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Tensie Whelan ’78 Talks Sustainability at Spence Perspectives Lecture

“On our current trajectory, we are using up about a planet-and-a-half of resources,” said Tensie Whelan ’78, who is director of NYU Stern School of Business’s Center for Sustainable Business. Whelan was a featured speaker with this year’s Spence Perspectives talks, which have focused on the theme of service and activism. 
According to Whelan, the business mindset is shifting from a sole focus on profit at the expense of other stakeholders, to an understanding that the world is really much more complicated.
“We also see a lot of social challenges: three billion people in the world still living in poverty, 40 percent of people around the world unemployed, and this growing inequity we’re seeing where 62 people own the same as half of the rest of the world,” she explained.
In addition, Whelan explained that brands are losing resonance with people. Most brands, she said, are just competing on price in the minds of consumers.
“According to a Havas study, most people would not care if 73 percent of brands disappeared,” she noted. “And only 20 percent of brands notably improve our quality of life. If you’re a brand, you want to be in the 20 percent, and how do you get there? You need to have purpose, you need to have sustainability and you need to be recognized as a leader in that space.”
Whelan explained that changing expectations by consumers have led to a need for radical transparency. One McKinsey study showed that the value at stake from sustainability issues can range from 25 percent to 70 percent of earnings.
“We’re seeing investor roles changing as well,” she said. “Sustainability-focused companies now outperform their peers. The old idea that you can’t invest in line with your values is no longer true. In fact, it is the opposite. The reason this is important is that the GDP is $21 trillion, and $18 trillion is controlled by business. So where is the impact going to be? Government can be a catalyst, good or bad, but it’s how you actually conduct your business that will truly have an impact on our society.”