There can be no real prospect of achieving sustainability without the active participation of the private sector.

In their own interests as much as the planet’s, businesses need to get much more serious about being sustainable. This space has already changed a lot over the last several years, out of a growing recognition of the central importance of sustainability to the future of business, but more needs to be done.

What we see beginning to happen – and what we need to see much more broadly – is an acknowledgement that sustainability in business is not just about reducing the immediate footprint of a company’s operations, essential though this is.

By thinking on a global scale, big things are possible. I see good things happening – and strong potential for more of the same – in three distinct areas.

The first is that companies need to be looking across their whole value chains – from their suppliers of raw materials through to the products they produce, their use, and disposal – to ensure things are as sustainable as possible. This breadth of vision opens up all kinds of opportunities to make a difference – opportunities that are simply not there if you only focus on one isolated piece of the puzzle.

Secondly, sustainability needs to be a pre-competitive issue. This means competitors and peers in each sector working with rather than against each other, finding ways to drive necessary change together. It’s only if we see change happening at a sectoral level, and across sectors, that we really have a chance of moving the needle. I see the beginnings of a recognition that this kind of collaboration is not only possible, but is in fact the only way to make the difference we need, and for businesses to stay relevant and successful into the future.

Finally, it is crucial to create ways for private sector players to engage in the policy debate on behalf of sustainability. Businesses are comfortable and familiar with talking policy in relation to taxes or regulation, but if they are serious about championing sustainability they need to have the courage to fight for policy changes that are needed to make sustainability happen – be it caps on carbon emissions, lower catch quotas for vulnerable fish stocks, or protection for areas of the richest and most diverse wildlife.

Humanity today is using the natural resources of 1.5 planets the consequences are already profound – wildlife populations around the world have declined nearly 30% in the past 50 years; more than 60% in the tropics. And yet our demands are increasing. By 2050, the global population is expected to surpass nine billion – and with the accompanying growth in global demand for commodities, pressure on the natural world will only rise.

It is essential to find ways we can supply the food, fuel, fibres and other raw materials that people need in a way that preserves our planet and leaves fresh water, a stable climate, clean air and wild places for future generations.

Businesses can and must play – and in many cases are already playing – a central role in making this happen.

Jim Leape is Director General of WWF International. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Biodiversity & Natural Capital. The Summit on the Global Agenda will be taking place in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 18 – 20 November, and “Towards a New Climate Agreement” is one of the thematic pillars of the meeting.

Image: A toucan in the Braullio Carrillo National Park in Costa Rica. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate