The vital missing stakeholder in your business plan

When you’re creating a new venture or planning a project within an existing business, thinking about stakeholders – groups of people who are affected by the project – is a useful way to work through the impact of what you’re going to do.

A typical list of stakeholders is: employees, customers, investors and suppliers. Sometimes ‘community’ is thrown in by more socially conscious businesses too. Companies are encouraged to listen to and ‘engage’ all of their stakeholders to reach good outcomes for everyone.

The crucial missing stakeholder from this list is future generations. These people have no voice today because they’re not born yet and so cannot be ‘engaged’ in any way, but they are completely beholden to our decisions, actions and the legacy we leave them. This is particularly true of the environmental impact of business today, the outcomes of which affect future generations far more than they affect any other stakeholders today.

Assessing the environmental impact of a project is nothing new, but there is something powerful about putting a human face on it. For me it becomes more powerful to talk about outcomes for future generations than something abstract like ‘carbon footprint.’ This is especially true because every single one of the other stakeholders will one day come out of the future generations group, so if a business is to survive long-term then looking after their interests is essential.

Take waste for example. Our planet is a closed system. Except for the odd spacecraft, nothing leaves the planet. There is no such thing as throwing waste ‘away’ because there is no ‘away.’ When we burn waste and add carcinogenic heavy metals into the atmosphere or bury polluting waste in landfill sites we’re simply leaving it for future generations to deal with. This is as unacceptable as dumping it in the front gardens of people living today but of course we’d never do that because it would affect us right now, and people today have a voice and would rightly complain. Future generations are powerless today and can only be treated fairly if we consider the impact on them today.

Next time you’re working on a stakeholder analysis, try adding future generations to the mix. The base level is reducing harm to them down to zero, but a whole world of possibility opens up when you consider how you could actually enhance positive outcomes for future generations just like you try to create positive outcomes right now for the other stakeholder groups like employees and customers.

There’s a wonderful vision of the future in the iconic design book Cradle to Cradle. The authors envisage a future where homes and other buildings are more organic and actually purify and enhance the environment around them. They use the analogy of buildings being like trees and cities like forests, with air and water coming out cleaner than when it came in. Further, in the future we could design products that can be endlessly ‘upcycled’ into equal or better products (rather then recycled which generally means ‘downcycled’ into lesser products until the materials can be reused no more.)

Sounds far-fetched? Big companies like Ford, Herman Miller, Nike and Walmart are taking the Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy seriously and whilst they have a long way to go, they are on the path towards realising this future. And it all stems from thinking and caring about the voiceless stakeholder group of future generations.