As someone who has worked in sustainability for more than ten years with the private sector in different capacities, I am disappointed when I see headlines pointing the finger at a corporate wrong doing. It happens far too often, despite the intensive effort many companies make to ‘do the right thing’ while continuing to maintain a profit for their shareholders.
I feel a tide turning, though. I find myself almost beaming with pride at the commitments some of the largest companies in the world are making to address our complex global challenges like climate change, poverty alleviation, access to education, eliminating food waste and provision of clean water. Sure, there is always room for improvement. But truth be told, these commitments are NOT easy for companies to make, let alone keep.
The vigor behind recent efforts is reason for optimism. Our corporate leaders are standing behind their words with actions. The time is right. And there's more to come. Below are three efforts that we can see to believe.
1. Climate Change: As I follow pre-COP21 actions ahead of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Paris this December, I am energized by the plethora of companies signing onto the We Mean Business Coalition working to influence the climate policy agenda through strong action. There are more than 100 companies that have signed onto the Coalition. Big names like Microsoft, Nestle, Ikea, Philips, Mars, L’Oreal and others have made commitments around emissions reductions, renewable energy procurement, working to put a price on carbon, removing deforestation from supply chains and eliminating carbon-causing pollutants. This collective voice is powerful and is making waves across social media with its #WeMeanIt message. When I was working on climate strategy several years ago, it was nearly impossible to get some of these players engaged on the issue. This is progress. And it’s needed. Way to go folks for stepping up.
2. Food Waste: I wrote about the Consumer Goods Forum’s deforestation commitment two years ago, when I was working on supply chain and climate issues at Conservation International. In my piece I made clear my lack of confidence in the 2020 goal to reach zero net deforestation in key supply chains, given the complexity of the issue (especially in palm oil). I am still a bit hesitant to declare victory, though we have a few years left to see how things pan out. Some of the recommendations I made in my piece have come to fruition and that’s exciting. It’s the CGF announcement today, however, that has me really excited. The top 400+ companies in retail, food and agriculture that make up the disposition of the CGF announced their intent to halve food waste in production and shipment by 2025. This represents $750 million in savings, nearly a third of all food produced globally (as estimated by the FAO). This is progress! This is a strong-willed and bold commitment that will have real results. If the CGF can make this commitment hold, together with their deforestation goals, we will see a real shift toward 100% sustainable supply chains from farm gate to point of sale.
3. Fair Wage: Recently I have been examining private sector efforts to reduce poverty and food insecurity in farming communities as part of client engagements. Attending a Sustainable Food Lab Summit a couple of weeks ago in Rotterdam, I was inspired by the honesty and raw emotion that took over executives from some of the largest companies in the world when the conversation turned to abuse and meager wages paid to tea farmers in Malawi. Farms that were triple certified – TRIPLE CERTIFIED – were failing to follow rules around fair pay and ignored elements of human decency. Not one person in the room walked away from that discussion unaffected. Paul Polman has been outspoken about the need to address discrepancies in the way we treat the farmers that grow our food. Lack of access to water, health services, education, decent wages and human rights are raised in every conversation on small holder farming and poverty alleviation. Unilever is not the only company that is taking this seriously. Oxfam, for one, has called out many companies that are making fair wage and human rights a priority. Case studies from the Behind the Brands campaign abound. Those brands that do not directly address income challenges and rule of law will burn their reputation quickly. Hearing from some of the most influential supply chain leaders in Rotterdam about how they plan to get to work on ameliorating these issues (and believing them in this case) is a great feeling.
Sure, our global corporate leaders will always have more work ahead of them to address sustainability. Once one problem is solved, another is created. That said, I believe private sector leaders, more so than NGO or government leaders, will be the ones to clear our path forward. It is an exciting time to be working on corporate sustainability. We have a lot of work to do. But since the companies are serious about acting on their commitments, I know #TheyMeanIt.