forces and set us up for Australia’s green growth. Again ahead of its time, SBA launched Australia's Choicea roadmap showing companies the compelling business case in how to play a purposive role beyond that of the 'shareholder to the exclusion of all else' narrative, and that forward looking companies view sustainability challenges as strategic drivers for business resilience, innovation, and growth.

The next few years were marked by feverish engagement by SBA leadership and members at the highest national level with Government (Prime Minister Howard, (then) Environment Minister Turnbull and Treasury (through Ken Henry and then Martin Parkinson) and then with Prime Minister Rudd, and Climate Minister’s Combet and Wong. Never partisan, and never afraid to champion the role of business as an agent of positive change, we tragically lost Fiona after her very brief (but fierce - you know Fiona!) fight with cancer in 2012.

By 2011, when I was appointed the CEO, this organization positioned itself to deliver a galvanize a much broader voice, impact and value to and for Australian business on sustainable development. 

This time it did so by connecting its purpose to that of global business leadership on sustainability. In 2014 it was invited by the now largest CEO-led business and sustainability organization, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), to assume the role of the Australian Partner in their network, taking it away from the Business Council of Australia after they had held it for 17 years. In that time it has spoken at the UN on business and human rights, led business delegations to successive international climate negotiations, and to this day continues to join with other NGOs (business, green and civil society) on championing the positive business role on advancing solutions around biodiversity, circular economy, climate and energy, as well as cities and mobility.

And, because it hadn’t done it for a few years, it changed its name to Business Council for Sustainable Development Australia (BCSDA), an organization which is now wholly part of a global business community of more than 65 similar organizations aligning, leveraging, and in Australia supports and galvanizes action and advocacy across more than 70 business, academic, public sector and philanthropic organizations and other non-government organizations, representing over representing 100,000 employees and 13 billion in turnover.

BCSDA has never wavered from its charter that business has a key role, responsibility, and opportunity to play as a positive force in delivering & scaling up sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges to collaborate to drive solutions, and advocate and raise awareness for action on a transition to a sustainable world. And now even more as we support business to align with the Sustainable Development Goals because they make sense for business and because business can bring innovation as it creates new industries, new possibilities and paradigms, enterprise and finance to make this a better world through the realization of the Goals. For all, so that no one is left behind. 

So that is a little bit about our past. What about our future? We find ourselves at a time in history where an aspirational, shared vision is more important than ever before. To transition towards and achieve truly sustainable prosperity, we need a clear picture of where we want to go, and a path to guide us there. To hear more about that you will have to come to the 2021 Fiona Wain Oration, 4pm – 5pm, 27 May 2021, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Register here

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