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The New Sustainability

  • Date: 04 April 2013
  • Author: Nick Conger
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Forget what you know about corporate sustainability. It’s probably all wrong.

Gone are the days of PR spin and shallow words. The new sustainability is about strategic management of natural resources, which are increasingly hard to come by. It has evolved from a reputational strategy to a business imperative. Don’t take my word for it; take the word of the biggest companies in the world.

Walmart, the world's largest retailer, has recently introduced ambitious sustainable agriculture goals. McDonald's, the world's largest burger chain, has its Sustainable Land Management Commitment. The most ubiquitous brand in our lives, Coca-Cola, has been focused on efforts to conserve freshwater and sugar resources while Cargill, the largest privately held American corporation, recently committed to sustainable palm oil.

It’s clear the challenge of scaling up production on a finite and warming planet has caught the attention of the business elite. Without a fundamental recalibration of their strategy to manage resources, multinational companies will risk losing markets, much less market share.

Freshwater ecosystems support local communities.

Now they’re paying attention to their impacts on local ecosystems and communities. Most food is grown, harvested and produced within the countries where it’s ultimately consumed. So the long term health and sustainability of these regions are directly correlated with business viability.

This paradigm shift has ripple effects in board rooms across global industries.

Businesses are starting to consider how new approaches will be received by customers and shareholders. They’re working with farmers on better practices and to repurpose degraded farmland. They’re investing in new efficiencies to save energy and reduce waste up and down the supply chain, often taking a short term financial hit for the sake of longer term dividends. They’re implementing new technologies to better understand the genetic makeup of crops, while realizing this requires a smart approach to consumer awareness.

A food market in Kerala, India

Speaking of consumer awareness, the next step is a frank dialogue about consumption. Traditionally, any notion that people in the West should consume less of say, meat or soda, elicited a passionate response from the private sector. It threatened the bottom line and was contrary to the spirit of capitalism. But when taken on the aggregate and within the context of a finite planet where nearly a billion people don’t have enough food, conventional thinking seems antiquated.

Much of the world is developing at a pace we’ve never seen before. More people in these emerging markets are pursuing Western-style lifestyles, which bodes well for any multinational company’s bottom line but presents a sustainability challenge. Recognizing this and promoting sustainable consumption will build trust and credibility with existing consumers while enhancing profits in new markets.

This is the new sustainability. In the next 40 years, we have to produce as much food and fiber as we have in the past 8,000. Traditional approaches are no longer sufficient. Smart companies have realized this. Those that remain introverted will fall behind. Those that open themselves up and are willing to expose their vulnerabilities will excel.

We have to achieve balance with nature and we have to do it fast. This blog will explore challenges and potential solutions, so check back often. And when you do, share your ideas, engage in a dialogue and put words into action. There’s no time like the present.

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