Is Leadership for Sustainability possible in a market economy?

This debate is worth listening to. It made a refreshing change to hear some honesty and courage as panel members tackled the questions raised which included present corporate and personal value systems. Each brought a unique perspective, knowledge and experience to the debate. These people are specialists in their field, they are serious about change and they are courageous enough to say it as it is and to publicly question the ethics of some organisations.

The central theme for the debate “Is Leadership for Sustainability possible in a market economy?”

Questions were raised around ethics and the breakdown of a capitalist economy. Siva Sabaratnam shared Barclays new framework based around a client focussed, socially useful bank. Victor Adebowale reminded us that banking is a public service and that Barclays had ‘an appalling, shocking, service record’ and questioned any framework based on words and called for demonstrable evidence. Victor raised issues about ‘moral hazards’ in banking and why people will lose their homes when interest rates rise. This good humoured but frank exchange was a great start to set the tone for the remainder of the debate. Carolyn Roberts opened up the question of ‘what is a good leader? ‘, offered some surprising examples and noted the Aldersgate Group as a possible exemplar. Bill Scott asked ‘how can we help the market economy that we’re stuck in to evolve to make leadership for sustainability possible?’. Kynton Swingle added the student perspective and pointed frankly to the fact that leaders ‘dictate to students – and have a reputation of not doing what they say’. Dan Goss supported this view with points about social justice and green washing. The ethics of Coca-Cola were discussed in the context of its sustainability agenda amidst a marketing model of selling sugary, water based drinks.

The debate covered the sustainability of Cities, Climate Change as symptom, the Biosphere’s ability to keep us alive – and the big 6 power companies acting more like an energy cartel.

At the end of the debate I talked to each of the panel members and learnt that Carolyn is passionate about water and investment in technology (Carolyn is concerned the technology is often forgotten); Bill questioned why we had bottled water at the event; Victor tells us we have to believe in the future; Siva has a message to everyone to take personal ownership to affect change; Christopher Poole talked about composting … and losing his worms. Lesley believes in the impact of the individual and the need for corporate wisdom. Dan believes we have lost sight of our priorities and reminded us to operate as human beings in our day to day life. Kynton summed up the debate by saying he enjoyed listening to people with values, ‘not just all talk … there is some good out there’.

Questions to the panel

1. What critical issue defines a sustainable society, city, business and individual?

By Michael Goodfellow-Smith, Director of Development at Sustainability West Midlands

2. How can those who are battling for market share be persuaded to act against their own self interests to deliver future benefits for society as a whole?

By Worcester City Councillor, Lynn Denham.

3. What do the panel think of Ofgem’s warning to the big six power companies of their failure to cut household bills despite a slump in wholesale costs? Is this proof there are no ethics and the market is uncompetitive?

By energize-worcester student energy advocates.

University of Worcester, Debate, The Hive, Worcester, June 13, 2014

Recorded by susthingsout. 

Thank you to the Chair

Lesley Murphy is NHS England Area Director for Arden, Herefordshire and Worcestershire and a director of Anume ( A new me) a health and wellbeing company. She has an MBA and postgraduate qualifications in Marketing and Cross Sector Partnership. She’s a Certified Co-Active Coach, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the International Coaches Federation. She has held a number of board level roles in the Public, Private and Third Sectors leading transformation and change programmes.

Thank you to the panel

  • Lord Victor Adebowale MA, CBE, Chair of Institute for Collaborative Practice in the Delivery of Services to the Public based at London South Bank University and CEO of Turning Point;
  • Professor Carolyn Roberts, Oxford University and Director of the Environmental Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN);
  • Professor William Scott, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Bath;
  • Professor Christopher Poole, holds the Chair of Medical Oncology at the University of Warwick;
  • Siva Sabaratnam, Relationship Director, Barclays, London, focusing on global multinational corporate clients;
  • Dan Goss, BSc (Hons) Mathematics student at the University of Warwick;
  • Kynton Swingle, President of Worcester Students’ Union.


Image (left to right): Dan Goss; Professor Carolyn Roberts; Siva Sabaratnam; John Newbury; Lesley Murphy; Katy Boom; Lord Victor Adebowale; Professor William ScottKynton Swingle

  5 comments for “Is Leadership for Sustainability possible in a market economy?

  1. June 24, 2014 at 10:49 am

    This was a really fascinating debate, and brilliant to hear some strong student voices on the panel. This year I’ve been working with Kynton Swingle, Worcester Students’ Union President, on their ‘Energize Worcester’ project ( which seeks to tackle energy efficiency in privately-rented student housing. At NUS we’ve been excited to see students’ unions across the country start to take leadership on sustainability: they’re aiming not only to facilitate their institution’s move towards low carbon campuses, but also ensure students leave HE with an understanding of global citizenship – ready to challenge the ‘business as normal’ attitude towards economic, social and environmental sustainability.

  2. John Leah
    June 26, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    It was great to be able to attend such an innovative and high profile event in the University of Worcester’s new Univeristy / Public library – The Hive (a great setting for this kind of event). The mix of speakers ensured a lively debate ensued and while there are no easy answers to such a big question, it was refreshing that the speakers were honest and robust in their discussion. There are signs of the so called ‘market economy’ (its certainly never going to be a ‘free market’ as established vested interests dominate how the market works to the advantage a small percentage of the population, globally and nationally) moving towards practices that include sustanability as part of a triple bottom line, but is this an era that will posthumously be characterised by money and consumerism having been the main yardsticks of and means to success and ‘happiness’ until some catastrophe to the environment forces us all to rethink!? Will economists learn to think differntly, I doubt it, but you have to live in hope – they could start be reading ‘What Can Economists Learn from Happiness Research’ by Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer (2002) avaialble at

    I look forward to more such important debates at The Hive – well done for organising it!

    John Leah 26/06/2014

  3. Steve Martin
    June 26, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    YES! But it all depends on what we mean by the words “sustainability”, “leadership” and” Market Economy”? First, sustainability- does it mean continuation into the long term future? If so, we need governance and management systems in place which take a long term position on all decision making, allied to which the ethical and moral context of the leadership issue must be critically assessed if it is to meet any definition of sustainability. Leadership yes, but what kind? And does the leadership bring with it “followers”? And how are the temporal and spacial issues of leadership in a global enterprise like Barclays managed? Nor are markets quite the unalloyed virtue attributed to them by some of those who espouse “free market” ideologies.

    This event hosted at the Hive was a great success. It was balanced, good humoured and objective and explored some of these wicked questions outlined above. It was a pity that the question of leadership was framed solely in the context of banking and business. Why not a university, a school or the NHS? Given the fact that the NHS is being subject to increasing scrutiny by politicians, economists and the centre-right media about its failings who argue vociferously about the need for more market, more competition and more incentives- it was perhaps surprising that a panel made up of about 30% NHS professionals, experts and representatives that this issue was not mentioned at all! Maybe they all accept that the NHS needs to be more transaction–orientated and incentivised for it to survive? But do those who work in it have the same value driven motives as those who would privatise it? I doubt it because those who practice the best in health care are not motivated by lush contracts and executive pay and bonuses.

  4. Matt Smith
    June 27, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Yes, leadership for sustainability is possible in a capitalist economy.
    There is clearly a consciousness shift toward sustainability in people’s world views and this is filtering into corporate and state decision making. Most people want to pass on a better world to future generations.

    Sustainability involves changing or innovating to solve old problem in new efficient ways and the ‘market economy’ has a track record for delivering innovation. Yet the capitalist economic model of corporate ownership facilitates profitability as the central governance priority. Where short term corporate profitability doesn’t align with leadership for sustainability it is inevitability side lined, as was discussed with reference the privatised energy sector. Consequently, it’s necessary to rethink corporate ownership and the kind of incentives the banking model is having on corporate governance.

    Victor’s point on banking moral hazard refers to banks being willing to take excessive risks in knowledge they will be bailed out by government institutions, as has happened frequently in the history of capitalist economies. Banks are essential for a capitalist economy to function so the state is bound to bail them out. As banks are a public service the case was proposed for them to be publically owned and controlled.

  5. Andy Stevenson
    July 2, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Wow, that’s an incredibly wide-ranging debate, covering a raft of interrelated subjects and I’m frustrated that I couldn’t be there!

    But.. Listening to the audio back in my own time, I just wanted to comment briefly on two of the points raised…

    Firstly the refs to ‘Greenwashing’ linked to Coca Cola etc.. I talk to my sustainable packaging design students about this very issue.. On the one hand, Coke have a very large PR presence out there via traditional and social media etc – talking about their huge commitment to making their business more sustainable and how they’ve developed their new ‘plant bottle’ technology etc. On the other we know they’re a traditional business that is there (we assume) to make the most profit possible and to please shareholders etc. I can’t help but wonder if they are still only casting a ‘nod’ towards true business sustainability though. This would seem to fulfill their commitment to a more sustainable business model via their CSR charter etc – but possibly only ‘just’ enough – (and not so radically as they could do maybe?) so that it doesn’t drastically impact on base profits. Interestingly, with all the focus on the ills of sugars in drinks now and the low cal alternatives (saccharin, aspartame etc) under the microscope too, one does wonder how the industry will react.. More glitzy PR might well come into the bargain I’m sure – but how does an industry that fundamentally relies on sugar use respond to the growing and vocal concerns of medical bodies, the education system and (no doubt) parent’s groups?

    Additionally, I wanted to comment on the energy use debate briefly.. I find this fascinating and keep seeing in the media how it -is- possible to have a much greater commitment to renewables (take Germany for example) and generate a substantial amount of ‘cleaner’ power.. I can’t help but feel though that the UK govt is stuck in a time warp regards energy policy – they still feel Nuclear is the ‘main’ way forwards (as do some prominent environmentalists – i.e. Mark Lynas) – but this surely has to set against the German model and it’s successes? If the Germans can do it then why can’t we in the UK? It seems there’s a lack of political will in part at present, maybe (just mere supposition..) there’s also powerful pro-nuclear lobbies affecting policy in the UK too.. I found the discussion regards de-centralised power generation interesting too and feel this has a big role to play in our future too.. We surely must need to think clearly (and more cleverly) about this issue though? For example.. A wood pellet-fired mini power unit was recently turned down in the locale I live in. Not because it wouldn’t have generated power in a relatively sustainable manner – but rather because it’s proposed site (bizarrely it was next to a local housing estate) had so many flaws in it and the subsequent residential concerns.. With a little more planning flexibility this unit could have been sited much more favourably/logically just over the county border though – and still help generate local and greener electricity for our town and surrounds.. But no, this wasn’t possible as it would then came under the juristiction of another local authority – with a very different view on diversifying energy.. Isn’t now the time when we really do need to think more about our future energy needs and diversification though? If the answer is ‘yes’, then why does there seem to be so many political and local authority hurdles to jump over still if this is the case?

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