“Going, going…”: The long term sustainability impacts of short term focus

By Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Short-term thinking and acting has led to the current financial crisis, but has it precipitated a move to more long-term thinking in business & industry? This article discusses the tensions between short-term actions and long-term consequences on sustainable development, with a special focus on the internal challenges of embedding sustainability strategies in firms, using examples from the global food and beverage industry.

When it comes to the formidable challenges of sustainable development, are managers still inclined to say “I’ll think about that tomorrow…”, to quote the wayward Scarlett in the epic drama Gone with the Wind? Given the jarring shocks of the on-going financial crisis, itself an epic result of blindly short-term focus – are there any signs of a shift to the type of longer term business thinking that is also more favourable to sustainable development?


Shifting sands affecting sustainability

In any case, the last decade has seen a dramatic shift in economic power and markets. Whilst Europe and the United States struggle in self-created mire, some BRIC countries such as Brazil and China are looking rather better on the global economic stage, with in particular the Chinese sleeping giant living a new dawn as a major global superpower. However, with more and more people in such countries joining the ranks of consumers in an increasingly overcrowded world, such shifts have major sustainability implications.

The writing is unequivocally on the wall: at IMD business school in Switzerland, year on year research on the multiple trends affecting the business context indicate that sustainability is increasingly in focus as a key business concern for the foreseeable future.1 Yet, as one manager coined it: “As a company, if you don’t grow, you die, and that’s the main industry challenge around sustainable development.” Amidst the financial crisis, growth – and “shop ‘til you drop”, ergo consuming – is more than ever the order of the day for global business and industry. But we know scientifically and rationally that on a non-expanding planet, there simply are limits to growth.

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