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Jakob von Uexküll, DE

CEO and founder of the WFC (World Future Council)

It was your initiative that started the first World Future Council in Hamburg in May 2007. What has changed since then? How have the financial and economic crises of the last several years influenced your work?

I founded the World Future Council to give a voice to the interests of future generations. Environmental issues such as enacting effective laws to support renewable energy sources have remained a core concern in our work. But at the same time, social issues have become a lot more important for us: how do we divide up our resources, our wealth and our responsibility? The financial and economic crisis let slowly festering problems escalate. Financial markets that serve the real economy and produce returns that further society as a whole are also of central importance to the World Future Council.

Growth alone is an outdated model, you wrote in an opinion piece. The world needs an environmentally and socially inclined economy. This is not, however, a new or revolutionary approach. Why is it still so difficult for us to be able to put this into practice?

Our economic system is to a large extent predicated on the principle of competition at the expense of the environment and of future generations.  An enormous amount of the profits that companies make is derived solely from ignoring the environmental and social costs. An effective way out of this cycle is a system of binding laws. Take for example the Top Runner programme in Japan: There, the most energy efficient appliance serves as the minimum standard for all manufacturers. Legally binding minimum and maximum wages would create the foundation for a social economy.

The Global Policy Action Plan states that there are lots of examples throughout history that show that there is no quicker way to produce change than enacting laws.  However, laws require a unified basis or a clearly defined legal space that they are valid for. How much can/should the EU do to actively define the framework? And do you think the EU is doing enough?

The EU is perfectly suited. But at the moment we’re experiencing a backward movement in the form of nationalistic sentiments in a number of areas because irresponsible media interests are spreading a lot of nonsense about the Euro crisis – particularly in Germany – and because most people don’t understand how money is made and how it works.

The SEA is an award given by the Club of Sustainable Entrepreneurs to honour exceptional projects dealing with sustainable entrepreneurship. What does sustainable entrepreneurship (SE) mean for you personally?

For me sustainable entrepreneurship means sustainable, fair and diverse business practices that promote human welfare and that are in harmony with nature. What’s needed now is a public service campaign to educate people about the way money and the financial system works, because we need a new financial system to be at the core of a new economy in which we can rise to the global challenges posed by poverty, climate change and the destruction of natural resources.

How would you evaluate what the SEA is doing?

I think it’s excellent. At the World Future Council we have a similar approach: a prize for laws that improve the living conditions for current and future generations, the Future Policy Award. Our goal is to publicize these “good” laws that are being enacted throughout the world and thereby support the creation of more equitable, more sustainable and more peaceable laws. The Future Policy Award is the first prize that honours laws on an international level. Since 2009 we’ve been awarding it in the areas of policy most in need of innovative solutions.

How embedded, do you feel, is the concept of sustainable entrepreneurship in people’s minds, and especially in corporate practice?

It’s pretty difficult to swim against the current. We need rules and laws, ordering principles that create future-oriented incentives and move the development of volunteerism, entrepreneurship and innovation as quickly as humanly and technically possible in the direction of sustainability. Neoliberal ideologues still believe that the market better solves problems the less government involvement there is. I always ask them why they aren’t investing in Somalia where there are practically no laws or government power?
Current economic developments pose challenges enough, but they aren’t the greatest threat to our shared future. Even the consequences of a government defaulting on its debt can quickly be overcome as numerous examples have shown. But the consequences of an environmental default could be with us for thousands of years and longer. Debt can be negotiated: it can be refinanced, forgiven, or stayed. Melting glaciers and encroaching deserts can’t be negotiated. Nature isn’t going to bail us out.

Which sectors do you think are most exemplary, where do you see the most room for improvement when it comes to sustainable entrepreneurship?

There are already lots of ideas and people who are helping to secure the future even under the current conditions. Professor Michael Braungart in Hamburg has a concept called “cradle to cradle” that proves that businesspeople can radically improve the way they produce and still survive and reap a profit.

But when the conditions are such that sustainable practices, especially those that require the use of energy and natural resources, continue to cost a lot more than non-sustainable ones, then even the most active companies – regardless of the sector – won’t be able to compete over the long term. This is where we need government to step in and level the playing field for all participants in the market so that the cost of unsustainable business practices that are determined to be politically undesirable can be avoided.

Sustainable entrepreneurship requires that the externalization of environmental costs be considered by law as unfair competition. These laws should stipulate that companies that pass along the societal and environmental costs of doing business are guilty of gaining an unfair advantage over their competition, if their competition is operating sustainably.

Seen like this, an advantage in price or quality gained by doing damage to common goods is no less unfair than deceptive practices such as misleading advertisements or taking advantage of someone’s inexperience. If externalization is considered unfair, then corporations that externalize can be sued for misrepresenting their competitive advantage (lower prices, elaborate features) as pure market performance to their customers. The exploitation of common goods should no longer be considered an acceptable competitive practice.

As a corollary, collusive agreements between companies to internalize costs that had previously been passed on should be excepted from laws governing competition.

Politicians, corporations, society – who should be the driving force that pushes sustainable entrepreneurship forward?

A future-oriented and sustainable world requires that all of us become more strongly engaged in the political process. What we don’t need are more life-term career politicians. We need people who after their time in office is over enter other spheres of life to show how politics works, who are trusted and who can restore trust in political solutions.  There’s no quicker or more effective way to bring about change than through binding rules and laws.

Here at the end, a personal question: Which SE project was the most memorable that you’ve encountered – and why?

The most memorable was the No Problem Orchestra and their NO PROBLEM MUSIC THERAPY concept for people with severe disabilities, because we also work in this area at World Future Council. We started this project with the Essl Foundation in January 2012 at the international Zero Project Conference on policy for people with disabilities. We are assisting the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in countries throughout the world and have a new thematic focus each year that introduces exemplary laws and examples of good practice that protect and ensure the rights of people with disabilities.