Business insights from Laudato Si’
(Vatican Radio) Among those at the presentation of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’ was Dr. Carolyn Woo, CEO and President, Catholic Relief Services and former dean, Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame.
She was there to give insights for the world of business.
“The market alone cannot solve environmental problems,” said Dr. Woo. “Likewise, technology can bring great benefits, but also great costs as it allows those with knowledge and resources to dominate humanity and the entire world. So business must focus on the creative elements of technology, but always linked to humility and service.”
The full text of the presentation of Dr. Carolyn Woo is below
Dr. Carolyn Woo, CEO and President, Catholic Relief Services and
former dean, Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame
Laudato Si’ –Be Praised
Reflections for the Business Audience
Dr Woo notes that her presentation was prepared in close collaboration with Dr Anthony Annett, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Advisor, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Earth Institute, Columbia University; and Religions for Peace, who is therefore to be considered as the co-author of this contribution.
1. The encyclical draws its name from St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures reminding us that earth is our common home and that our bodies are made of her elements, we breathe her air and draw nourishment from her gifts.
2. The framing question asked by Pope Francis in his encyclical is a simple one: “what kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up”? This question surely resonates with everyone in the world. It resonates with me as a mother. And it resonates with me as one who draws on business as a partner to eliminate poverty and as an educator of business practitioners. It is from the perspective of business that I speak today.
3. The questions Pope Francis poses to the readers, “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts?” are not different from the mission and vision statements that businesses formulate to define their purpose and to gain legitimacy from society, commitment from employees and support by customers.
4. The message of this encyclical to the business world is a profoundly hopeful one as it sees the potential of business as a force for good whose actions can serve to mitigate and stop the cumulative, compounding, irreversible catastrophic effects of climate change driven by human actions.
5. The encyclical affirms that business is a noble vocation, geared toward improving the world. As the pope says, “it can be a source of prosperity….especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good”. Pope Francis also calls for an economy that favours “productive diversity and business creativity”. He specifically mentions the important role played by small businesses, the importance of diversified production, the need to restrain monopolistic elements that constrain economic freedom, and the need for good governance and the rule of law. So there is a positive role for business, but business must put the common good first.
6. Lest there is the temptation to dismiss the encyclical as ungrounded in evidence, note the extensive work and consultation by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, and Pope Francis’ urging that “science is the best tool by which we can listen to the cry of the earth.”
7. One of the principal themes in this great encyclical is that all life on this planet is connected, bound together. Human life is grounded in three fundamental and intertwined relationships : with God, our neighbour and the earth. When one of these relationships is damaged, then the others are damaged too. So there is a connection between how we treat the planet and how we treat the poor. As Pope Francis puts it, we do not have two separate crises, social and economic, but “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental”.
8. Yet we have not treated our common home well—this is a key message of the encyclical. When it comes to the earth, we should think of ourselves as stewards rather than owners—tenants of God, as it were. The encyclical refers to the concept of the “global commons,” i.e. the tangible and intangible assets that belong to all of human kind across all generations for human flourishing. Examples of these include water, air, biodiversity, culture, genetic materials. The encyclical speaks of the loss of biodiversity that forever changes our eco-system and reminds us that diverse species are not just exploitable resources by humans; they have an inherent value in and of themselves: “……each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous.” And the pope has rightly noted that business interests have too often been unkind to these ecosystems.
9. The correct response, according to Pope Francis, is a true “ecological conversion” involving business as a part of the solution.
10. What does that mean in practice? Gleaning from the encyclical, it means adopting the virtues of solidarity and sustainability, oriented toward the common good and the true development of all peoples. This has a number of practical dimensions.
11. First, over-reliance on market forces or technology deployment overlooks integral human development and social inclusion and “masks the deepest problems of the global system.” Markets can support human flourishing, but we must avoid excessive reliance on its “invisible force” or be swayed by “magical conceptions” of it. The market alone cannot solve environmental problems. Likewise, technology can bring great benefits, but also great costs as it allows those with knowledge and resources to dominate humanity and the entire world. So business must focus on the creative elements of technology, but always linked to humility and service.
12. Second, we are also reminded that job creation is possibly the greatest responsibility entrusted to business—it is a sacred trust, and must always be prioritized. The right to work is fundamental—it not only provides income security and a decent standard of living, but also dignity, meaning, and fulfilment. This is an idea that business should warmly embrace.
13. Third, Pope Francis speaks forcefully of the dangers of short-term thinking and a selfish mindset. He denounces what he calls a “misguided anthropocentrism”—which leads people to elevate selfishness and short-termism to a virtue. If something doesn’t serve your immediate self-interest, it is deemed irrelevant. And short-term profit is seen as the only yardstick of success. But this is ultimately self-defeating. As the pope says, “to stop investing in people, in order to gain short-term financial gain, is bad business for society”. And I would add: “bad business for business too”!
14. This is especially problematic when it comes to the financial sector. Pope Francis is emphatic on this point: he condemns what he calls the “absolute power of the financial system”, and notices that “finance overwhelms” the real economy. Given our experience of the global financial crisis, I think the vast majority of economists would agree with this assessment. And business should agree too—they also suffer from the uncertainty and lack of confidence brought about by financial instability.
15. Fourth, in line with what Pope Francis says in this encyclical, businesses are realizing that they need to account for all costs involved in production, not just “a fraction of the costs involved”. He notes that both politics and business have been slow to respond to environmental challenges, but I think this is changing. Working against the pressures of short term profits, a movement in the business sector has emerged over the last decades for the adoption of the triple bottom line which adds the advancement of people and care for the planet as equally important objectives to challenge the primacy of short term profits. Various stock indices, regulatory bodies, consultancies, measurement approaches and reporting protocols have sprung up to provide incentives, targets, guidelines and expertise for implementing the triple bottom line. Correspondingly, we now have means to estimate the cost of an organization’s carbon emission and provide incentives for its reduction. More businesses need to be actively engaged in the kinds of “environmental impact assessments” called for by the encyclical. The Pope’s message adds urgency for widespread, deep and focused adoption of these practices.
16. Fifth, the encyclical is asking business to embrace the idea of sustainable development—to act on our concern for the environment and for future generations. He is critical of using economic growth as the sole yardstick of economic success. As he puts it, there can be no “infinite or unlimited growth.” Here, the scientists and economists would agree, as this kind of unbounded growth runs into important “planetary boundaries”—not only climate change, but also issues like ocean acidification, chemical pollution, ozone depletion, land use constraints, depletion of water resources, and loss of biodiversity. By embracing sustainability, business can help pay the “ecological debt” that Pope Francis claims exists between developed and developing countries.
17. Sixth, business should not shy away from any of this. Investing in sustainability is another “win-win” opportunity for business. As Pope Francis says, “efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term”. He goes on to say that “more diversified and innovative forms of production which impact less on the environment can prove very profitable”. This is not just conjecture—it is borne out by solid analysis and research. Numerous studies have provided estimates of astronomical costs associated with coastal disasters as water level rises, drought and storms that devastate agricultural production, or loss in productivity due to growing days of extreme heat and health crises due to pollution.
18. Seventh, a human-centered approach based on the principles of inclusive development can create better economic growth and better economic conditions—growth that benefits the many, not just the few; growth that strengthens local communities and builds resilience; growth that increases substantive freedoms and aids human flourishing. This is not just a dream or empty ideal but serve as operational goals of the global community including the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (to be released in September 2015) and the World Bank’s top priorities for the elimination of extreme poverty and reduction of income inequality.
19. Eighth, in addition, business can play a role to assist customers to become responsible consumers. Design and production that minimizes waste by utilizing renewable energy sources, improving efficiencies, enabling recycling, reclamation and re-use provides new opportunities for businesses as these enable consumers to do their part.
20. Today, more and more consumers and investors are holding business to a higher standard. They want business to be ethical and to practice sustainability. And it is the job of business to listen to the people they serve. But Pope Francis also makes a point about authenticity, warning against reducing this important responsibility to mere “marketing and image-enhancing measures”. The virtues of sustainability need to be incorporated into core business practice and measurable outcomes.
21. Let me make one final point. This encyclical certainly affirms the important role that business will need to play, but Pope Francis is clear that we need partnerships between public and private sectors—as he puts it, “politics and economics in dialogue for human fulfilment.” Since both public and private sectors have the same goal, and are integrated into the same interconnected web of life, they need to work together in harmony. Sometimes that means business being more accepting of stronger forms of regulation, especially in the financial sector. It also means business getting fully on board with the new Sustainable Development Goals and the need to take action to combat climate change.
22. At the end of the day, business is a human enterprise and must strive for true human development and the common good. In the years ahead, the challenges will be large. How can we develop the technologies so that we can move to a zero-carbon economy? How can we boost living standards of the developing world in a sustainable way and give all people the ability to live the lives God intended them to live? How can we make sure all have access to nutrition, energy, healthcare and education? These are huge challenges, but we must face up to them. The answer lies with all working together—governments, international institutions, businesses, NGOS, and religions. It lies in forthright and honest debate and dialogue. But it begins in the call to ecological conversation outlined so clearly in this great encyclical.
23. “What kind of world do we want to leave to our children?” If we stay focused on that question, we are on the right path.