The role of business in supporting sustainable development objectives has never been more important, says recently appointed CEO of the National Business Initiative, Shameela Soobramoney.

For about 16 years, I’ve been privileged to be deeply engaged in sustainability and the role of business and capital markets in achieving sustainable development. In that time I have seen the interest in the topic grow steadily and then, in the past five years or so, very rapidly. This rapid up-tick in interest follows the increasingly obvious signs of destruction of the natural environment and deepening social divides, which point to the flaws in the economic and financial models that are largely still being applied.

As a strategist by background, and with a strong leaning towards finance and capital markets, it became obvious to me early on that business needed to explicitly consider the pursuit of sustainable development as a key aspect of it strategic focus and alignment to the mitigation of risk and pursuit of opportunity.

The time is now

We have now come to accept that we operate within the confines of planetary boundaries and hence, if we are to ensure a stable planet and equitable society, growth objectives need to assessed against this reality. Growth – and the measurement of it – as we have pursued it until now, cannot continue into perpetuity without breaching critical tipping points of the ecological boundaries, as has been clearly shown by, among others, Earth scientist Johann Rockström at the World Economic Forum.

The science tells us that we have a window of opportunity to arrest the rapid declines we are seeing in key sustainability issues such as climate change and biodiversity, as well as social cohesion and equality. The key is to act now, and as far and wide as possible. Business will have a key role to play, even if just considered from estimates on how much financing is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2030 agenda. Estimates vary as being between US$3 trillion and $5 trillion needed per year, beyond what is already being spent. This will have to come from private capital. For this reason, the role of business in supporting the achievement of the aims of sustainable development has never been more important.

This is where I believe the NBI can play an even bigger role in helping drive collaborative action for the achievement of sustainable development, encompassing environmental and social sustainability while creating value. Many companies are undertaking their own commendable initiatives, no doubt. However there is much to be gained from the multiplier effect that collective action can have. Obvious immediate benefits can come from economies of scale and leveraging a solid base, rather than each entity doing a little and replicating structures in their own contexts.

My focus will be on “the art of the possible” and by this, I mean that we need to look at the world and business models using a lens of what sustainable models can look like – and then make a set of no-regret decisions now, which can help get us on that pathway. I am under no illusion that “business as usual” is unlikely to change overnight, and there are many entrenched perverse incentives and short-termisms that will require an entire systems change to shift.

Driving systemic change

However, if we have a view of where we can go, we have the opportunity to use that vision to drive current choices. If we know that the way of the future is circular and regenerative systems, then what are the things we can do now that are on the path to those models? How do we balance these against the current realities we face as a country with rampant unemployment, inequality and poverty? It is the answering of these questions that I intend to make my focus at the NBI. We can provide the knowledge base that can inform actions and recommendations for policy and other systems changes, and we provide the practical “on the ground” implementation projects that facilitate collaborative action to drive systemic change.

The NBI is home to the ground-breaking Just Transition Pathways project that was derived from an intense multi-stakeholder consultation process, and which offers pathways to net zero for every major sector of the economy. It makes the case that we can have a transition that is net jobs-positive if we make the right choices now. There is the opportunity to seed new industries aligned with a low-carbon future that both create jobs and make the country more competitive globally. The aim is to find implementable projects that bring the recommendations to life, and some of these are underway.

Towards a resilient, relevant economy

Closely tied to this is the work under the Economic Inclusion team of the NBI towards creating meaningful job opportunities for young people. The focus is both on immediate jobs to alleviate the very serious impacts of unemployment, as well a longer term view on green jobs. This work also focuses on SME development and has a cross-cutting impact across the other NBI work streams.

The Technical Assistance Maintenance and Development team are working on recapacitating the state from a skills perspective, and works from municipal level all the way up to departmental level. This work has carefully built up workable models based on deep trust between the parties in what is usually a public-private partnership approach.

I aim to work with my formidable team, and our stakeholder and member base, to build on the success of what is being done already. This will be rooted in a clear framework for assessing impact in a manner that answers to the challenges of the country – at the same time laying the foundation for a resilient, relevant economy that can help achieve the aims of restorative and distributive justice, as proposed in the Just Transition Framework of the Presidential Climate Commission.

Given my roots in finance, I have seen great opportunity to bring the financial sector into key sustainability challenges, as the markets can be a powerful force for good.

This is about investing in a future we want and need to co-create. Because if we don’t invest in the future we want, then the one we get will be worth infinitely less.

Shameela Soobramoney
National Business Initiative (NBI)

Shameela Soobramoney is CEO of the National Business Initiative (NBI), an independent coalition of the local and multinational businesses focusing on taking action to achieve social and environmental sustainability, underpinned by good governance.
Previously chief sustainability officer at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), Shameela has, inter alia, been a key contributor to the JSE’s work into climate change, the potential for a local market to trade in carbon credits and environment-related products, the development of a Green, Social and Sustainability bonds framework, impact investing, and the JSE’s sustainability, innovation and CSI strategies.
She has served as chair of the World Federation of Exchange’s (global) Sustainability Working Group, a member of the Strategy Group of the Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance (GISD), and chair of the Sustainable Finance Working Group of the National Treasury of South Africa. She is a non-executive director of the WWF (South Africa), and of the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA).
Shameela completed a Master’s degree in Sustainability Leadership (MSt) at the University of Cambridge and holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Pretoria, Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).