When I was a young boy, I wanted to change the world. I left school at sixteen to start a magazine and with that campaigned to stop the war in Vietnam. Now, almost 50 years later, I am visiting for the first time and I find myself again campaigning about a war involving Vietnam, yet this war is also happening all over the world - it is the battle to protect our living environment. Yes, our earth, plain and simple.
Many people question why business leaders should be interested in such issues. Like many other business leaders, I have in recent years reached the conclusion that the business has been a major contributor to some of the world’s problems, and now we have the responsibility to find solutions. I passionately believe business has an important role to play as a force for good in the world, and it can be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit.
Four decades after the end of the war and following a series of progressive political and economic reforms, Vietnam is a tremendous development success story. The country has made remarkable progress in reducing poverty. Trade liberalisation has helped business create job and bring about enormous economic opportunities. Yet, in the absence of policies and controls, this level of growth can also have negative impacts on the environment.
This is not only happening in Vietnam but also in the rest of the world. Natural Resources are being used up. Air, sea and land are heavily polluted, fisheries are collapsing, natural forest cover is diminishing, fresh water systems are being depleted, and carbon dioxide emissions have reached critical levels.
Wildlife is being poached and trafficked at such a rate that it is now considered a global mass extinction. Around 35,000 elephants are killed annually for their tusks, 95 per cent of the world's rhinos have been wiped out in the past 40 years (the number of rhinos slaughtered for their horns in South Africa alone has rapidly risen from 17 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014) , and many other species are driven to the brink of extinction by man’s insatiable demand. A short-term and narrow focus on profit has driven businesses to forget about their important role in caring for people and the environment around us – business as usual is destroying our planet.
Business leaders must come together to advance the wellbeing of people and the planet, I believe if they do that, then their businesses will thrive. The private sector can and must redefine its responsibilities and its terms of success. If we carry on using the natural resources of the world unsustainably, they will run out. Plan A – where companies have been driven by the profit motive alone – is no longer acceptable. It’s time for a Plan B - where business puts people and the planet alongside profit; where we seize the opportunity to use our influence and resources to solve some of the biggest environmental and social challenges facing our world; and where business is a force for good in the world.
Business has enabled great progress in technology and science and generated opportunities for economic growth across the world. So why can’t we create a new business model, one that still enables the profit and encourages creativity; but one that also looks after our planet and its people on which we depend.
We must leverage the many positives of business – the spirit of enterprise, innovation and entrepreneurship that has helped realize improvements in quality of life and enabled technological and scientific progress. If we can do that, we can create an unprecedented era of sustainable, inclusive prosperity for all.
This window of opportunity is closing fast, but it's not too late. Momentum is building and a movement of business leaders driving a better way of doing business for the wellbeing of people and planet growing each day. I am excited to use my time in Vietnam to learn and to meet business leaders who want to take on this challenge and join me in turning business into a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit.
Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Group