Earth’s future is in the hands of big business.
Does that statement sound ominous? It shouldn’t. Take Starbucks’ recent announcement that 99 percent of its coffee is now verified as ethically sourced. Almost every coffee bean in their supply chain is good for the people who grow it, and good for the ecosystem where it is grown.
Why are they doing this? Enlightened self-interest. Starbucks knows that if they are not good stewards of the resources that are fundamental to their business, they will not survive.
This did not happen overnight and it wasn’t easy. For the last 15 years, Starbucks partnered with Conservation International to develop a rigorous set of environmentally and socially beneficial practices for growing coffee. These methods help protect the ecological wealth of rainforests from Mexico to Sumatra and enable farmers to earn a better livelihood, as the beans command a higher price at market.
Certainly, not all companies are as exemplary. But those that are have moved quickly and at scale. Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiatives have changed how the company and its vast network of suppliers operate worldwide, leading to breakthroughs in energy efficiency and reduced waste. Nike has revolutionized material science in the apparel industry in order to reduce its environmental footprint. Coca-Cola has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to protect freshwater resources around the world.
It’s worth noting that these aren’t marketing initiatives – most consumers never hear about these advances. These companies are listening to nature, and what they hear is clear and simple: sustainability is an essential part of doing business.
No individual or government, no matter how well intentioned, is in a position to reverse the global systemic threats we face: climate change, mounting resource demand and ecosystem degradation. Yet, historically we’ve relied on governments to be the safety net that regulates the environment. The speed with which problems have accelerated has left nations worldwide playing catch up with the vast scale of change.
The private sector, by contrast, has both recognized the threats and shown the determination and ingenuity to tackle them.
This message is counterintuitive to the many of us who identify as environmentalists. The fact is, though, big businesses assess risk and opportunity at a global level, which means that their actions can reverberate across the planet. They develop systems that not only scale up, but require stability and continuity to be good investments.
The challenge we face is staggering: Over the next 30 years, we must provide for our planet’s population as it grows from seven to nine billion without exhausting our resources. Finding the practices that enable us to meet our needs while supporting the resources that are essential for the basics of life – clean air, fresh water, abundant food – will be no easy task. These days, it is Big Business – not governments or consumers – that is stepping up to that challenge because they know their own corporate futures are at stake.
Big business may, at the end of the day, be our best hope.