Simon Zadek recalls his 20-year journey from Ethical Corporation contributor to chair of the Finance for Biodiversity Initiative

My introduction to sustainable business was at the age of 16, when I read The Sovereign State of ITT, an excellent piece of investigative journalism published in 1973 by Anthony Sampson. It revealed the business involvement of the then-powerful, US technology company with Nazi Germany.

Many years later, when working for the New Economics Foundation, I found my way back to the topic in the context of scandals focused on Nike and other companies operating in low-cost, global supply chains.

Amazing activists such as Maggie Burns, Lynda Yanz and Ineke Zeldenrust patiently educated me in the ways of the world, along with business insiders such as Nike’s Hannah Jones. The UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative, where I was the founding chair from 1997, was one of the first multi-stakeholder initiatives designed to address workers’ rights with a focus on voluntary social auditing.

My attempts to synthesis my practical experience was summarized in numerous articles, including regular contributions to Ethical Corporation, the first piece on sustainability and materiality, ‘Redefining Materiality’ with my partner, Mira Merme.

They were exciting days. In 1995, as auditor I signed off the world’s first, externally audited sustainability report released by a publicly listed company, The Body Shop.

AccountAbilility, which I founded in 1996, was one of a generation of new institutions promoting new approaches to corporate accountability, responsible in particular for the so-called AA1000 standard, for measuring and reporting not only impact but businesses’ inclusivity in engaging stakeholders. Five years later a coalition led by Ceres launched the Global Reporting Initiative, the world’s first, full-blown sustainability reporting standard.

In January of 2012 my family and I packed our bags and headed for China, inspired by a tenuous speculation that it would be this emerging superpower, rather than Wall Street or the City of London, that upturned global finance with future sustainability in mind.

Five days after arriving in Beijing, air pollution measured by PM2.5 hit 960. In that one day, green became a political issue in China

Five days after arriving in Beijing, air pollution measured by PM2.5 hit 960, the highest ever recorded. In that one day, green became a political issue in China. In the following weeks and months, I found myself anchoring an extraordinary, globally relevant experiment in considering what changes could be made to the core financial architecture to ensure that finance did its job in investing in a green, decidedly Chinese, future.

This unexpected turn of events in China was becoming visible by the time that myself, Mark Halle then at IISD and Mahenau Agha, a long-time UN player, presented to Achim Steiner, then the head of UNEP, a proposal to open a commission of inquiry about how to advance sustainability at the heart of global financial markets.

The UNEP Inquiry released its landmark report 18 months later at the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Lima, Peru. In front of a packed room, the panel laid out what has become the core approach to aligning global finance with sustainable development, especially climate.

And to dropped jaws, Yi Gang, then deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, announced that China would take the unprecedented step of taking green finance into the finance track of the G2O under its forthcoming presidency.

For three years, I ran the G20’s green finance work. Along the way, I spent a year with Amina Mohamed in her new role as the UN deputy secretary-general, helping to figure out what aspects of the sustainable finance agenda the UN’s leadership should champion, given the UN’s historic marginalisation (Bretton Woods institutions aside) from international economic and financial policymaking.

One of the outcomes was the creation of the high-level Task Force on Digital Financing of the SDGs. Its final report, People’s Money, released in mid-2019, highlighted the powerful potential for digital innovation to enable citizens to take their rightful place in the driving seat in aligning global finance with their future “sustainability” needs, as well as the importance of mitigating the many associated risks.

Today I am chair of Finance for Biodiversity (F4B), which is, as the name suggests, about making nature material in financial decision-making. This is a topic that has exploded on the world stage, most prominently at COP26 in Glasgow. Nature is the next wave, critical to addressing climate challenges, but also as the secret, under-priced sauce of the global economy, every last product, dollar and job.

Looking back, we have as a community of actors, whether policymakers, activists or business people, come a long way

F4B points to new spaces to work in, such as the relevance of anti-money laundering rules in addressing the role of the financial community in rewarding nature crimes, the merits of open-source data platforms in ensuring the wide availability of information on businesses’ nature dependencies and impacts, and the potential for tokenizing nature markets in generating revenue streams that are credibly linked to nature-positive outcomes.  

Looking back, then, we have as a community of actors, whether policymakers, activists or business people, come a long way over a quarter of a century, from when no listed company had a human rights policy, issued an audited sustainability report, or factored climate into their strategic and operational decisions.

Looking forward, the challenge is not so much our collective direction of travel, but the speed and scale of change that is needed to prevent our past, and often continued, errors, neglect and short-termism from leading to systemic changes that we can no longer tame.

Climate is the obvious case in point, as we hurtle knowingly towards a world of temperature rises of 2 degrees or more. Our challenge in this broader context is no longer merely to do better but to figure out collectively how we will live as a global community, and what kind of economy we need.

Simon Zadek is a former Ethical Corporation columnist and today chairs the Finance for Biodiversity (F4B) initiative.

Main picture credit: Wonderful Nature/Shutterstock


This article is part of the Winter 2021, and anniversary issue, of The Ethical Corporation. See also:

Celebrating 20 years of Ethical Corporation

Why business journalists need to challenge the ESG orthodoxy

In 20 years, Ethical Corporation hasn’t lost its pioneering spirit

‘Ethical Corporation has been a beacon of light in a sea of CSR dross’

Slim Pickens and wooden water pipes: Tales from a U.S. sustainability consultancy

‘By 2041, I suspect most major brands of today will be unknown’

To fight greenwash, brands need to become advocates for change

Nine business trends that will power us to a more sustainable future

Why all MBA graduates need to be part of the sustainability revolution

‘As climate change takes an increasing toll, it will be a case of adapt or die’

Hope for achieving the SDGs lies in a new generation about to take over the boardroom


New Economics Foundation  Finance for Biodiversity  nature-based solutions  Ethical Trading Initiative  UNEP 

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