Changing Planet

Big Business May Be Our Best Hope for Sustainability

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.


A woman processes coffee fruit the traditional way to remove the first layer of skin from the fruit, in Sibanggor Julu village, Mandailing Natal, North Sumatra. Conservation International photograph by Tory Read.
A woman processes coffee fruit the traditional way to remove the first layer of skin from the fruit, in Sibanggor Julu village, Mandailing Natal, North Sumatra. Conservation International photograph by Tory Read.


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.


Water splashes on pile of coffee berries.

Peter A. Seligmann is the Chairman and CEO of Conservation International, a global nonprofit organization that he co-founded in 1987.Under Peter's leadership, Conservation International has become a cutting edge leader in valuing and sustainably caring for nature for the well-being of people. Peter, a dynamic communicator and thought leader, has been an influential and inspiring voice in conservation for nearly 40 years. He works in partnership with governments, communities, and businesses to find solutions to ensure the sustainability of our natural resources. Peter serves on the advisory council for the Jackson Hole Land Trust and is a Director at Arnhold and S. Bleichroeder Holdings, Inc. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Coca-Cola Company's International Advisory Committee. Peter was also named to the Enterprise for the America's Board by President Clinton in 2000.
  • Brad Lakritz


    Thank you for this refreshing perspective. I appreciate your mention of the fact that most of the companies you list are not actually actively promoting their efforts in sustainability. Perhaps we should be doing something about that.

    Young people today are growing up and entering the workforce with the opportunity to take jobs that make this happen. It makes me wonder what our schools and universities are doing to best prepare them for this work.

    Last year we travelled throughout the west to look at schools for our middle child who was interested in Environmental Studies. He only wanted to look at schools that provided that major and there were many to choose from. However, the extent and strength of their programs varied widely.

    Schools like UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz are leading the way with their sustainable agriculture programs and he ended up at Davis. He is very happy and learning so much.

    I agree that big business is the key to a sustainable future and I am happy to see this progress. However, we have a great deal of work to do with how we prepare our young people for this future.


    Now all we need is a commitment from them to pay their fair share of tax revenues and we’re all set.

  • Rich Moser

    The real question is not how much good the big companies are doing, but whether it is enough to reverse the bad things they are still doing. In other words, a big company can do lots of good things and still be destroying the world overall.

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