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Today’s companies are seeking solutions to improve their environmental, social & governance (ESG) performance. However, the seeds of these solutions have been planted beyond company walls, in the communities in which they operate.

In the first half of 2020, when the world first engaged in battle against Covid-19, The Economist published a cartoon depicting planet Earth as a boxer in the ring, delivering a decisive jab to the jaw of its rather virus-like opponent.

Meanwhile, just outside the ring an angry-looking sun-person representing climate change — at least two weight divisions above the two fighters — leant on the ropes, waiting for its turn to spar.

Even though the cartoon deftly captured how terribly bad humans are at dealing with multiple threats, we were struck by a dark irony: that climate change was not the only threat relegated to the sidelines by the pandemic.

As of today, humanity has bludgeoned its way through at least five of nine planetary boundaries — the limits of our planet’s life-support systems beyond which lies a volatile, uncertain world. Climate change is only one such boundary. The other four are biodiversity loss, air pollution, land conversion (replacing natural ecosystems with mines, agricultural land, or urban areas), and nitrogen and phosphorous loading (introducing unnatural levels of these elements into the environment, which is linked to the use of fertilisers in large-scale agriculture).

SA’s role in these planetary trespasses should not be ignored. The Green Connection recently completed research into exactly how far we as a country have overshot our environmental boundaries. Our study concluded that SA has exceeded four out of the nine possible planetary boundaries. Air pollution is the most significant transgressor, amounting to four times the acceptable World Health Organisation standards in the few areas that are monitored. Although this data does not necessarily represent the entire country, the figure is nonetheless damning from both an environmental and a public health perspective.

The other planetary boundaries that have been exceeded are environmental nitrogen loading, which outstrips levels recommended by the scientific literature by 78%; registered freshwater consumption, which exceeds the available supply by 37%; and greenhouse gas emissions (climate change), which exceeds Climate Action Tracker’s allocated “fair share” for the country by 11%. That both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions can be linked to the country’s coal-hungry (yet highly unreliable) fleet of power stations is an indictment of the government’s energy policies over the past two decades.

At the same time, the country is falling short on all 14 dimensions of social development, with deprivation the most severe in the areas of voice, governance, and poverty, with employment not far behind.

All told, SA has never been further from operating within what Oxford economist Kate Raworth calls a “safe and just space for humanity”, in which every human has access to basic needs such as food, health, housing and an education while remaining within the planetary boundaries. (Her 2018 Ted talk on the concept, which she calls Doughnut Economics, has been viewed more than 4.6-million times to date and is worth 15 minutes of your time.)

What does all this talk of development goals and planetary boundaries have to do with business? It’s simple really: each and every business in SA is able to ply its trade only because it can obtain the necessary raw materials from the country’s natural resources (even if only water to flush the company toilets); because its employees are not routinely struck ill by polluted water and air; and because investors can be reasonably certain that their investments will not be destroyed by a category five hurricane or social unrest the next day. Yes, these risks exist, and we have seen some examples in recent years, but not to crippling levels. Not yet, anyway.

To keep these risks at bay, businesses and all of society need to look beyond small, tinkering actions. They need to look beyond installing solar panels to consider how localisation — buying from local producers and supplying local markets — can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by shortening supply chains, while still supporting healthy returns. They need to look beyond single-issue focus (only climate change related actions, for example) to consider how their operations and capital investments are affecting other planetary boundaries, such as air pollution, freshwater consumption and biodiversity loss. Although these might not be immediately evident, there are real risks to business associated with them, including ecological risks, liability risks, regulatory risks and reputational risks.

Businesses large and small need to look beyond company walls to proactively connect with the residents of SA, as these residents will be able to provide an early warning about the possible unanticipated negative consequences of business activities that should be reconsidered. Such information is the first step towards managing negative environmental effects and shifting to a more regenerative and sustainable way of doing business.

Companies need to look beyond the “corporate social investment approach” of patronage to treat communities as partners with an equal say in developing the rules for managing common resources such as land, water, the oceans and even information. This approach, known as commoning, will help ensure the equitable availability of resources for both business and the community, reducing the risk of future social upheaval.

What is being proposed here is a weaving of Raworth’s principle of Doughnut Economics with the strategies of localisation and commoning to achieve a wholly SA solution called Koeksister Economics.

Developed by The Green Connection, Koeksister Economics has to date helped communities plot a path towards more sustainable and equitable resource management. Now being launched as a tool for SA businesses of all sizes, it holds great potential to help companies improve their ESG performance in an integrated and balanced way that does not lose sight of the heavyweight bruiser waiting to take his place in the ring.

• Selomane is with the University of Pretoria and Hamilton with The Green Connection.

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